U.S. News & World Report
February 9, 2000

Goodbye Darth Vader, Hello Gandalf
John Marks

For Hollywood, the phenomenally successful rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy--the first two films alone have grossed close to $700 million since their original release--proves that nothing succeeds like the familiar. But what will the next hat trick be?

There being only so many trilogies to choose from, the race has begun to cash in on a leading contender: a proposed film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy work The Lord of the Rings. Like the Star Wars films, Tolkien's Middle Earth chronicle comes in three parts, draws on mythological themes, and is loaded with adorably squat characters.

Never mind that an animated version of the Tolkien trilogy was filmed in 1978, at the end of a long cycle of popularity for the books, and was only a modest success. To Saul Zaentz, owner of the movie rights and producer of the Oscar-nominated box office hit The English Patient, Tolkien's creation looks like a gold mine. Zaentz is negotiating over the Tolkien property with Miramax Films, which happens to be owned by the Walt Disney Co., the most effective licenser of trademarks in the history of film.

The Tolkien movie is not yet a firm deal, but that hasn't quieted speculative fever. A report in the Hollywood Reporter says that Peter Jackson (whose credits include Heavenly Creatures) has been discussed to direct the film. And now Michael Kaplan has entered the picture.

For 23 years, Kaplan has been toiling in obscurity as a children's entertainer, riding his unicycle in circles and juggling apples at birthday parties in the greater New York area. But now Kaplan, whose stage name is Gandalf the Wizard Clown, sees his chance at the big time--not because of his juggling but because Gandalf happens to be the name of a wizard in The Lord of the Rings.

Kaplan is trying to trademark his stage name, and Tolkien Enterprises, a unit of the Saul Zaentz Co., is suing. Even before filming begins, Kaplan's gambit has reaped him more publicity than he has ever seen. "These bozos have given me a vehicle to become nationally famous!" exclaims Kaplan, who has racked up recent appearances on CNN and CourtTV (without his unicycle).

The potential merchandising booty from a Lord of the Rings movie is what has Tolkien Enterprises attorneys chasing after small fry like Gandalf the Wizard Clown. First published in 1954, the trilogy became extremely popular in the 1960s, when baby boomers embraced the books' whimsy and fantasy in concert with the psychedelia of the times. Now that boomers have babies of their own, the reasoning goes, there are merchandising opportunities to exploit. Like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings teems with fabulous creatures just begging to be transformed into toys, books, and CD-ROMs: giant spiders, evil, black-cloaked knights, goblin warriors, talking trees, and, yes, wizards (though no clowns).

Worldwide, the three books in the Tolkien trilogy--The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King--have sold in excess of 25 million copies. (And that's not even counting Tolkien's highly successful
predecessor to the series, The Hobbit.) "If you say it is the biggest-selling fiction creation of all time, you'll find it difficult to find anyone able to say you're wrong," says David Marshall, a spokesman for HarperCollins UK, one of the trilogy's publishers. According to Laurie Battle, an executive at Tolkien Enterprises, the Tolkien books have lately been enjoying a resurgence after a period of waning interest in the 1980s.

Children's entertainer Kaplan insists the name Gandalf stems from ancient Scandinavian literature and was therefore not invented by Tolkien. Zaentz's attorneys claim the derivation of the name is irrelevant; only the public perception of the name counts. The three-year-old dispute is now before the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Win or lose, the publicity from the trial will make Kaplan more famous. But he might want to think carefully before choosing another nom de guerre. Bozo, for instance, is already trademarked.