The Lord Of The Rings
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson, New Line/Wingnut, New Zealand/USA, 2001, 178 mins.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson, New Line/Wingnut, New Zealand/USA, 2002, 179 mins.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson, New Line/Wingnut, New Zealand/USA, 2003, 201 mins.
Based on the best-selling novel of the twentieth century, the first major blockbuster of the twenty-first could base its innovations on a significant preexisting fan base. The trilogy format, already opened up as a possibility by the highly successful 1999 release of The Matrix, differed from the better established "franchise" model of comic-book superhero and horror cycles in the 1980s and 1990s by promising to tell a complete narrative, rather than an open-ended series of discrete tales. Though large, the production budget was comparable to similarly ambitious block-buster films of the period. The risk of spending such budgets on fantasy, a genre notoriously difficult to sell to mass audiences, was spread across the fame of the original "property," J. R. R. Tolkien's novel, the use of overseas labor, and an innovative marketing campaign.
The Lord of the Rings, though frequently marketed as a triumph of the New Zealand film industry, is an example of a "runaway" production—that is, a Hollywood project filmed in a foreign territory to benefit not only from location scenery but from tax breaks offered by national governments to entice high-spending studio productions, cheaper labor costs than the highly unionized U.S. industry, and flexible working arrangements often unavailable in the United States. Unusually for a big-budget production, the film employed relatively unknown actors at cheaper rates, concentrating spending instead on props, stunts, locations, and digital effects. Without a star, the film then needed to be sold on its look and its story. (The 1977 block-buster Star Wars is a comparable example.)
During the 1990s, a low-budget student film achieved significant box-office success through judicious use of word-of-mouth advertising on the then-new Worldwide Web. The marketing of The Lord of the Rings, while also using the familiar channels for preselling blockbusters, used carefully leaked and later carefully timed releases of teasers, interviews, backstage footage, trailers, stills, and production details to fan sites, even inviting fan Webmasters to attend significant film festivals and to report on them. In contrast to the Disney Company, which had set lawyers onto fans running Harry Potter sites, New Line, the AOL–Time-Warner branch company responsible for the film, used the fans as a medium for publicity before, during, and after the release of the films.
The trilogy extended and systematized a number of developments in the blockbuster film that may now be referred to as event movies. The theatrical release of the film is the trigger for a raft of related products including books, toys, computer games, soundtrack albums, and, very significantly, DVD release. Unusually, The Lord of the Rings could not benefit from the lucrative market in "product placement" (the sale of screen time within the film to automobile, computer, hotel and food companies, among others). Instead it capitalized on the very authenticity of a fantastic world without commercial products. The international touring exhibition of props from the films helped build this aura of authenticity. The planning and filming of substantial extra scenes so that the theatrical release of the film could be supplemented with up to an hour of extra storytime on the extended DVD release allowed an innovative release pattern for the films stretching over a five-to six-year period. This in turn required a loyal fan base, whose interest could be maintained over the extended period of the release strategy.
The films' budget also required that the movies, like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), should be especially palatable to East Asian audiences. Action sequences quoting both Hong Kong fight films and Japanese anime graphic style have become key components in large-budget films destined for a cosmopolitan marketplace. Cinema theory now needs to undertake explorations of such global cultural phenomena, their relationship with both the United States and the country of production, and the future status of cultural specificity in the global circulation of audiovisual materials.