In 1998, Ian Alexander was at home on his Matamata farm watching a rugby game when there was a knock at the door.
Life for the Alexanders has never been the same since.
It was 1998 and their farm had caught the eye of a guy named Peter Jackson who needed a location for his film adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
He needed a piece of verdant, rolling farmland for the movie’s hobbit village Hobbiton.
“A location scout had spotted the property by the air, and thought it had potential for what they were looking for,” says Ian’s son Russell, who is now the CEO of Hobbiton.
“The rolling green hills and the Kaimais in the background, the lake, the party tree, the flat, and there's no man-made structures anywhere as far as the eye can see.”
So a deal was made, the sets were built, the movies were shot there, and all along, Russell had a vision and ambition to make something that would survive long after the movies had wrapped.
It was his idea to turn the set into a tourism destination, and under his leadership, Hobbiton, who are a Westpac customer, opened to the public in December 2002 to coincide with the release of the second film in he trilogy ‘The Two Towers’.
Now, 20 years since that first door knock, Russell’s Hobbiton is thriving, evolving, and continuing to delight the 2,000 people a day that visit to experience in real life the magic that Sir Peter so wonderfully created on screen.
“We get visitors here from all around the world. I know it's from over a hundred different countries. About 640,000 came last year.
“In recent times there's been an upsurge in domestic people that are wanting to come, which is quite humbling.”
Although you don’t actually see any Hobbits as you walk though Hobbiton, you always feel like they are nearby. Their clothes are hung out to dry, their chimneys are smoking and their trades (baker, gardener, fishmonger) are on display outside their Hobbit holes.
At one point Russell sits on a working lathe outside a Hobbit hole and gives it a go, then he points to the wood shavings underneath it, saying: “We have to put shavings around in the mornings to make sure it's all fresh shavings and looks like a Hobbit’s just popped out and lives here.”
It’s these details that make Hobbiton something truly extraordinary. In anyone else’s hands, Hobbiton could easily have been turned into a quick cash grab with cheap, basic sets, but Russell isn’t that kind of entrepreneur. He wants the experience to be as authentic as possible.
Many people may not realise there is a prop department where a talented crew are always busy creating new set pieces.
“A lot of detail that goes and making everything at Hobbiton as perfect as we possibly can.
“Everything gets made on site; they make some beautiful things then they've gotta hack into them with chains and saws and make them look old.”
It’s this constant desire to provide the best possible experience that drives Russell to continually grow Hobbiton, and he’s confident that this world he helped create will continue indefinitely.
“Hobbiton’s always developing, always changing. I don't think this is going to go away in my lifetime and I'd like to think it's forever lasting.
“There's a whole range of things always going on, and Hobbiton never sleeps.”