Saturday night at the adverts
by Andrew Pulver
Tuesday January 9, 2001
There’s an advert currently going out on Virgin radio encouraging listeners to go to the cinema this Friday. Nothing strange about that, except that it’s not a film that’s being advertised. It does urge you go to a film – Lost Souls, with Winona Ryder – but only because this is the first opportunity to see the trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy being shot back-to-back in New Zealand. The film will be released next Christmas. Such is the anticipation that the film’s distributor, Entertainment Films, is calling attention to its own marketing devices.
Of course, the principal motivation for any diehard Tolkien fan to make the effort to see the trailer is the chance – the first chance – to see scraps of actual footage on the big screen. The film’s website has been carrying bits and pieces edited together as a “preview” for internet fans since last April, but Friday marks the first time that cinemas will see anything of a project that will be filling the seats for the next three years.
This isn’t the first time that a trailer has had the power to hook film-goers on its own strengths. Back in 1998, George Lucas announced that a two-minute preview segment for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was to screen in US cinemas. Fans bought tickets in droves to catch it, then walked out before the start of the main feature. The trailer – which represented millions of dollars in lab costs and advertising time – was consequently dubbed “the nine-dollar trailer”.
Few movies, however, can command Star Wars‘ clout, and it may be presumptuous of Lord of the Rings to try. But if the commotion that has surrounded it ever since the announcement of production in August 1998 is anything to go by, there might be something in it.
First of all, the original book’s constituency has evolved into one of the most slavishly consumerist of our time: the comic-book-reading, Dungeons-and-Dragon-playing, internet-surfing fanboy. For the last decade or so, film-makers have grown proficient at separating this segment of the audience from its cash – via films like X-Men, the seven Star Trek movies, Mortal Kombat and, indeed, the upcoming Dungeons and Dragons adaptation. Internet fan sites are a natural option for this breed, and two high profile efforts – www.tolkien-movies.com and www.theonering.net – have been avidly disseminating production-related minutiae ever since. This is on top of the official website, set up by backers New Line Cinema. It’s no surprise, to be honest, that the Tolkien family are currently feeling besieged by Rings devotees, as they have recently complained.
Secondly, there’s the matter of self-generating momentum. Teaser trailers, screened well before release, are a well-established tactic by cinema marketers as they attempt to build up anticipation before the opening weekend. And as cinema distribution gets more and more sophisticated, involving higher than ever outlay, the actual tools of the trade are accruing ever more attention.
The £70m spend on Lord of the Rings will be easily matched by the marketing budget, which will involve a globally coordinated campaign of different kinds of trailers. Committing, as New Line has, to making three feature films at once, is a desperately ambitious undertaking, even more so for the cinematically unknown quantity that Tolkien is. Turning a sprawling literary fantasy into an event movie three times over will require considerable commercial acuity, and what we’re seeing now is the thin end of a wedge that will be with us until – if everything goes to plan – Christmas 2003.
For Lost Souls, the film which Entertainment is releasing on Friday, promoting the Ring preview is probably the best thing that could happen to it. It has already bombed in the US, and is likely to do the same here. With a bit of luck a few people might stick around after the real entertainment, and actually watch the movie.