NewsWire: Hobbits in Cyberspace - The Wall Street Journal

Thanks to Bernd Werder for the heads up on this article!

Hobbits in Cyberspace

Laura Landro

The Wall Street Journal - March 21, 2000

On a recent break in the shooting of the epic fantasy-film trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" in New Zealand, a couple of actors portraying the terrifying dark-cloaked Nazgul, also known as the Black Riders, doffed their forbidding hoods to have a cigarette. Someone snapped a photo, and the next day, the goofy-looking image of characters meant to scare the daylights out of people was posted on ringbearer.org, one of many "Lord of the Rings" fan Web sites, with the caption: "Two Nazgul Smoking Between Takes."

Aragorn and Arwen in Rivendell - Composite ImageSince the dawn of Hollywood, keeping the process of making a movie under wraps has always been part of the carefully crafted cinematic mystique. Under the age-old formula, studios tightly controlled access to the set, cast, director, and crew. An army of publicists doled out tidbits of information, and on the eve of a movie's release date, the stars came out for scripted press tours and staged sound bites. But as the Internet frenzy surrounding "The Lord of the Rings" makes clear, the era of the "closed set" and the studio-dictated spin cycle is going the way of the silent movie.

A groundswell of entertainment Web sites and Web fan-zines are transforming the relationship between Hollywood and movie fans faster than you can say "Action!" From "Star Wars"-style blockbusters to the latest student film at the Sundance festival, the Net is swarming with gossip, inside information and purloined photos from movie sets. Crew members have turned into informants; someone always knows someone on the "inside"; and every tidbit is posted on the Web like the latest news flash from the battlefront.

While movie studios have been aggressively using the Internet to promote their films once they are ready for release, Hollywood is only now beginning to grapple with the idea that the Internet is letting movie fans into every aspect of the heretofore secretive production process. Some studios have made big-footed attempts to curtail the use of pilfered scripts, photographs, and sound and video clips by fan sites, to little avail. Walt Disney Co., Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and News Corp.'s Fox have used legal threats to try to quash unauthorized use of their copyrighted material for such popular properties as "Star Trek" and "The Simpsons."

But stemming this horde of ardent movie fans on the Internet is kind of like trying to stop a wildebeest migration, particularly on a project as popular and ambitious as "The Lord of the Rings." New Line Cinema, a unit of Time Warner Inc., is spending $180 million to produce three films following the books of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, which has sold more than 50 million copies since it was published in the 1950s and been translated into two dozen languages. All three movies are being filmed in one marathon 18-month shoot, and the first one won't be released before the end of 2001. But well before production began in October, rumors were flying on the Internet about casting, budget, and script. There isn't any way to beat this stampede; the question now is how Hollywood can turn it to its advantage.

'Free Advertising'

"The studios should think of this as free advertising, 24-7, 365 days a year, from fan sites that are putting their heart and soul into it," says Joram Manka, a 20-year old Minnesota college student whose ringbearer.org is one of the most popular "Lord of the Rings" sites. "I know there is a fine line with some of these copyright issues, but if people don't know about these movie franchises, they won't get interested in the movies."

Fortunately for Mr. Manka and others like him, New Line Cinema agrees. Though still striving to maintain tight security on the set, the studio decided early on to let fans into the movie-making process via the Internet instead of trying to stem the rising tide of information leaking out.

"The model we're moving to is in the true spirit of the Internet," says Gordon Paddison, New Line's vice president of interactive marketing and development. "Instead of saying, 'It's our movies, it's our asset, it's all about us,' we're embracing the fan base and bringing them inside."

Mr. Paddison figures there are roughly 400 "Lord of the Rings" movie fan sites on the Web, not to mention hundreds more devoted to Tolkien's works. He says he has regular contact with about two dozen sites like Mr. Manka's ringbearer.org that are highly trafficked, providing information, photos and updates on casting. Peter Jackson, the films' director, has given two interviews to Harry Knowles, the founder of the popular Ain't It Cool News entertainment fan site, and New Line President Mike DeLuca also has gone online for a chat with fans on the site. New Line's own official lordoftherings.net Web site, which underwent a major upgrade recently, provides links to many fan sites as well. "We are supporting a lot of initiatives by a lot of fans," says Mr. Paddison.

Mr. Jackson, the director, says in a telephone interview from New Zealand that he knew from the start the fans were a force to be reckoned with -- and they had some good ideas. He was amazed, for example, that fans were pushing the idea of the actress Cate Blanchett for a role he was actually considering her for -- and that she ultimately took. But reading through page after page of "Lord of the Rings" chat on the Web, he says, "it was so clear that while fans where on the one hand totally excited about the fact that the movies were being made, on the other hand they were incredibly fearful that they would be made by someone who didn't care or had the wrong ideas. There was this underlying current of paranoia and fear."

Spanning more than 1,000 pages and hundreds of subsidiary characters, "The Lord of the Rings" has won acclaim as a rich, textured, intricately plotted work of fiction, a classic epic-struggle-between-good-and-evil saga.

At the center of the trilogy is a quest undertaken by a band of human-like creatures called Hobbits to save their world from evil as personified by a golden ring of power. In their journey they encounter myriad creatures from Elves and Orcs to Ents and Balrogs, and get caught up in a mighty conflict that threatens to tear apart the magical world they all inhabit, Middle Earth. Tolkien wrote elaborate appendices with invented languages, alphabets, maps and histories for his imaginary world; after his death, a related work, "The Silmarillion," was published.

Tolkien himself was so fearful of what Hollywood might do with his work that he mentioned it in a letter to his British publisher in 1937, when he first published "The Hobbit," the prequel to "The Lord of the Rings." In that letter, he approved U.S. publication of the work as long as it was possible "to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)." Tolkien published "The Lord of the Rings" starting in 1954. Before he died in 1973, he sold the movie rights to United Artists. The studio, however, never made a film, and producer Saul Zaentz later acquired the rights. Mr. Zaentz produced a one-film animated version in 1978, but it was a critical and commercial failure.

Almost 20 years later, the rights ended up with Mr. Jackson and New Line, who agreed the only way to do the movie right was in three distinct films following the storyline of the books and using new, advanced special effects that would make it possible to re-create the world of Middle Earth at a reasonable cost.

Quality Check

The biggest fear expressed by fans on the Internet was that Mr. Jackson would excise their favorite characters or do away entirely with what they viewed as key developments in the plot. TheOneRing.com Web site and its "Lord of the Rings" Movie Accuracy Page even collected a couple of thousand signatures on a "Lord of the Rings" Movie Integrity Petition detailing some of the worrisome things they were hearing about specific characters and plot turns and urging Mr. Jackson to do the right thing.

"Most Tolkien enthusiasts," the petition said, "understand it won't be possible to copy every scene exactly as found in the book, nor according to our own imaginations of these scenes. However, gross alterations ... would simply be a terrible disservice to the story that Tolkien wrote and could not represent artistic integrity in any way."

Eager to show the fans that he was prepared to listen to their concerns, Mr. Jackson agreed to be interviewed by Mr. Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. "I thought I owed it to these people to at least find out what their questions were and try to answer them," he says. "Having an open dialogue with the fans felt like a positive thing for me to do to let them know a bit more about what we were doing with a book they cared about so much."

Isn't that cutting into his creative control a bit? Mr. Jackson doesn't think so. "The Internet provides the filmmaker with a unique ability to communicate with the audience -- and that was impossible before," he says.

Mr. Jackson gamely answered the questions Mr. Knowles had culled from fans. While he said it would be necessary to prune some of the characters and events, he told them that any changes would be "centered on developing characters or events in the spirit that Tolkien created them, but maybe taking them further than he did." Tolkien, for example, was never known for developing his female characters, and there are only a handful of them in the books. There is a key romance between the mortal human hero, Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen, who appeared in "A Walk on the Moon" and "The Thin Red Line," and the immortal Elven princess, Arwen, played by Liv Tyler, who was in "Armageddon" and "Stealing Beauty."

But, as Mr. Jackson points out, "if it was filmed exactly as Tolkien wrote it, they would have maybe 10 minutes screen time together over six hours of

film ... so we have to find a way to include Arwen in more of the story, to have a chance at creating a meaningful screen romance."

Mr. Jackson vows to continue to keep up contact with fans, especially through New Line's own lordoftherings.net site. The site initially contained just a few sketched images and a press release, but was relaunched last month to give fans a glimpse of the production process, including in-depth coverage of the filming, daily news bulletins and photos from the set, online "diaries" from cast and crew members, as well as interviews with the actors, crew and special-effects people. Mr. Paddison also invited the top 10 fan sites to become members of an "exclusive ring" to poll their visitors and submit questions for a continuing question-and-answer feature with Mr.Jackson.

And recently New Line made a small equity investment in snowball.com (www.snowball.com), a San Francisco-based network of Web sites aimed at the 13-to-30 age group that it says will be active in promoting the film trilogy. The deal calls for snowball to steer more users to New Line movie sites and include marketing materials such as trailers, interviews with the movies' stars and behind-the-scenes footage on its network of Web sites. The companies will also team up on promotional tie-ins, sweepstakes and prize giveaways.

New Line also retained NeoPlanet Inc., a Phoenix-based software design company, to design a so-called unique browser -- essentially a customized Internet Explorer devoted to a single subject -- for "The Lord of the Rings." Users can download the browser either from ftp.neoplanet.com/pub/lotrsetup.exe or from New Line's lordoftherings.net site. The browser, once downloaded, will be a separate icon on a user's computer screen that will be devoted entirely to "Lord of the Rings" content, including the official site and links to various fan sites that New Line chooses to include. Once in the browser, fans will be able to use its instant-messaging capability to chat live with one another.

But once fans have entered the browser, they are essentially a captive audience, Mr. Paddison says, "so a visitor can go through all the different fan areas, and at the end of the day we can still retain the user in the 'Lord of the Rings' experience." Mr. Paddison says New Line recorded over 2,000 installations of the browser as soon as it was offered in late February.

Too Much Access?

Dealing with the fans isn't always an easy experience. Recently the Web was buzzing madly with the word that TheOneRing.net's New Zealand correspondent "Tehanu" had been slapped with a trespassing notice and banned from the set. Mr. Paddison says Tehanu -- pen name for Erica Challis, one of four partners in TheOneRing.net -- wasn't banned, but merely told not to be so aggressive and to let the crew do its work. "Everyone was being overdramatic and just posting wildly," he says of the frenzied rumors that followed.

Ms. Challis says the relationship with New Line includes both official and unofficial contact, "some friendly, some not." By e-mail from New Zealand, she adds, "It's a large organization, and they seem divided about how to deal with us, hence the trespass notice." After the rumors about a ban, Ms. Challis was invited to visit the set. She filed a detailed report about her visit and says Mr. Jackson and his crew "were friendly, and curious about us."

Mr. Paddison acknowledges the studio will always have to walk a fine line between giving away too much information upfront and leaving enough mystery

to whet the public's appetite. He recently struck an exclusive deal with E! Entertainment Television's eonline, which will have an "authorized" local

journalist providing monthly updates from the set.

"You want to give enough information to be thrilling and hold interest, but you also have to build momentum to the opening of the movie," he says.

Besides drawing in hard-core Tolkien fans, New Line is hoping its "Lord of the Rings" site will appeal to a broader audience -- including people who have never read the books. "The marketing challenge for our site is how to make it as interesting and in-depth as it needs to be for the religious true believers and at the same time to Joe Blow from Idaho who could care less and hasn't read the books and doesn't want to," says Mr. Paddison. "Without turning it into the Cliff Notes, we have to make a compelling statement that will convince them to spend what by 2001 will be $10 in a movie theater."

New Line also aims to use the Web to get more young people to read the books beforehand. The studio has a promotion online with publisher Houghton Mifflin Co., which has brought out a new one-volume paperback edition of the trilogy that runs 1,130 pages and includes a gold stamp that says "An epic motion picture trilogy coming soon from New Line Cinema." New Line is working with an education partner, whose name the company declines to disclose, to design an online curriculum about the books tied to a literacy and visual-communications program. The company is currently doing research with middle schools, high schools and colleges to gauge interest.

Building Businesses

New Line's cooperative attitude toward fan sites has been a boon to operators of some of those sites.

Mr. Manka of ringbearer.org started his Web site as a student at St. John's Preparatory School in Collegeville, Minn. A Tolkien reader since childhood, Mr. Manka had access to the Internet before most of his friends knew what it was, and he put up a links page for Tolkien fans. He decided to start covering the movie project when he first heard about it and bought the names ringbearer.org and ringbearer.net for $70 each in May 1999. Now attending the University of Minnesota in Duluth, he usually spends between 10 and 20 hours a week on the site -- far more in the summer -- putting up scoops about casting choices, including the eagerly awaited news of the female lead role. "I broke Liv Tyler as Arwen," he claims.

The site caught the attention of Fandom.com Inc., a Santa Monica, Calif., operator of a Web site that provides science-fiction, fantasy and horror entertainment news, and also sells merchandise. Fandom creates domains, or special sections, that are maintained by 15 or so "Head Fanatics" overseen by Vice President of Fanatacism Will Pyler. Mr. Manka is now "Head Fanatic" for "The Lord of the Rings" movie domain, and his ringbearer.org is part of Fandom's network of sites. Mr. Manka, who declines to discuss his financial arrangement with Fandom, says only that he is finally making some money from his singular passion. Plus, with his picture posted on the site, "you'd be surprised how many girls I hear from," he says.

New Line is aware it may be helping build others' small-business enterprises by providing open access to "Lord of the Rings" material. "Last year when I first started talking to these guys, no one had commerce on their sites," says Mr. Paddison. "One started with a rinky-dink site, and within three months he was tracking 100,000 page hits a month with the content I was feeding him -- the next thing you know he had a business-development director."

He agrees it is an issue the studio may have to examine. "As we go forward in this business and in this model," he says, "it is something that begs the question of whose business are you going to build?"

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