‘Lord of the Rings’ abandons New Zealand and moves production to UK

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Amazon Studios is moving production of its Lord of the Rings series from New Zealand to the UK in a blow to the Pacific nation’s two-decade relationship with the film franchise.

The US group said on Friday that shifting production of the flagship series aligned with a strategy of expanding its footprint and investing in studio space in the UK. The decision is the latest coup for the British film and TV industry, which has become a favoured location for global producers who are rushing to meet surging global demand for streamed video content.

The loss of the series has caused bitter disappointment in New Zealand, which has built a lucrative film and tourism industry on the success of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Stuart Nash, New Zealand’s economic development minister, said Wellington would withdraw some of the tax breaks it had offered to secure the production.

More than 2,000 people worked on filming and production of the first season of the Amazon series, which recently concluded in New Zealand and is due to premier in September 2022. Production on the second series is due to switch to the UK next June.

British government insiders said the UK had not sought to undercut New Zealand, but had “natural advantages”.

Amazon’s announcement came after New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said this week that the country’s borders would remain closed until at least the end of the year. An official from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the UK had “done a lot to be accommodating and help filming continue”.

Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission, said he suspected that such restrictions were a factor in Amazon’s decision.

“New Zealand is a fantastic location . . . But it’s still, relatively speaking, a small country with a small amount of resource in terms of studio space, skilled talent and other infrastructure,” he said.

John McVay, chief executive of Pact, a trade association for UK production and distribution companies, said global producers were attracted by the wide range of talent and facilities available in Britain, from orchestras to special effects.

Despite coronavirus disruption, several forthcoming releases are being filmed in the UK, including the latest instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise and a new Indiana Jones film, which is being shot in Glasgow.

UK film industry officials said Amazon had examined the possibility of filming the first Lord of the Rings series in Scotland but chose New Zealand instead.

The success of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy helped make the Hobbiton movie set a hugely popular tourist attraction © Reuters

New Zealand authorities have leveraged the country’s spectacular scenery — and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks — to attract successive film and TV productions based on the writings of JRR Tolkien.

The original Hobbiton movie set from Jackson’s films is now one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions and Air New Zealand emblazoned its planes with dwarfs, wizards and other characters from the movies.

The UK also offers generous tax relief for the industry, although officials said bespoke deals were not offered. “There wasn’t a particular incentive for this series,” the DCMS insider said.

Amazon remains eligible for a 20 per cent tax rebate worth NZ$132m (US$93m) on the NZ$663.74m the government estimated was spent in New Zealand on the first series. However, Nash said the studio could not access a further 5 per cent tax break initially offered by Wellington.

“The international film sector is incredibly competitive and highly mobile. We have no regrets about giving this production our best shot with government support,” he said.

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings drama begins thousands of years before the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books, and charts the re-emergence of evil in Middle Earth, Tolkien’s fictional land.

The New Zealand Film Commission said the domestic industry could rebound from the loss of the series.

“It’s a shame and I feel for everyone who has put their hearts into this production,” said David Strong, commission chief executive. “Our role now is to work hard to keep the Kiwi screen sector employed.”

Oliver Dowden, UK culture secretary, said he was “delighted” by the move, which would create “thousands of high-quality jobs” across the UK.

Russell Alexander, general manager of Hobbiton Movie Set Tours, said the move was disappointing, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic had hit the tourism sector hard.

“Though we have no direct association with the production, we are looking forward to seeing New Zealand return to the screen as Middle Earth in season one,” said Alexander.

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