Thousands of fans have turned out for the world premiere of the first Hobbit film, catching a glimpse of their favourite stars as they walked the red carpet.
More than 20,000 people packed Courtenay Place on a warm, sunny day in Wellington for the premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - the first in the trilogy directed by Sir Peter Jackson.
Stars began arriving in the New Zealand capital from the beginning of the week and from 4.30pm on Wednesday walked the 500-metre-long red carpet to the Embassy Theatre where they and other VIP guests watched the film at 7pm.
Singer Neil Finn and his band welcomed the crowd with a set of Split Enz and Crowded House favourites and a performance of Lonely Mountain, a song he has written and performed for The Hobbit soundtrack.
Sir Peter Jackson took two hours to make his way up the red carpet, stopping to give interviews and talk to fans. He told Radio New Zealand that, despite working on the films inspired by JRR Tolkein's books for more than a decade, he has never had Middle Earth fatigue.
"Once you commit to making a film that becomes the focus, and you have a lot of emotional investment in the film. So I wake up every day just thankful to be doing what I love best."
The Oscar-winning director earlier revealed that working on The Hobbit was the happiest he's ever been making a movie, despite some difficulties in the early days of development.
"It was certainly a relief to walk on set that first day and start shooting ... It was almost like we got all the bad stuff out of the way at the beginning. The actual making of the movie for me was a very happy experience."
Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, told Radio New Zealand he feels like he grew up in Middle Earth.
"I was 18 when I started and 22 when we were done with the Rings - and that was a huge growth period for me in terms of just becoming a man. Now, being 31 and going back is very surreal that it's still a part of my life. But in a way, when this is all done it will always be."
Other stars in Wellington for the premiere were Martin Freeman, who plays lead character Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett, James Nesbitt and Andy Serkis, who appears again as Gollum.
The only sign of dissent in the crowd was two protesters dressed as the Grim Reaper holding placards claiming that animals were died and were treated badly during production.
Sir Peter Jackson refutes this and told a news conference earlier on Wednesday that the accusation was an insult to those people who worked on the film.
Barry Humphries, who plays the Goblin King, told the news conference that Sir Peter had turned the Wellington suburb of Miramar into the arts capital of the southern hemisphere.
The Hobbit films are prequels to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in cinemas on 12 December. The second film is set for release in December 2013 and the third in July 2014.
Fans dress the part
Fans from numerous countries, including Australia, the United States, Britain and Sweden, as well as from throughout New Zealand, waited in Courtenay Place, many wearing home-made Hobbit character costumes. Scores had slept out overnight to ensure they had a prime spot by the red carpet.
Zac Mennen, a retail worker from Melbourne, spent months painstakingly sewing a costume copying Boromir from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Another fan from Melbourne, Brett Butt, sported an Aragorn costume complete with wig and a leather trenchcoat.
Elise Lockhard and Victoria Gridley - dressed as the Hobbits Peregrine and Samwise - arrived on Tuesday night and carefully chose a spot next to the media enclosure, where they said the actors would be sure to walk close by.
Hawke's Bay couple Jessie and Solana Harte won tickets to sit in the grandstand and came as Bilbo Baggins and an elf.
Months of planning
Wellington City Council says just over $1 million and months of planning have gone into preparations for the premiere of the first Hobbit film.
The movie itself has been at least five years in the making and has endured a studio bankruptcy, a defecting director and a major industrial dispute.
Tourism New Zealand expects the economic spin-offs from the movies to increase over the years and estimates 150,000 more tourists each year may come to the country.
The Hobbit village in the hills of the Matamata farm has been attracting about 22,000 visitors every year, but so far this year 85,000 people have each paid $75 to see the set.
Media adviser for Hobbiton Movie Tours, Ian Brodie, expects visitor numbers will stay high, just as location tours for movies like The Sound of Music still pull in the crowds.