Hobbits, superheroes put magic in NZ film industry

A giant sculpture of Gollum, a character from "The Hobbit," is displayed in the Wellington Airport to celebrate the upcoming premiere of the first movie in the trilogy, in Wellington, New Zealand.
A giant sculpture of Gollum, a character from "The Hobbit," is displayed in the Wellington Airport to celebrate the upcoming premiere of the first movie in the trilogy, in Wellington, New Zealand. Nick Perry/AP Photo

A crate full of sushi arrives. Workers wearing wetsuit shirts or in bare feet bustle past with slim laptops. With days to go, a buzzing intensity fills the once-dilapidated warehouses where Peter Jackson's visual-effects studio is rushing to finish the opening film in "The Hobbit" trilogy.

The fevered pace at the Weta Digital studio near Wellington will last nearly until the actors walk the red carpet Wednesday for the world premiere. But after "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" hits theaters, there's more work to be done.

Weta Digital is the centerpiece of a filmmaking empire that Jackson and close collaborators have built in his New Zealand hometown, realizing his dream of bringing a slice of Hollywood to Wellington. It's a one-stop shop for making major movies - not only his own, but other blockbusters like "Avatar" and "The Avengers" and hoped-for blockbusters like next year's "Man of Steel."

Along the way, Jackson has become revered here, even receiving a knighthood. His humble demeanor and crumpled appearance appeal to distinctly New Zealand values, yet his modesty belies his influence. He's also attracted criticism along the way.

The special-effects workforce of 150 on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy a decade ago now numbers 1,100. Only five of Weta Digital's workers are actual employees, however, while the rest are contractors. Many accept the situation because movie work often comes irregularly but pays well. Union leaders, though, say the workers lack labor protections existing in almost any other industry.

Like many colleagues, Weta Digital's director, Joe Letteri, came to New Zealand in 2001 to work on the "Rings" trilogy for two years. The work kept coming, so he bought a house in Wellington and stayed.

"People come here because they know it's their chance to do something really great and to get it up on the screen," he said in a recent interview.

Jackson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, launched Weta in 1993 with fellow filmmakers Jamie Selkirk and Richard Taylor. Named after an oversized New Zealand insect, the company later was split into its digital arm and Weta Workshop, which makes props and costumes.

Loving homages to the craft are present in Weta Digital's seven buildings around the green-hilled suburb of Miramar. There are old-time movie posters, prop skulls of dinosaurs and apes, and a wall of latex face impressions of actors from Chris O'Donnell to Tom Cruise.

Its huge data center, with the computing power of 30,000 laptops, resembles a milk-processing plant because only the dairy industry in New Zealand knew how to build cooling systems on such a grand scale.

Little of Weta's current work was visible. Visitors must sign confidentiality agreements, and the working areas of the facilities are off-limits. The company is secretive about any unannounced projects, beyond saying Weta will be working solidly for the next two years, when the two later "Hobbit" films are scheduled to be released.

The workforce has changed from majority American to about 60 percent New Zealanders. The only skill that's needed, Letteri says, is the ability to use a computer as a tool.

Beyond having creativity as a filmmaker, Jackson has proved a savvy businessman, Letteri says.

"The film business in general is volatile, and visual effects has to be sitting right on the crest of that wave," Letteri says. "We don't get asked to do something that somebody has seen before."

The government calculates that feature films contribute $560 million each year to New Zealand's economy. Like many countries, New Zealand offers incentives and rebates to film companies and will contribute about $100 million toward the $500 million production costs of "The Hobbit" trilogy. Almost every big budget film goes through Jackson's companies.

"New Zealand has a good reputation for delivering films on time and under budget, and Jackson has been superb at that," says John Yeabsley, a senior fellow at New Zealand's Institute of Economic Research. "Nobody has the same record or the magic ability to bring home the bacon as Sir Peter."

"You cannot overestimate the fact that Peter is a brand," says Graeme Mason, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. "He's built this incredible reputational position, which has a snowball effect."

Back in 2010, however, a labor dispute erupted before filming began on "The Hobbit." Unions said they would boycott the movie if the actors didn't get to collectively negotiate. Jackson and others warned that New Zealand could lose the films to Europe. Warner Bros. executives flew to New Zealand and held a high-stakes meeting with Prime Minister John Key, whose government changed labor laws overnight to clarify that movie workers were exempt from being treated as regular employees.

Helen Kelly, president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, says a compromise could easily have been reached. She says the law changes amounted to unnecessary union-busting and a "gross breach" of employment laws.

"I was very disappointed at Peter Jackson for lobbying for that," she says, "and I was furious at the government for doing it."

Weta Digital's general manager Tom Greally compared it to the construction industry, where multiple contractors and mobile workers do specific projects and then move on.

The National Business Review newspaper estimates Jackson's personal fortune to be about $400 million, which could rise considerably if "The Hobbit" franchise succeeds.

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