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WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of New Zealanders took to the country's streets on Monday to protest against possible plans to move production of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" movies overseas.
With some dressed as hobbits or other characters from Middle Earth, they carried banners saying "New Zealand is Middle Earth" and "We Love Hobbits," aiming to reassure nervous Hollywood studio executives rattled by a short-lived union boycott.
The rallies were held a day before representatives from Warner Bros. Pictures were due to arrive in New Zealand to decide where to shoot the lucrative $500 million adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy.
Jackson made Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy in his native New Zealand, boosting the local film industry and enhancing the tiny country's international image.
He had planned to shoot a two-part adaptation of "The Hobbit" locally as well, but union protests about working conditions infuriated Jackson and unnerved the studio.
The Time Warner division said last week it would seek film locations outside New Zealand, a move that economists said could cost the country up to $1.5 billion.
The unions have backed down, and industry analysts believe Warner Bros. will use the Hobbit crisis to extract financial incentives when executives meet a high-powered delegation led by Prime Minister John Key on Tuesday.
Key told reporters on Monday that he thought there is a 50-50 chance of the movies being filmed in New Zealand.
"I'd love to tell you it's a done deal, but we're a long way away from being a done deal. There are a number of issues that we'd need to resolve," he was quoted by the New Zealand Herald as saying.
Key added that he'd already had discussions with one senior Warner executive, without giving details. But he said the tone of the discussions had been respectful.
Just to be safe, a reported 2,000 to 3,000 people gathered in the capital of Wellington, while other cities such as Auckland and earthquake-ravaged Christchurch hosted similar rallies.
Oscar-winning technician Richard Taylor, whose Weta Workshop handled many of the special effects for "Lord of the Rings," told Wellington protesters he hoped "The Hobbit" would still be made in New Zealand.
"The alternative is just too bleak to consider," he said.
Reports have suggested that Warner Bros. is considering locations in England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia and eastern Europe.
Taylor also read a letter from Jackson, thanking people for their support. "This is where Middle Earth was born and this is where it will stay," Jackson said in the letter.
The project has already suffered a series of delays including the resignation of director Guillermo de Toro, who quit in May as the uncertain financial future of movie studio partner MGM put a question mark over the project.
"The Hobbit" is based on the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who lives in the land of Middle-earth that is filled with wizards, elves and other fantasy creatures. Bilbo goes on a quest to find treasure guarded by a dragon.
The book, first published in 1937, is the precursor to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy which also takes place in Middle-earth.
The "Rings" movie trilogy grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide at box offices with the final chapter, "Return of the King," sweeping the Academy Awards in 2003 by winning in all of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best film.
Additional reporting by Adrian Bathgate, writing by Elaine Lies; editing by Dean Goodman