Gamble of the Rings -

Look past the snide remarks Hollywood Confidential columnist Jeffrey Wells makes about Tolkien fandom to read some concerns about how AOL-Time Warner might respond in order to recoup the high costs New Line Cinema is racking up in producing and marketing Lord of the Rings.

Some are claiming that the total cost for New Line's Lord of the Rings trilogy is higher than the $270 million figure which has been reported and acknowledged by producers for several months. A trusted source is telling me $290 million; another is saying $300 million. Meaning that each film is costing in the vicinity of $95 to $100 million. A lot of debt, a helluva gamble.

Just because I personally couldn't care less about the Rings trilogy doesn't mean interest levels aren't high. They certainly seem to be among the faithful (geeks, pre-teens). When the first online preview of The Lord of the Rings trailer was made available earlier this month, a reported 1.7 million downloads happened with the first 24 hours. All the geek types I know are very keen on seeing it. You can feel the fervor.

When the first installment, which has been officially (and laboriously) titled Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, opens in December, New Line can probably count on massive opening numbers, and probably some kind of modest profit within the first five or six weeks

But if director Peter Jackson doesn't deliver big the first time out, and by this I mean pull in viewers beyond the core market and generate Star Wars-level enthusiasm, the franchise's drawing power will probably be less upon the arrival of the second installment, The Two Towers (due in December 2002) and, barring some kind of Empire Strikes Back-like resurgence, even less with the third, The Return of the King, when it opens in December 2003.

For what it's worth, I personally wish New Line the best. There's something admirable about rolling the dice on an unproven franchise of this size, and it would be nice to see this kind of chutzpah rewarded.

As most of you know, Elijah Wood plays Frodo Baggins, the lead character. Co-stars include Liv Tyler (Arwen), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Sean Bean (Boromir), and Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn).
The doubts I'm stirring here are mostly instinctual. I haven't done any extensive canvassing. And others believe that the Rings movies are close to a sure financial thing.

"I'd put it in the category of X-Men, Star Trek, and Star Wars," a veteran marketing analyst says. "This is not a small, miniscule cult audience. The Internet hits were staggering. The question is, will they cover their costs or make a decent profit? Keep in mind that the crappy cartoon movie based on Lord of the Rings that [Ralph] Bakshi did was an artistic failure but a commercial success. There's a huge swell of feeling out there for this franchise."

And the concerns that the success or failure of the first installment could affect the overall fortunes of the franchise? "The first Star Trek movie was a bomb, but did that doom the series? No."

I'm hearing something very sobering, however, about how the Rings project is affecting New Line's standing with its overlords at AOL-Time Warner. There is concern not only about cost, but about the strategy behind the overall production and how the various elements are being coordinated. The talk — and it may be only that, since I haven't done enough digging — is that New Line's stewardship hasn't been cost-effective enough.

You'd think that the cost of making one big movie that's intended to be divided into three releasable parts would cost less than the combined tab for three separately produced films — i.e., ones using the same story and committed to the same production values. It could be that each Rings movie would cost $150 million each if they were made separately, but $290 million or $300 million still sounds rich.

This may be a concern or not, but I'm told that concerns are afoot. Take this with a grain, but one result of these alleged Lord of the Rings murmurings is that AOL-Time Warner is considering an option of folding New Line into Warner Bros. as a kind of production and distribution subsidiary, and that they may be taking over the making and selling of the Lord of the Rings trilogy themselves so it gets handled more to their satisfaction.

One source confides that the absorption of New Line into Warner Bros. fold could happen within a year. A New Line spokesperson denied this and said these rumors were "completely garbage."

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