No offence, Sir Peter, but New Zealand needs to end its infatuation with Middle-earth

I read in the papers that the cast of The Hobbit stars in Air New Zealand’s latest safety video and I despair at the lack of insight and thought that is being applied to New Zealand’s brand.

The Hobbit is not New Zealand’s story. Middle-earth is not New Zealand, and our continuing association with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is doing New Zealand a disservice because Tolkien’s story is not our brand story – it is incompatible and not sustainable long term.

A transmedia storytelling masterclass with Jeff Gomez (CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment in New York), held at the Unitec Institute of Technology recently, got me thinking about the importance of brand stories and how The Hobbit’s association with brand New Zealand is doing us a disservice.

The reason is simple. The Hobbit and LOTR trilogy are movies, and movies – even four or five of them – do not do justice to a whole country as rich and steeped in culture, tradition and history as New Zealand.

In ten years, Sir Peter Jackson’s movies – as awesome and wonderful and epic as they are – will take their places in whatever wax works museum good old movies go to, alongside Star Wars and Back To The Future. It can be argued that associating our brand story with Star Wars has more of a future because at least there is space and scope for more of those movies to be made – and an expanding story cannon –  but do not think for one moment the LOTR protectionist societies will allow Tolkien’s work to become part of a broader canon.

Even worse, we could have a remake of the LOTR trilogy and the movie studio could set it in Bolivia for all we know…

Futureless infatuation with Middle Earth

New Zealand must take control of its own brand story, and you cannot tell me that our rich heritage and mythos – Maori in particular, but also European – is not equal to a sweeping saga, a tapestry and growing story greater than ever any fantasy novel can attain.

On a recent Maori immersion camp with my daughter in Tauranga, I heard stories of battles between mountains, of love and betrayal. There are stories of great fleets, taniwha and prophets and old gods… epic, breathless and timeless.

Perhaps Sir Jackson has to turn his hand to a sweeping and heroic narrative of New Zealand before we can move on from our short term, albeit profitable but ultimately futureless, infatuation with Middle Earth.

In his transmedia storytelling masterclass, Jeff Gomez spoke of developing brand stories for countries like Columbia and how their brand story is helping that nation heal and move on from the drug wars.

There’s no reason why New Zealand cannot tell a brand story that weaves together our rich mythos to bring hordes of tourists flocking to the slopes of the beautiful maiden mountain Pīhanga, where they can relive the battle between Tongariro, Taranaki (Mt Egmont), Tauhara and Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe).

Every inch of New Zealand has a story and our nation as a whole would be better served by them, certainly more so than sending a handful of tourists to Hobbiton for a free beer.

Transmedia storytelling

For those people unfamiliar with transmedia storytelling, it is defined as “the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies” – but this type of storytelling, like all other disciplines, depends on the complexity and rich diversity of its story world. New Zealand is a self-contained story world waiting to be explored.

Gomez, who has worked with the Avatar, Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, as well as brands like Coca-Cola and Mattel, lists the criteria for a successful transmedia storytelling franchise, and New Zealand ticks all the boxes:

  • Deep rich story with a past, present and future – the world has to exist beyond the edges and has to continue (LOTR will not continue, neither will Harry Potter if anybody is thinking like that);
  • Compelling storylines and story-arc development (serialised content);
  • Convincing presentation that takes the world and viewer seriously (authentic);
  • Internal logic and consistency;
  • Timeless themes that are simple but artfully presented;
  • Cultivation, validation and celebration of the fan base – people who come to New Zealand cannot help but love this country and go on to have decades long relationships with Aotearoa.

The point is that New Zealand’s story did not emanate in the mind of an Oxford scholar.

Our brand story is here, all around us and has been for hundreds of years, waiting to be strung into a narrative that is timeless, sustainable, compatible… really, truly ours – authentic to the core.