It was ten years ago this weekend that director Peter Jackson took worldwide audiences on the long-awaited cinematic journey into Middle-earth when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in theatres on Wednesday, December 19, 2001.
One year from this weekend, Jackson will again take us on a quest back into Tolkien lore when the massively-anticipated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens worldwide on Friday, December 14, 2012.
This column begins the first of a two-part feature exclusively from Box Office Theory where I’ll be taking a look back at the history, accomplishments, and influence of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. (And, according to schedule, it happens to coincide with both the tenth anniversary of the trilogy and the upcoming release of the teaser trailer for The Hobbit on Dec. 21). The second part of the feature will shift the focus toward speculation about what lies ahead next year when the first of two Hobbit films comes our way. But more on that later…
It was in 1969 that author J.R.R. Tolkien sold the film, stage, and merchandising rights for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to United Artists for a mere $250,000 (or about $1.5 million adjusted for forty-two years of inflation). One might say that Tolkien himself was never particularly optimistic about a film version of his mythical stories being brought to cinematic life in a way that would do them justice.
In fact, he generally abhorred the notion of a major Hollywood production ever being made out of his books. Prior to the sale of the film rights, he had already fought off a proposal by Disney itself that would have butchered the novels and produced a film nigh unrecognizable from Tolkien’s work. It was largely due to the needs of his family at the time that he even decided to sell the film rights. He once remarked:
“Art or Cash: either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author’s veto on objectionable features or alterations.”
Combined with his predominant fears for the real world to be overrun by machine-driven societies (anchored by his experiences of serving in the First World War), many speculate whether Tolkien would have enjoyed the films director Peter Jackson eventually made out of the author’s historically influential work. The only fair thing to say is that perhaps even Tolkien himself couldn’t foresee the potential benefits of technology in his “distant” future. Alas, without it, there would be no movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Titanic, or The Lord of the Rings itself.
Following a 1978 animation/live action hybrid version of the epic novel, and additional years of the rights sitting on the back burner, the impossible became possible when the historical production of the films we know today began to take shape in 1995. Peter Jackson had just completed work on The Frighteners and thought, rather obviously, “why nobody else seemed to be doing anything about it [The Lord of the Rings].” The aforementioned Jurassic Park had just broken global box office records two years prior, and the technical advancements of that film played a role in Jackson’s decision to plan a fantasy film that would break from tradition and actually feel both “real” and “serious”.
By the end of the year, Jackson and partner Fran Walsh approached Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein in an effort to begin negotiations with Saul Zaentz (whom purchased the film rights from United Artists in 1976). Long story short: negotiations fell apart initially, it was discovered that United Artists actually still held distribution rights for The Hobbit, and Jackson decided to pursue a remake of King Kong with Universal. Location issues arose, forcing Jackson to shift his attention back toward Lord of the Rings in 1997 as the rights issue was eventually settled with support from Weinstein.
After various script treatments — one of which would have seen the entire story attempt to be told in a single two-hour film, as well as one proposal for a two-film production — Jackson continued to balk at the idea of not telling the story in the way he initially wanted, and the way it deserved: over three films, one to correspond with each book.
Arduous campaigning around the industry (perhaps most notably to Mark Ordesky of New Line Cinema) eventually led Jackson to gaining the creative control necessary to bring his cinematic vision of Tolkien’s own literary one to life. A trilogy budgeted at approximately $100 million per film would be produced, filmed entirely at once (unprecedented at the time, and still not replicated since), and released one year apart from each other.
Adding further context to the milestone this created was the fact that live-action fantasy had, at that point in time, been seen as a mostly failed genre for a number of years with successes few and far between. Aside from Steven Spielberg’s Hook ($119 million at the domestic box office in 1991), no straight-up fantasy film had ever grossed more than $57.3 million (Willow, in 1988) and most were either cult classics (The Neverending Story and Conan the Barbarian) at best or outright duds.
This was exemplified, almost in a twist of fate scenario, when Dungeons & Dragons bombed both critically and commercially in December of 2000 after considerable hype by fantasy fans, grossing a paltry $33 million worldwide on a budget of $45 million. Some even started to wonder — nay, fear — that a similar fate might befall this “Tolkien movie” that was getting made.
By Christmas 2000, production was well underway and New Line Cinema released the first teaser trailer for the trilogy…one that, for my money’s worth, still remains one of the best pieces of marketing and hype-generation I’ve ever seen for a major motion picture:
And thus, the first sign that these films just might actually prove they could be worth the effort had arrived. But fantasy fans had been burned too many times before, and mainstream audiences would only show up if the genre was turned completely over on its head and entirely redefined…