NewsWire: Marketing Middle Earth - National Post

Marketing Middle Earth
By Jay Stone
Ottawa Citizen

CANNES, France - The road from the Croisette to Middle Earth is about half an hour north on the A8. You cut through a lovely country lane, past a stone gateway, and up on the hill you see it: Château de Castelleras, the place where the fellowship of the ring meets the fellowship of the journalists.

The château was transformed yesterday with film sets shipped from New Zealand -- colourful tents, mock gargoyles and Viking-like boats -- creating a replica of the land of the Lord of the Rings. Cast members of the forthcoming Lord of the Rings film trilogy met with two busloads of journalists for the worldwide media launch.

Those lucky few with special press passes to the junket -- passes that drew curiosity even from battle- hardened workers at the Cannes festival -- felt as if they had been called to carry a magical ring into the fires of Mordor. Frodo Baggins himself never went through the security system it took to get to the château.

Another funny thing was that all 11 cast members who were on hand to talk to the press during a marathon five-hour bus ride / press conference / luncheon / love-in, all seemed to be like their characters. Liv Tyler, who plays the elf queen, Arwen, was pretty elfin. (Although she did say: "It's difficult to be elfin all the time. You're constantly poised and weird.") And Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf, was wizardly (although: "I'm 62 and Gandalf is 7,000 years old. I'm a bit young for the part.")

Middle Earth, it appears, has taken up full-time residence on the French Riviera, on a hill overlooking the burnt-umber and red-roofed country homes. It is an ideal place for it.

The package of Lord of the Rings events included a screening of 26 minutes of the first episode of the first film, viewed for the first time anywhere by anyone, according to New Line, the studio that made the $270-million trilogy. Even the actors saw the sequences for the first time this week. They said they were amazed at what they saw; as for the journalists, well, they all broke into applause at the end of the selected tidbits.

The crowd was made up of unabashed Lord of the Rings junkies, the kind of people who see 13 Days three times so they can see the Tolkien trailers.

But the film was, in truth, spectacular. The compilation of scenes included a six-minute introductory sequence in which a very tall Gandalf visits Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) at his home on the occasion of Bilbo's 111th birthday. Through the magic of director Peter Jackson and WETA special effects, Gandalf bumps his wizard's hat against the cave-side home where Bilbo -- a tiny creature -- lives. It is all wood and beams, a dream of an ancient England created by author J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1954 books upon which all this excitement is based.

The second excerpt was a 14-minute action sequence set in the Mines of Moria, a vaulted underground battleground where the members of the fellowship of the ring -- those hearty souls who must accompany young Frodo Baggins on his mission to destroy the powerful ring that is the focus of all evil, good and myth in the books -- must battle many forces of evil.

The fellowship includes Frodo (Elijah Wood), his loyal assistant Sam (Sean Astin), the mysterious half-elf warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) and others.

Their enemies are the orcs, frightening creatures with round heads and snarling teeth, as well as a giant cave troll and the Balrog, a 40-foot-tall winged demon.

All are rendered with frightening, computer-generated or prosthetic accuracy, and a hollow, thumping soundtrack had the Olympic theatre shaking.

After a magnificent battle sequence complete with swordplay, bowmanship and lots of running away, the companions must cross a collapsing bridge just ahead of the Balrog. The leaps across the widening chasm are heart-stopping.

The third part of the excerpt was an epilogue with bits of Episodes 2 and 3 of Lord of the Rings. They appear to be made up of the trailers that will hit theatres starting at the end of the month. The first episode of the movie will open on Dec. 19.

Mr. Jackson made all three films during a marathon 15-month shoot in New Zealand. He said even at that, it was difficult to get all of the Tolkien books on screen.

"The one reason it has not been made for 40 years (aside from a 1970s cartoon version), the key to it, is that we made three movies," Mr. Jackson told reporters yesterday. "The natural instinct Hollywood would have would be to compress it into one movie."

Mr. Jackson -- whose previous films include The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures -- said the one rule the filmmakers followed was to make a trilogy that will appeal to people who read the books 10 or 15 years ago and have a version of it in their mind's eye.

The scope of the project -- Episodes 2 and 3 will be released a year apart, and each of the movies has a cliffhanger ending, so you pretty well sign on for all three movies when you walk in to the first one -- is in no way dwarfed by the scope of the marketing and selling of the films.

The promotion is taken for granted, of course: The toys and the partnerships are coming, although Mr. Jackson noted the actors have approval over the depictions of their characters, and they are pretty pleased with their toys.

As one New Line staff member put it, "The film will not be far from people's consciousness, starting now."

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