by Ian Nathan
Can The Lord of the Rings fail? Michael Lynne, co-chairman of New Line, the studio behind the movie trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic, was unfazed by the question. He put his chin forward, he smiled the sturdy smile of the Hollywood executive and simply replied: “Not working at all is not a contingency we have.”
Time will tell, of course, and given the advance reviews, all the weeping and gushing ringing over the Internet, confidence is understandable: people are talking Oscars and pooh-poohing Harry Potter (memories are short in the film world). Still, the risk is massive for the company: $270 million on the films, $180 million on the marketing and two sequels already filmed. On top of this the studio has had a tough time over the past two years, with flops such as the Warren Beatty movie Town and Country leading to a staff reduction of 20 per cent.
Industry insiders claim that a Rings flop could pull the company under. “The potential for Rings has been realised in the first movie,” Lynne’s co-chairman Bob Shaye told the Los Angeles Times. “But that doesn’t mean my hands aren’t sweating.”
It’s not simply a financial risk. New Line will lose serious face in front of its stern parent AOL Time Warner if its “big bet” is merely huge. It has to be a phenomenon. It has to be Star Wars or Harry Potter or E.T. In Hollywood parlance, it has to “break out.”
Such additional pressure — to what director Peter Jackson is at pains to emphasise is just a film — is down to hype, the fickle magic that can make a movie king or leave it to drown. Despite lots of negative publicity, Pearl Harbor became a massive fiscal hit but still carries the scent of failure.
From the moment it was announced, Rings has been swamped in hype. A movie of a book this beloved was never going to go unscrutinised. New Line has been determined to manage the expectation, craftily controlling the release of information, building up a frenzy of anticipation, while cannily preaching to the unconverted.
Central to its methods is the Internet. More than 400 Tolkien websites have boomed with spy accounts, illicit photos and rumour-mongering. New Line was savvy enough to win over the sites, feeding them tantalising snippets, courting the editors with visits to the set. The official website alone has garnered over 500 million hits to date.
New Line has spent a year sending its promotional team all over the globe building awareness, tying in with burger chains (pick up your cardboard elf crown with every Whopper!) and mobile phone companies. Standard procedure for any big movie release, but a situation exacerbated by the studio’s decision to go global with the release straight away: Rings opens worldwide on December 19 on an unprecedented 10,000 screens. And remember that the studio has got to hook that audience for three films, not just one.
“The commitment of the movie-going audience is needed for the first film,” says Rolf Mittwegg, head of worldwide distribution at New Line. “We need audiences to buy in for all three. The first two will end with cliffhangers intended to bring the audience in for the next one.”
It is unfair to deem this just brash commercialism. New Line has certainly bought into this project on an artistic level, but those AOL shareholders aren’t going to be mollified by decent reviews. Competitions, trailers, posters, interviews, premieres and a splendid launch in Cannes last May (to circumvent Harry Potter mania) have all been sewn into the mix. And check out the Frodo figurines and Gandalf playsets.
The use of reviews, too, has become a cunning ploy in film promotion. A few years back, marketers would decry the stuffy critics as superfluous. Things have changed. Posters are now often coated in deranged outpourings from reviewers (indeed, Columbia got themselves into serious hot water recently by making them up), guaranteeing our satisfaction like a royal seal. With Harry Potter, and now Rings, a new dimension has been discovered. Hold back the press screenings and let Newsweek’s David Ansen get the first peep. Then boom, it’s all over the Net and splashed in newspapers around the world.
Thankfully, both films were heartily praised by the critic. In the UK, they will not screen the film to critics until the day of the world premiere in London next Monday, creating a fever among the light-pen brigade to match the web-heads.
Hype is inextricable from modern film-making. The idea of “event movies” serves it up thick and suffocating. Would a film like Rings work without it? New Line is hardly going to risk that. It has successfully created a massive buzz for its movie, reaching out far beyond the Net geeks and Tolkienites gagging to see it. Television, newspapers and magazines have bought in wholesale — even Melvyn Bragg’s cultural haven The South Bank Show is doing a special.
As with Potter, Rings is inescapable. Do we even have a choice to abstain? Yet hype can also be fun. At least it acknowledges that movies are meant to be exciting. We want to cheer at trailers, gaze at posters and lap up the soundbites. Just don’t believe it till you see it.