“The Road Goes Ever On and On” for New Zealand’s Cinematic Tourism

In 2001, back when Peter Jackson’s first J.R.R. Tolkien book-based film, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was about to change the way moviegoers thought of New Zealand, Vic and Raewyn James were launching a dream of their own: Red Carpet Tours. After more than ten years in tourism, Vic wanted to develop a tour for and by Tolkien fans that would bring visitors to former filming locations but, equally important, would showcase New Zealand. Throughout more than a decade, the Jameses have expanded their tour options as Jackson’s increasing number of films gained fans eager to see where the movies were made.

Today Red Carpet Tours is truly a family business that includes daughter Julie, who oversees the company’s social media and online presence as well as guides tours. Along the way Red Carpet Tours garnered its own fan base, and today returnees to New Zealand often are taking their second or third trips to visit the country and revisit friendships forged on previous tours—as well as to view new locations from The Hobbit trilogy.

The country’s cinematic tourism is a tricky business, in large part because it’s not officially part of New Zealand’s entertainment industry. Companies like Red Carpet Tours usually have contacts within the filmmaking community, such as executives who cooperate in providing after-filming information, extras and actors who worked on films, local businesses who had contracts with production companies, or landowners whose real estate became filming locations. However, cinematic tours are not officially sanctioned by studios.

New Zealand tourism, however, as a national entity has forged close ties with filmmakers and used, in particular, Jackson’s popular films as a way to generate global interest in New Zealand. In December 2012, the New Zealand Tourism Board’s “100% Middle-earth/100% Pure New Zealand” campaign won the award for World’s Leading Destination Marketing Campaign in the World Travel Awards 2012 Grand Final. In his acceptance speech, New Zealand Tourism Chief Executive Kevin Bowler said that “we believe that we have identified a valuable opportunity to enhance the country’s international profile through its association with the filming of The Hobbit trilogy.”

The entrepreneurial Jameses rely on movies’ popularity for their livelihood, but they are independent from the film industry. They bridge the gap between filmmakers and fans by presenting information about movies made in the country and sometimes, like a true bridge, bring the two together. Red Carpet Tours’ team member Erica Challis is a founder of Tolkien fan website TheOneRing.Net (TORN) and, over the years, has formed business contacts with people who worked behind the scenes.

A few days before the Wellington premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, TORN and Red Carpet Tours co-sponsored a party for fans who, to their shock and delight, were joined throughout the evening by many Hobbit cast members, including Andy Serkis (Gollum) and Elijah Wood (Frodo). Weta Workshop’s founding designers Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger also chatted with fans. Even more surprising was a lengthy visit from Peter Jackson, who took time away from final touches on the about-to-debut film to meet as many fans as possible. Julie James sounded as pleased as any fan when discussing premiere week. “I loved the thrill our people got out of being in the buzz of premiere week, enjoying the Hobbit markets, [and] the awesome party we worked so hard on for the past twelve months—all culminating in red carpet day.”

Although some critics point out that New Zealand is far more than a set for Jackson’s films or wonder if the productions have helped or hurt the country’s actors, Vic James believes that “there’s actually more support [for Jackson’s films] inside the country this time instead of last time.” Certainly during premiere week Wellington and the nation’s media seemed eager to back the films and promote the Middle-earth connection. Vic attributed the support to New Zealanders understanding just how popular the new films could become. “The first time—it [The Lord of the Rings] was just a film being made,” and many people “didn’t have a clue” about the potential impact Jackson’s films—or fans—could have on the country. “I figure it took Red Carpet Tours to show people that there’s a heckuva lot more there than they realized. We were the first to get up and rolling, and then other people tried to set up day tours, which is fine. This time [with The Hobbit] people are more aware. You saw it in the call for extras. Last time [casting agents looking for extras] went around Twizel knocking on doors. This time the queues were way down the street, and they had to send people away.”

According to Vic, the cinematic tours now “have to be a mixture” of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings “because there are key sites to The Lord of the Rings that people would just not want to miss. Take Edoras, for example.” (The former filming location of Rohan’s Golden Hall and setting for much of the action in The Two Towers and The Return of the King is a remote hill—Mount Sunday—situated amid a beauteous backdrop of snowy Southern Alps.) “Few tours give people the chance to fly to the top of Mount Olympus, and the reason we’re there is because it’s a film site,” Vic James explained. “But when you get there, it’s mind blowing.” Eating a picnic lunch at Mavora Lakes far south in South Island may be special to some visitors because the setting is prominently featured in scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring, but it is also a gorgeous lakeshore surrounded by mountain forest. Whether visitors take a tour because they are fans of Tolkien or Jackson’s films, or they are dragged along by enthusiastic significant others, the James family wants everyone “to be in love with New Zealand by the time they leave.”

Collaborating with individual landowners, as well as people who have worked on the films, allows Red Carpet Tours to distinguish themselves from other New Zealand tour operators. “We don’t want to obstruct anyone else from setting up a local business, such as day tours,” Vic said. “We just want to make sure that for our tours we are covering the sites that are accessible and identifiable. There’s no point going to a site if you can’t see what was filmed there.”

Photo of Mount Sunday by Lynnette Porter

Tours helps visitors see the New Zealand appearing in cinemas, but the guides also offer insights to local cuisine, film stars (such as Sam Neill) not affiliated with hobbits, and national history that has nothing to do with Wellywood. Vic James added that “we go to cafes and restaurants,” sometimes far from big cities, and “meet local people.” Artist and calligrapher Daniel Reeve often discusses his work on films or film-based games. Extras or scale-doubles (i.e., shorter actors who double for leads in long shots to emphasize height differences) sometimes discuss their roles. A trip to Weta Workshop might include an impromptu meeting with Richard Taylor. Some tour groups have visited with weavers who made capes or scarves for hobbits and a well-known wizard; horse trainers or riders; or landowners whose ranches or farms became better known as the Pelennor fields or Hobbiton.

The Jameses try to ensure the best tour experience possible by keeping the number of guests, even for a special event like a premiere, to a manageable number, with at least two guides per group. A small tour group who can fit into one vehicle may require only two guides, while the rest of the team back home keeps the business operating smoothly. In contrast, the large Hobbit premiere tour group required three buses, each staffed with two knowledgeable guides. Although big cinematic events attract the largest groups, Julie said that smaller groups often create a true fellowship of travelers.

Tour itineraries are never stagnant. The Jameses are constantly on the lookout for new sites and the most convenient and comfortable ways to traverse the country. Dunedin and Nelson will likely become more important cities as the company incorporates more Hobbit film sites as early as this month, according to Julie. Vic explained that finding former filming sites involves “a range of things. Peter Jackson was a little more forthcoming [with The Hobbit] with information on his Facebook page, so we would watch that. Then Julie made contact with some of the landowners, or they made contact with her. It’s a series of things. And sometimes you have to play detective.” TORN spies have often published news about local actor or crew sightings. Now “there are ‘spies’ throughout the whole country,” which makes gathering information about shooting locations all that much easier.

Although the Jameses gather information from a variety of sources, trying to second guess filmmakers can still be daunting. Long before the official announcement, Vic James accurately predicted the dates of The Hobbit premiere in Wellington; his team typically begins booking hotels about a year in advance of a major cinematic event. However, he was less accurate in 2003, missing the Return of the King premiere date by two days, which caused a flurry of activity to modify reservations.

Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s works likely are coming to an end, no matter how much material is added to the original Hobbit novel to create three long films. When asked how long hobbit-themed tours would be viable in New Zealand, Vic replied, “It could be forever. Just look at The Sound of Music” and cinematic tours based on its European filming locations. “We provide a tour of New Zealand,” he emphasized. “It just happens that some of the places we go to are film sites… There’s still amazing scenery, which other tours drive straight past.” Julie concurred: “The impression of New Zealand as Middle-earth… will remain” because people can connect with “the stunning landscapes and can re-visit them many times.” As for the immediate future, Julie reported that the company already has “forward bookings until December 2014 and will continue to work hard on providing the very best Lord of the Rings / Hobbit experience that New Zealand-Middle-earth has to offer!”

Cinematic tourism can be a risky business that relies on but is independent of both the national tourism board and the film industry. However, successful tour companies that respect films and fans can help boost a country’s image while encouraging visitors to boost the nation’s economy. The Jameses know how to market their business, but they genuinely enjoy helping others explore their country. To them, fellowship is more than part of a film title or a promotional buzz word. It’s a way of relating to travelers who may become lifelong friends and offering hospitality to those seeking to know not just Middle-earth, but New Zealand.

Fun at Pelennor Fields (Photo courtesy of Julie James)