NewsWire: A Franchise Fantasy – New York Times

by Nov 11, 2003Lord of the Rings (Movies)

A Franchise Fantasy
New York Times – November 9, 2003

My Precious

First-class passengers on Air New Zealand’s Friday afternoon flight from Wellington to Los Angeles may have seen a bleary-eyed, anxious-looking American and wondered, perhaps with some trepidation, what he was up to. Upon sliding into an aisle seat, the man slipped a videotape into a backpack, strapped the pack to his chest and draped an airline blanket over his torso, tucking the ends under his thighs for good measure before tightening the seat belt across his lap. Throughout the 14-hour flight, he frequently peered into the bundle on his chest, as if assuring himself that the tape was still there.

The man was Mark Ordesky, an executive at New Line Cinema, and the videotape he guarded contained working footage of the ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy. On more than a dozen trips from Wellington to Los Angeles to New York and back again, starting in 2000 and continuing throughout the films’ production, Ordesky played courier between the director, Peter Jackson, who was hunkered down at his New Zealand compound, and New Line’s co-chief executives, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne.

Before taking on J.R.R. Tolkien, New Line had been known mostly for making teen horror films like ”A Nightmare on Elm Street” and offbeat comedies like ”Hairspray” and ”House Party.” ”Rings” was an altogether different bet. New Line had put up $80 million and risked an additional $200 million of its international-distribution partners’ money to finance an astonishingly ambitious special-effects-laden three-part epic about hobbits. All of those involved, Ordesky not the least among them, realized the price of failure. If the first picture bombed on opening weekend, the whole trilogy would go down as one of the biggest fiascos in Hollywood history.

Ordesky’s part in preventing a debacle was to both protect the footage and act as a translator between his bosses and Jackson. ”I was so paranoid when I had the videotape,” he says now. His biggest fear was that he would lose the tape and that the film’s images would end up in a competitor’s hands or, worse, on the Internet. Upon arriving at Los Angeles International Airport around 9:30 a.m., a private car would be waiting to ferry him directly — no nap, no shower — to New Line’s office in Beverly Hills. Shaye would review the footage as Ordesky took notes to deliver to Jackson. He would then catch an early evening flight to New York, where Lynne is based, and the next morning show him the tape. By 6:45 p.m., Ordesky would be on another plane, headed back to New Zealand, arriving at Jackson’s production compound just two days after the journey began, notes and videotape in hand.

Much of Ordesky’s anxiety disappeared, of course, after the 2001 release of ”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” a huge hit that brought in more than $860 million at the box office worldwide. The sequel, ”The Two Towers,” surpassed the first film when it made its debut a year later, earning $921 million in worldwide receipts. Already there are predictions that the much anticipated final film, ”The Return of the King,” due in theaters Dec. 17, could earn $1 billion and is expected to be the front-runner in the best-picture race for this year’s Academy Awards.

There were certainly moments during the filming when New Line executives wondered if they had made the right bet. The costs, after all, were astronomical. Jackson created a virtual company town in Miramar, a district of Wellington. At the height of production, ”The Lord of the Rings” employed as many as 2,400 people — 400 toiling on special effects alone. Jackson’s workshop produced 48,000 swords, scabbards, axes and shields; 900 suits of armor; 300 handmade wigs and 200 molded-plastic orc masks. He even built a foundry to create 100 hand-forged and -inlaid metal weapons. No detail was insignificant. More than 250,000 silk leaves were applied by hand to just one tree in Hobbiton. Even the menu boggles the mind. One morning the crew consumed 1,460 eggs in a sitting. But by taking a huge risk on Jackson, New Line executives got something hard to come by in Hollywood: a bona fide cultural happening. Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a company that tracks box-office attendance, says, ”This put New Line on the map forever.”

An Unexpected Outcome

In June 1998, Peter Jackson’s idea of bringing Tolkien’s saga to the big screen was all but dead. Harvey Weinstein, Miramax’s co-founder, had secured the rights to the movies — at the time, Jackson planned to make two installments for the company. But Miramax is a division of the Walt Disney Company, and Weinstein could not get permission from Disney to make two films at the proposed $140 million budget. Weinstein was a great admirer of Jackson’s 1994 Academy Award-nominated ”Heavenly Creatures” but also a tough negotiator. He gave Jackson four weeks to come up with another studio to produce the movies. If Jackson failed, Weinstein said, he would hire his own director and make one film himself for less money.

With $50,000 of his own cash, Jackson created a 35-minute pitch tape to show prospective studios. Ken Kamins, Jackson’s longtime agent, sent the script to eight studios, but only two responded: the film division of Polygram and New Line. But in late July, around the same time Jackson planned to see New Line, Polygram dropped out (and its film division was closed not long after). ”We were essentially damaged goods,” says Jackson, taking a break from editing ”Return of the King” in mid-October. ”I have to be honest and say I didn’t think New Line would be interested.”

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