New Zealanders throng streets to welcome Frodo and friends

Up to 100,000 fans of the furry-footed hobbit Frodo will throng the streets of Wellington today for the premiere of The Return of the King, the final film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In the past few days, excitement in the city has reached fever pitch. Almost every shop, from the bank to the bookmaker, has devoted its window display to the film and on top of the main theatre a giant nazgul has been erected, screeching at visitors below.

Such is the passion for The Lord of the Rings among New Zealanders that, by early this morning, hundreds of fans had begun to line the red carpet, hoping to get a glimpse of stars including Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood.

But beyond the celebrity hype, many New Zealanders believe Peter Jackson's film trilogy has put New Zealand on the world stage. A Wellington radio programme claimed the films had "updated the 1970s image that New Zealand is only famous for having a lot of sheep".

Jo Lindsay, 26, a bank worker from Auckland, had taken two days off work to travel to Wellington especially for the premiere. "I think that it is a pride thing," she said. "This is the first big event to happen in New Zealand.

"Kiwis love their country and love to live here, so for other people around the world to see how beautiful it is and how well a New Zealand director and New Zealand special effects firm can do is fantastic. A lot of people don't know where New Zealand is. And this might just change that."

Since The Lord of the Rings was shot, between 1999 and 2000, tourists have flocked to New Zealand to see the rolling hills and alpine peaks across which the stunning footage was shot. Air New Zealand has painted four of its Boeing 747s with the faces of Aragorn, Arwen, Frodo and Legolas, while Viggo Mortensen, who plays the sword-wielding Aragorn, has written poetry and taken photographs in homage to the country.

The real impact of The Lord of the Rings is perhaps yet to be seen. Post-production companies are waiting with bated breath to see if a major Hollywood film team will relocate there to take advantage of their digital mastery.

While many believe the film has changed New Zealand's profile forever, others are sceptical. They are angry that a reported £80m tax break was given to New Line Cinema which made the trilogy. And despite recent estimates suggesting one in 10 tourists claim their visit to New Zealand was inspired by the films, many fear this interest will die after the final instalment is released. As a commentator for the New Zealand Herald put it: "The cash-strapped small business owner or the mortgage-laden clock puncher might be forgiven for wondering whether the trickle down evaporated while it was trickling down. Hands up those who feel like they owe their current state of carefree affluence to Peter Jackson, Gollum and Gandalf?"

The answer for New Zealand will come long after the red carpet of today's premiere has been rolled away.

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