NewsWire: Lord of the Rings Gets Big Web Push - The Wall Street Journal

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'Lordof the Rings' gets big Web push
by Anna Wilde Mathews
The Wall Street Journal

The first installment in New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings film trilogy won't hit theaters until December. But the studio's Rings Web site already has begun serving up behind-the-scenes tidbits such as how makeup artists glued hair on the feet of the movie's mythical Hobbits.

It's a resource that only the most obsessive fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy saga are likely to plumb thoroughly -- and they'll get plenty of time to try. The new, more elaborate version of the site (http://lordoftherings.net) is the center of a five-year online promotional push that may represent the most ambitious Web effort yet by a Hollywood studio. With military precision, New Line plans to roll out a stream of information on the making of the Rings movies several times a week from now into 2004, when all three movies will have been released.

The goal is to have "new stuff happening constantly, so [Web users] will want to keep coming back," says Joe Nimziki, president of theatrical marketing for New Line, a unit of Time Warner Inc. The site's content will be available in 10 languages.

The online push for The Lord of the Rings series may be a sign of where Hollywood is going in its quest to exploit the Internet. Film Web promotions have largely been limited to sweepstakes, basic games and publicity photos. No site thus far has been able to match the online success of 1999's The Blair Witch Project, which managed to create hype with a series of mysterious online teasers.

Long-term projects

Hoping to do the same, some filmmakers are starting to view their Web efforts as long-term projects that can stoke interest in films and their tie-ins long before -- and after -- they hit theaters. Starwars.com, for one, continues to draw hundreds of thousands of monthly users.

For the film "Tomcats," Revolution Studios started an online contest in which users would vote on casting extras -- a year before its scheduled release this spring. Threshold Entertainment, which owns online entertainment site TheThreshold.com, plans to launch Internet prequel episodes more than a year in advance of a planned animated film titled Food Fight.

But few such efforts will be as high-profile, or high-stakes, as New Line's project for the Rings epic, which follows the quest to destroy the magic ring made by a powerful evil lord. The studio -- which declines to discuss its online expenses but says partner companies are helping to pay them -- chose to film all three Rings movies in one marathon shoot in New Zealand. Although the productions are on schedule, the projected cost of the effects-rich trilogy is now at $270 million, compared with earlier estimates of about $180 million. The films will be released in the holiday seasons of 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Carefully timed

The launch of the new version of the site was carefully timed to coincide with the U.S. debut of the theatrical trailer Jan. 12.

Online interest in the films already is ferocious. New Line launched the first version of the site in May 1999 and soon was providing basic production facts as well as message boards and community sites for Rings fans. Today, Tolkien aficionados have on their own created about 400 Internet destinations, flooding the Web with information such as grammatical deconstructions of the novels' made-up languages and weather conditions at New Zealand airports (see http://www.theonering.net. An online preview trailer from New Line drew about 1.7 million downloads in 24 hours in April, and more than 35,000 people have joined online clubs that users set up using the studio's Web site.

The challenge for the new version is to "expand the audience while respecting the core audience," said Bob Friedman, co-chairman of worldwide marketing for New Line. The updated site is designed to satisfy both those who are looking for the basics on Rings stars such as Liv Tyler and Elijah Wood, and for Tolkien worshipers who require a steady diet of much more detailed information.

The site had been getting about 100,000 visitors a month, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet research firm. But they tended to skew toward middle-aged men, with relatively few female users. To reach new fans, the studio has worked closely with the online arm of E! Entertainment Television, which has a following among women.

Alliance with RealNetworks

New Line also has forged an alliance with software firm RealNetworks Inc., which created a button on its popular Web video player to guide users directly to a Rings Web channel. The studio also hopes to work with the American Film Institute on a Web-based educational curriculum built largely around the making of the trilogy.

The new version of the Rings Web site includes interviews with people who worked behind the scenes, such as a production worker who helped make boulders for the set and a sculptor who will discuss stylistic differences in the furniture used by the Elf and Dwarf characters. New Line also offers features accessible only to people who download a special Rings browser.

The site will build up its trove of information gradually. It began with descriptions of the film's crew, listing the names of every member, right down to the employees who handled the horses. Eventually, it will include interviews and videos of nearly every crew and cast member.

The site also will explain the construction of the Hobbits' village and how actors were transformed into Hobbits, from the application of foot hair to the making of their pointy Latex ears. Later, an interactive map of the story's setting, Middle-earth, will highlight sections dedicated to other races in Tolkien's fantasy world and their home regions.

Two film crews

The logistics for gathering such materials were complex. Much of the online video comes from two documentary film crews that haunted the set for months. New Line's senior vice president of worldwide interactive marketing and business development, Gordon Paddison, posted his own digital cameraman to New Zealand to gather three weeks of Web-only video footage. The New Line staff sifted through boxes of videotapes, eventually editing them to brief digital segments. Paddison estimates he sat through 40 to 50 hours of Rings-related video.

To create foreign-language versions of the site, New Line worked with overseas distributors to translate about 70 pages of text. Paddison and his three-person staff regularly get late-night calls from partners overseas about problems such as rendering the unique Lord of the Rings logo font into other languages. In one early setback, some distributors' workers accidentally threw out CD-ROMs containing graphics for their sites; future updates will be sent via e-mail.

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