British actor Martin Freeman is close to becoming an official mascot for New Zealand, thanks to his role in the new Hobbit film and this weekend’s unveiling of a giant image of his face on the side of a Boeing jet at Auckland airport. And suddenly it looks as if the Tolkien entertainment industry might be in need of such a congenial ambassador.
Just three days before the film premieres in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, the long-awaited Peter Jackson adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s first foray into Middle-earth is under attack from several quarters. Its Hollywood producers stand variously accused of cruelty to animals, suppression of the press and exploitative merchandising.
The film-makers and stars of the Lord of the Rings prequel, including Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood, who makes a cameo appearance as Frodo Baggins, are working to restore goodwill. And there is a lot riding on the franchise. Air New Zealand bosses have spent a large portion of the company’s £51m marketing budget for the next two years on Hobbit-themed promotions. But the painted Boeing is only the wing-tip of the effort. A special flight-safety video, featuring characters from the film, has already gained almost 10m web views since its release three weeks ago. Hobbit coins, bearing the faces of Bilbo and Gandalf, are circulating as legal tender in New Zealand, and Wellington’s Waitangi Park is to be transformed into a Hobbit Artisan Market this weekend, ready for the premiere, while the three films in Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy are shown on a big screen.
The latest film is set to be a huge international moneymaker, even before merchandising and benefits to tourism are taken into account. The three Rings films, which won 17 Oscars between them, earned an estimated $6bn from ticket sales, DVDs and merchandise. The final film in the trilogy, The Return of the King, won an Oscar in every category in which it was nominated, notching up 11 statuettes and putting it on a par with Ben-Hur and Titanic.
But as the stars of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom and Sir Ian McKellen – prepare for its UK release on 14 December, Jackson has been forced to defend against claims that 27 animals died due to mistreatment during production.
“Extraordinary measures were taken to make sure that animals were not used during action sequences or any other sequence that might create undue stress for the animals involved,” Jackson has said, going on to point out that more than half of the shots of animals in the film were computer-generated.
Animal wranglers who worked on the film admit that none were harmed during filming, but they claim the production company is responsible for the deaths of horses, goats, chicken and sheep kept at a nearby farm. The wranglers are backed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which is threatening to demonstrate at the premieres in New Zealand, Britain and the US, calling for full CGI in all scenes involving animals.
Peta said last week that “five whistleblowers” had reported more than two dozen animal deaths which they claim were ignored. In response, the producers – Warner Bros Pictures and New Line Cinema – have released a statement suggesting the allegations “can be traced to freelance animal wranglers who were dismissed by the production over a year ago”.
Wood has described the claims as “really heartbreaking”. “All of the technicians and everyone who works on the films take the utmost care of the animals,” the actor told a Hollywood entertainment news website.
Earlier this month it was also revealed that the Tolkien estate plans to sue the producers of the new trilogy for what it regards as “exploitative merchandising”. Their lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles and seen by the Hollywood Reporter, argued that “morally questionable” digital marketing includes an online slot machine. “Not only does the production of gambling games patently exceed the scope of defendants’ rights, but this infringing conduct has outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base, causing irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works,” the family’s suit claims.
The estate contends that the agreement it had with the producers only covered the production of tangible items, such as figurines and clothing, and so it is seeking $80m from the production companies and the rights holder.
In 2009 the estate settled a lawsuit over the Lord of the Rings movies for an undisclosed amount, allowing production to proceed on The Hobbit. The suit had claimed that Tolkien’s trust received only an upfront payment of $62,500 for the trilogy, but was later due 7.5% of the gross receipts.
A smaller, local row in Wellington has also tainted the celebrations surrounding the release of the film. A Radio New Zealand reporter, Cushla Norman, was temporarily banned from covering the premiere because she had written too many negative stories about it. Jackson was said to be “mortified” to hear that a journalist had been blacklisted and her pass was reinstated.
The film is the first of three to be made by Jackson based on the characters in The Hobbit. A new set of rows is likely to herald the release of the second part – The Desolation of Smaug – in December next year.