Film

"The Road Goes Ever On and On" for New Zealand's Cinematic Tourism

Bag End at Hobbiton (Photo by Lynnette Porter)

Red Carpet Tours bridges the worlds of filmmaking and fandom while ensuring that visitors to New Zealand find far more than Middle-earth landmarks.

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)



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.