NewsWire: Lord of the Rings Marketing Blitz is On - Reuters

by Steve James

NEW YORK(Reuters) - Gandalf the Wizard and Frodo the Hobbit invaded New York from Middle Earth Wednesday to kick-off a six-month countdown for the first Lord of the Rings movie.

New Line Cinema's booth was a popular stop at the Licensing International 2001 show, as buyers from around the world craned for a first look at the promotional tie-ins that will accompany the first screen version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

What they saw were action figures of the main characters and collectibles, such as busts and miniatures of battle axes and swords wielded by elves and orcs from Tolkien's classic fantasy stories of good versus evil.

The Fellowship of the Ring, starring Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian McKellen as Gandalf, won't be in theaters until Dec. 19, but industry insiders had a 25-minute sneak preview at the Cannes film festival last month and New Line's licensing partners saw the same clip in New York Tuesday night.

"Everyone finally realized that this is a reality now," said David Imhoff, New Line's vice president for licensing and merchandising. He said some of the approximately 70 promotional "partners" had been a little apprehensive as they signed up for rights to sell products based on the movie more than two years ago while filming was still going on in New Zealand.

But all nervousness disappeared two weeks ago when New Line announced its biggest promotional campaign ever -- with Burger King which will feature characters from the film in some 10,000 restaurants worldwide. Another big partner to sign on is Japanese video equipment maker JVC

CAMPAIGN BIGGER THAN AUSTIN POWERS

Imhoff wouldn't say how much the campaign was worth or what partners were paying for the rights to use the images of Bilbo Baggins and other characters, but it was more than for its previous biggest, the two Austin Powers movies.

He said New Line, a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner spent $300 million to make the movie and the two others in the trilogy -- The Two Towers and The Return of the King which were shot at the same time. The other two will be released a year and two years respectively after The Fellowship of the Ring.

"That was something unprecedented, making three films back-to-back," Imhoff told Reuters. "But some of our partners signed up for all three movies, and that shows commitment."

Asked how New Line decided on what kinds of products to license, Imhoff said "our aim was (for partners) to get immersed in the film, it was not traditional." That means no images of characters on lunch boxes.

For example, the busts of Ring characters were created by a partnership between Sideshow Inc. of Westlake Village, Calif. and New Zealand's Weta Workshop, which created the effects for the three films. Action figures are made by Toy Biz, a unit of Marvel Enterprises while Playmates Toys will market a line of building blocks and figures and Decipher is marketing Lord of the Rings trading card games.

"These are not tchotchkes (shoddy souvenirs)," said Imhoff. "Everything was about being true to (director) Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth. Tolkien created a fantasy genre, the fan base is so deep."

Although New Line has the film rights to the stories, Tolkien's estate has the publishing rights, and the movie could set off a surge in reading, said Imhoff.

The Lord of the Rings has sold some 50 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages. But already, with the movie buzz, book sales rose 400 percent in the past year, said Imhoff.

"And that's without marketing," he added.

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