'Wellywood' sign will make city Lord of the Cringe, say critics

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The Independent Online

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: greet visitors to the New Zealand capital with a giant white "Wellywood" sign celebrating the country's booming film industry.

The fact it was a rip-off of the famous "Hollywood" sign in the Los Angeles hills did not deter executives at Wellington airport, who dreamed it up. But the plan has infuriated residents, who have denounced the 26ft by 100ft sign – to be emblazoned across a hillside near the airport – as lame, embarrassing and tacky.

Scores of protesters staged a blockade of the airport yesterday, bringing traffic to a crawl, while thousands of others vented their feelings on Twitter and Facebook. A New Zealand brewery offered 15 cases of beer, "no questions asked", to anyone who knocked down the sign. Some critics even threatened to set fire to it or blow it up.

The sign, which is aimed at highlighting Wellington's cinematic links – the city is home to Lord of the Rings director Sir Peter Jackson as well as the Oscar-winning Weta props workshop, is intended as a parody of the original, according to its creators. Hollywood, however, does not see the joke; the Chamber of Commerce there has threatened legal action to protect its trademark.

Sir Peter supports the Wellywood idea, but Sir Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and will reprise the role in The Hobbit, which is currently being filmed, reportedly does not. One Wellington comedian, Rabyon Kan, warned: "This sign will make us Lord of Cringe."

However, the airport's chief executive, Steve Fitzgerald, made clear there would be no backing down. The sign would help put Wellington on "everyone's bucket list", he said.

"To be relevant on the world tourism trail, we need to shout about why we are great. Wellington has already produced two of the top-five highest-grossing films of all time, and there are high hopes that there is much more success to come."

The sign was first mooted in 2009 by the airport, which owns the land overlooking the city. Following protests, it put the plan on hold and called for other suggestions, but none of the alternatives were deemed acceptable. Now it intends to erect the sign before the Rugby World Cup in September.

Among its critics are a Wellington MP, Trevor Mallard, who said: "This is a pale imitation of the Hollywood sign, which makes us look like try-hards." A New Zealand marketing company director, Wayne Attwell, described the sign as "quite crass", and said it would detract from the perception of Wellington as a sophisticated city.

The Moa Brewery on the South Island encouraged critics to tear down the sign. "Seeing as the sign itself is completely unoriginal, it would be nice if it could be destroyed in a completely original way, so feel free to think outside the box a bit," it declared on its website. An airport spokesman said a close eye would be kept on the sign to protect it from vandals and graffiti.

A group of Wellington students who live near the airport yesterday put up an alternative sign, stating simply: "FAIL".