New Line Gambles on Becoming Lord of the ‘Rings’


New Line Cinema has committed upward of $130 million to make the most ambitious and costly film project in its history, a trilogy of films based on “The Lord of the Rings,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series of fantasy novels. The three films will be shot simultaneously over the course of a year by Peter Jackson, a New Zealand film director best known for “Heavenly Creatures,” the 1994 Kate Winslet-starring thriller, and “The Frighteners,” a 1996 special-effects comedy with Michael J. Fox.

Jackson, who begins shooting the movies early next year in New Zealand, hopes to have the first installment ready for a Christmas 2000 release, with subsequent films tentatively slated for summer and Christmas 2001. The films mark a rare cooperative venture between two rival companies, New Line and Miramax Films, which had recently obtained the rights to the books from producer Saul Zaentz.

“I’ve been a fan of the books since I first read them when I was an 18-year-old apprentice photo engraver on a 14-hour train ride to Auckland,” recalls Jackson, who has been working on the project’s script and visual design for the past two years. “It’s a commercial spectacle, full of wonderful visual excitement. But what makes the books special is the language and the great characters. The challenge is to capture the vividness of it all--to take our cameras into Tolkien’s world and make it feel as real as the world he describes in the books.”


Tolkien’s trilogy, first published in the mid-1950s, was intended as a sequel to “The Hobbit,” the Oxford University professor’s first literary success. The novels were set in the Third Age of Middle-earth, an invented prehistory era populated with hobbits, elves, trolls, orcs and men. The books’ good-versus-evil struggle focuses on Frodo Baggins, a young hobbit who embarks on a harrowing quest across Middle-earth, hoping to destroy the Magic Ring of Invisibility before it falls into the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron, a sinister tyrant bent on enslaving humanity.

The books’ vivid imagery and classic themes, especially those pitting nature against machines, made them instant counterculture favorites when the trilogy became widely available in America in the late 1960s. The books have sold more than 50 million copies and have been translated into 25 languages. Their enduring popularity is especially evident on the Internet, which is populated by innumerable “Rings” Web sites devoted to maps, mythology and music of Middle-earth, as well as Tolkien Society sites based in dozens of countries.

The “Rings” trilogy has often been cited as an early influence on George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series. It’s a comparison happily embraced by New Line, which sees the project as a potential “Star Wars”-style franchise for the studio, which has enjoyed success in the past with several low-budget film series, most notably “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Until now, New Line’s most expensive film had been “Lost in Space,” released earlier this year with a budget of roughly $85 million.

“I’m a gambler, like everyone else in the film business, but this is a project that could capture the imagination of a global audience,” says New Line Cinema Chairman Robert Shaye. “As literature, ‘Lord of the Rings’ has emotion and excitement--it has soul. It also has the total accessibility that gives it appeal for youngsters, families and a dating crowd. And we think we can take a great book and translate it into film, where people can literally feel it and hear it.”

For years, the film rights to the trilogy had been owned by Zaentz, the three-time Oscar-winning producer of such films as “The English Patient” and “Amadeus.” Zaentz, who will serve as executive producer of the new films, first produced an abbreviated animated version of the books in 1978 with director Ralph Bakshi.

When Jackson was making “The Frighteners,” he reread the trilogy and became interested in the story’s film potential, persuaded that the many advances in visual-effects technology would make it a viable commercial proposition. He took the idea to Miramax Films, where Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein agreed to pursue the project. Although Zaentz had refused numerous offers in the past, he made a deal with Weinstein, who made “The English Patient” after its original financing had fallen through.


The films’ extensive visual effects will be handled by Weta Digital, Jackson’s special-effects firm, which did visual effects for “The Frighteners” and many of the worm-hole effects in “Contact,” Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 extraterrestrial fantasy. For the past year, Jackson and his longtime production partner, Fran Walsh, have been writing a 300-page script, employing a staff of 50 to construct models, miniature sets and computer programs that will serve as blueprints for the project.

“This is really the first time you could visualize Tolkien’s imagination on film,” says Jackson. “The technology has really only existed in the past two or three years. We’re writing our own software codes that will allow us to animate creatures in a realistic way and show battles on an incredible scale. The technological boundaries of film are expanding at a faster rate than any time since the pioneer days of cinema.”


However, in recent weeks, it became evident that Miramax, while enthusiastic, was not willing to make three separate films. “They wanted to stick with one movie, and I wasn’t comfortable with that,” explains Jackson, who says their parting was amicable. Miramax co-heads Harvey and Bob Weinstein retain an executive producer credit.

Miramax gave Jackson a three-week window to find another backer for the project. He immediately went to New Line, where he’d worked early in his career and had a long-standing relationship with Fine Line Features President Mark Ordesky and New Line Productions President Mike De Luca.

“Bob Shaye signed my first paycheck,” Jackson says. “When I first came to Hollywood, I slept on Mark’s couch and got hired to write a [never-produced] Freddy Krueger film. Everyone there is a fan of the books, so I feel comfortable with them.”

If the movies are successful, it would be a bonanza for New Line, which also acquired rights to “The Hobbit” as well as worldwide merchandising rights to consumer products based on the films. But the project looms as an enormous financial risk. Although Jackson is a critical favorite, he has never directed a big-budget hit, and his most recent film, “The Frighteners,” was a box-office dud. Moreover, New Line is taking a huge gamble by making all three films at once. If the first one fails, the studio has little hope of salvaging its investment with subsequent films.


“Having seen Peter’s script and demonstration reel, we believe he has the ideas and the technology to make this a quantum leap over the fantasy tales of 10 or 15 years ago,” says Shaye. “If the first film is a relative flop, you can’t guarantee it would be a winning proposition. But we did a lot of calculating in our heads, and we still see a good risk-to-reward scenario.”

On the Internet, fans are already casting Sean Connery in the role of the wizard, Gandalf, one of the key characters in the trilogy. But Jackson insists he hasn’t spoken to Connery or pursued other casting possibilities. The main characters will be played by actors, while most Middle-earth creatures, castles and cities will be generated through visual effects. Jackson has also been working with two prominent Tolkien artists, Alan Lee and John Howe, who are illustrating design elements for the production.

Jackson and several business partners own a special effects firm and studio space in New Zealand. “When you’re talking about films of this scope, with as many as 1,200 visual effects shots, it’s a lot more economical to do the project in New Zealand,” says Ken Kamins, Jackson’s ICM agent, who helped put together the deal. “You not only create a potential franchise, but at a tremendous value for your money.”

Until now, fantasy films have largely eluded the grasp of most filmmakers. Bakshi’s earlier “Rings” was a flop, as was David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of “Dune.” But Jackson doesn’t sound intimidated by predecessors’ failures.

“It’s true that fantasy is the one cinematic genre that’s never been done especially well,” he says. “After 100 years of cinema, there’s not a lot of new ground for storytelling. We can all point to great musicals or horror films. But no one’s really nailed fantasy. So that’s the challenge--I want to see if I can pull it off.”