|The New York Times
January 17, 2001
Sites Give Tolkien
Fans Their Fix
At 12:01 a.m. last Friday, the official Web site for the forthcoming film trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books was simultaneously reinaugurated in 10 languages.
Making their first appearance on www.lordoftherings.net were dozens of features, including video and audio clips, an interactive map of Middle Earth, chat rooms, screen savers, interviews with cast members, links to other Tolkien sites, and probably much more than most people care to know about how director Peter Jackson and his crew members are creating Tolkien's world of hobbits, elves, wizards, orcs, dwarfs and black riders.
But the people at New Line Cinema are not dealing with most people. They are dealing with Web-savvy, hobbit-obsessed fans of The Lord of the Rings . And there are millions of them out there.
In April, when New Line offered a trailer about the films on the previous movie Web site, there were 1.7 million downloads in the first day and 6.6 million by the end of the first week, surpassing the download fever evoked by other films, including the 1.1 million downloads of the trailer for the most recent Star Wars film during its first day on the Web.
Anticipation has been fervid for the official Web site's reintroduction and for the two-minute trilogy trailer that was shown in theaters for the first time Friday at the beginning of New Line's latest release, 13 Days. Some 400 Web sites are dedicated to the movie trilogy, and several hundred more focus on other Tolkien-related themes (www.25hobbits.com, for example, ranks Tolkien-related sites by their popularity).
For months, many sites have been counting down to the scheduled Dec. 19 release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in the film series, and in recent days many sites have added a daily countdown to the reintroduction of the film trilogy's Web site.
This has taken 30 percent of my time for over a year, and the commitment of materials and resources has been massive, said Gordon Paddison, New Line's senior vice president for worldwide interactive marketing and business development, who is focused on building a relationship with Tolkien fans. Not until the movie comes out do we want to ask the audience for anything. Until then, it's all about giving things to them.
Since The Blair Witch Project streaked out of nowhere in the summer of 1999, built partly on a fervent Internet fan base, Hollywood has been wondering how best to market movies on the Web. The challenge has not proved easy, and nothing has matched the viral power of the Blair Witch phenomenon.
When a movie is almost magically embraced by the Web sometimes with the connivance of the distribution company a strange relationship forms among the cybercommunity of fans, the filmmakers and the studio marketers. The online ferment includes nitpicking about casting choices, carping about script changes and gossiping across the globe about every nuance of the production. However, when everything clicks, a network of Internet evangelists evolves eager to promote and support the film.
Last summer, X-Men was embraced. The forthcoming Spider-Man and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone have been similarly charmed.
Movies with superhero, sword and sorcery, science fiction or teen-age horror themes appeal to young and predominantly male moviegoers, the same demographic that spends the most time Web-surfing and often makes up the bulk of opening-weekend moviegoers.
You need the product that matches the audience, said Amir Malin, chairman of Artisan Entertainment, which bought The Blair Witch Project at the Sundance Film Festival. I'd say that 95 percent of the films in the marketplace don't really lend themselves to an Internet marketplace.
For the past year, many movie sites have trumpeted such nuggets as pirated photographs from the trilogy's filming locations in New Zealand or gossip gleaned from newspaper interviews with the films' cast and crew members.
On the positive side, when you have a project like this that has generated so much interest on the Web, you know that you already have a built-in core audience, said Joe Nimziki, New Line's president of theatrical marketing. What you have to be careful of is making sure you don't do anything that alienates your rabid core audience.
The trilogy's filmmakers decided to be as open as possible with the Tolkien Web sites, going so far as to adopt 40 of them, providing them a steady diet of images, sound clips and behind-the-scenes news.
We decided very early on that, whatever bumps and headaches occurred during production, and they are inevitable in any film project, we would be open about them, Nimziki said. Total disclosure, we felt, would in the long run be a positive.
These close relationships have helped the movie company squelch false rumors about the production before they made it onto the Internet, Paddison said, and they have helped the filmmakers understand what was most important to Tolkien fans and which sorts of departures from the books they would not tolerate.
When it was revealed that some Tolkien characters would not be in the films, or that some would have expanded roles, there was an outcry from some members of the Web fan base, many of whom see themselves as protectors of the Tolkien canon against Hollywood exploitation.
Through their relationship with Web fans, filmmakers said they have demonstrated that the films would respect the richness, seriousness and epic scope of the books. That assurance, they said, would help sell the film.
Jackson, the director, who is best known for Heavenly Creatures (1994) and The Frighteners (1996), spent 15 months, until Dec. 22, shooting the live-action sequences for the Tolkien trilogy around his native New Zealand. Digital effects are being added now.
Following the The Fellowship of the Ring is the release of The Two Towers, in December 2002, and the final installment, The Return of the King, in December 2003.
Many in Hollywood consider the Lord of the Rings project financially risky, particularly for a studio like New Line, which has had a rough time at the box-office in recent months. New Line says the budget for the trilogy is $270 million, or $90 million per installment.
It's a very major thing for us, said Nimziki. But we decided, if you are going to gamble on a trilogy, this was a good one.
Wizard-and-magic films have not always performed well at the box-office, however, and marketing and distribution executives from several studios expressed wariness about the trilogy's prospects.
You know those 1.7 million people who downloaded the trailer that first day? said one rival marketing executive. I think that's the whole audience for the movie.
Bob Friedman, New Line's co-chairman of worldwide marketing, said: Our task is to expand interest in the films beyond the current core fan base on the Web. To be a success, we have to broaden the franchise.
Visitors to the film trilogy's revamped Web site are greeted with a series of areas in which they can watch videos about the making of the film, click on a map of Middle Earth to learn how Hobbiton, home of the trilogy's hobbit heroes, was built and filmed, and join chat groups and a cybercommunity of Tolkien fans. One thing they cannot do, immediately, is download the new trailer.
The trailer will become available online on Friday, when a new section of the Web site opens in a partnership with Real Networks. Available then will be a library of video pieces expanding weekly until the movie's release as well as the trailer.
What the site will not have, Nimziki said, is actual clips from the finished film. All materials on the site will be about how the film was made, the characters designed and the sets constructed, sometimes in excruciating detail. (One segment is about how crew members worked to make the hair on the hobbits' oversize feet match the hair of the actors.) To see actual filmed scenes, moviegoers must go to theaters in December.
At the end of the day, if it turns out to be `Star Wars,' they'll look like geniuses, Malin of Artisan Entertainment said. If it doesn't, then they'll be sitting there in a lot of trouble with their corporate parents.