Filmmaker Peter Jackson — assiduously disheveled, frequently barefoot and barely 5-and-a-half feet tall — is a giant in Hollywood. But in his native New Zealand he is something even bigger: its newest national hero. That much is clear from the moment you land at the airport in Wellington, where a red carpet is lined with giant golden replicas of the 11 Oscars awarded to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and a massive model of the film's eerie Golum character peers over the roof of the main terminal. Weeks after the Academy Awards onslaught, articles about him still splash across the front pages of the local papers.
Around town people breathlessly recount the true story of how a fully clothed Paris Hilton accidentally fell into a swimming pool at an Oscar party — only to be rescued by Jackson himself. "We're thinking of naming one of the islands after him," jokes Belinda Todd, a local television writer. "I mean, it's only fair."
Jackson, 42, suddenly is one of the richest and most powerful people in the movie business, having turned J.R.R. Tolkien's classic into a film franchise that has generated $4 billion in ticket sales, DVDs and merchandise. In all Jackson, as director and producer, has reaped more than $125 million from the three Rings films, an oeuvre that took eight years of his life to complete. In the past year he earned $35 million, ranking him 20th in pay and 12th overall on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list. He got a 7.5 percent cut of the gross profits from DVD sales of the second Rings film and from theater sales for the third.
And Jackson is receiving a beastly upfront fee of $20 million to direct and produce his next film and write the screenplay for it. Finished with Hobbits, Jackson is taking on a remake of King Kong, which will star Naomi Watts in the role first made famous by Fay Wray in 1933 (and reprised by an ingenue named Jessica Lange in the Dino De Laurentiis remake in 1976). He also will receive 20 percent of the gross profits. It is a record-breaking deal for a director. "It's a lot of money,'' he admits sheepishly, though he emphasizes that part of the loot will go to his co-writers. "Obviously, it's at the top end of what you can get paid."
Now New Zealand's favorite native son is betting it all on his homeland. He is plowing upwards of $50 million of his own money into building a studio empire here, complete with giant sound stages, special-effects workshops and futuristic editing operations. On a recent day bulldozers roar outside as Jackson sits inside the nearly completed Park Road Post, an old chemical factory that he is converting into a lavish postproduction site. It is filled with voice-dubbing stages and editing rooms and designed to evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Prairie style. Cost: $35 million. "We just had this money coming in from Lord of the Rings," he says with an embarrassed laugh. "So we just turned it all around and put it into this."
Jackson is putting another $7 million into a new soundstage to complement the two stages he already owns. He also is part-owner of a digital-effects company — Weta Ltd., which handled the brilliant pixilated stunts in the Rings series — and a props design firm, Weta Workshop, which created the suits of armor and weaponry for Middle-earth.