New Zealand, a country with a population of a little over four million and an area of just 268,680 square kilometres in the South Western Pacific Ocean has become an unlikely star of many feature films as well as having its own successful movie industry.

The story of film production begins in the early years of the 20th century. During 1913 three pictures featuring Maori tales were produced by French film director Gaston Melies who was in search of exotic subjects and stories. His movie Hinemoa, based on a local Maori legend, was the first feature film created in the country.

After a number of silent movies the industry suffered until 1941 when the National Film Unit (NFU) was formed by the government during the Second World War. At first they manufactured propaganda films about the progress of the war effort and after the war ended they proceeded to create promotional films to increase tourism and trade.

It was not until the 1970s that big budget films began being shot in New Zealand and that locally made films began making an impact overseas. However, ever since then the industry has flourished. In 1978 the New Zealand Film Commission was set up to assist with the making, promoting and exhibition of New Zealand Films. Their catalogue of features includes ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ the nation’s largest grossing film staring Anthony Hopkins and ‘Whale Rider’ a story of a young Maori girl trying to fulfil her destiny.

To be called a ‘New Zealand Film’ productions have to meet strict criteria, however recently many international studios have been basing their blockbusters in Aotearoa – The Land of the Long White Cloud – as the country is known. Among the many titles are The Chronicles of Narnia, Steven Spielberg’s new update of ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, James Cameron’s blockbuster ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Last Samurai’ that starred Tom Cruise.

Film location tourism has been a growing business in New Zealand over the last decade, largely due to the success of a certain film trilogy. Wellington based director Peter Jackson and his production company spent over 4 years turning New Zealand into Middle Earth filming the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. It is now possible for tourists to visit locations such as Hobbiton and Rivendell or view ‘Mount Doom’ from the shores of Lake Taupo.

Film makers also regularly make use of locations already popular with visitors, for instance the beaches of Muriwai, located to the north west of Auckland and Cathedral Cove in Hahei were transformed into the shores of Narnia. Tongarrio National Park and much of the Southern Alps were used extensively to portray Middle Earth, while the North Island’s Mount Taranaki was a stand in for Mount Fuji in ‘The Last Samurai’.

The capital Wellington, or ‘Wellywood’, the centre of this growing industry, is also a popular stop on tourists’ tailor made holidays to the country (there are even plans for a sign of the city’s nickname at the airport) and with many projects in the pipeline there is always the possibility of seeing filming taking place somewhere in the country.