When a studio spends $200 million on a movie trilogy, it has to reach a broad audience - not just hobbit fanciers. Anita Chabria finds out how New Line Cinema turned 'The Lord of the Rings' into an epic for all comersWhen New Line Cinema agreed to shoot all three installments of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings at one time, the studio's PR and marketing departments faced an epic challenge: To plan and implement a strategy that would not only promote a trilogy that many people had trouble visualizing, but also create a framework for promotion that could last until the final episode is released in 2003.
With a production price tag of nearly $200 million, a lot was riding on the success of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Its performance would set the tone for the sequels, and New Line's promotion gurus were determined to "position it as something big and important, without over-hyping it,
says Mary Donovan, who began PR efforts - budgeted in the $2.5 million-$3 million range - two years ago.
"Our strategy was to position it as the event film of 2001,
New Line wanted to reach out to new audiences unfamiliar with the Tolkien trilogy without "alienating anyone who held the books in high esteem,
says Christina Kounelias, who took over New Line's top film PR spot after Donovan moved to the studio's corporate communications division. The studio knew that for those unfamiliar with the books, there was the potential for the material to fall under the fantasy category - or worse, seem geeky.
"Early on, it was important to establish the pedigree of it,
admits Donovan, while still keeping it from appearing as "some old fusty novel from the 1950s,
The books' cult following created a built-in audience, but also came with a stigma that New Line sought to overcome by billing the first film as an adventure, romance, and complex tale of friendship that could appeal to many demographics. So the film needed to come across as both an important work that could appeal to mature audiences, and have a hip edge that would draw youthful dollars.
New Line even aimed to make it a film young boys would want to see over and over, much the way teenage girls saw Titanic several times. "The film plays on so many levels that it lends itself to repeat viewing," extols Kounelias. "It really cut across all sorts of demographics."
"We positioned it purposefully as an epic adventure because we thought that was the broadest possible appeal,
Kounelias says. New Line created a balance between drawing high-end media with the "important
angle, and keeping a low profile in the general press until there was strong material to show.
The studio also sought to make inroads into each target demographic by using various elements of the film - especially the diverse cast.
"It's not just a star vehicle. It's an ensemble cast,
Donovan points out. It presents challenges in that there are so many people to promote, that you have to be very strategic in who you're going to give to whom and why."
The studio also looked for "out of the box
ways to pitch the film, such as a feature for a travel magazine on the hobbit actors surfing in New Zealand, and appearances on MTV's TRL for Elijah Wood. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett appeared in fashion magazines, while Viggo Mortensen was granted heartthrob status for the coveted female demographic.
The studio also "went for the exoticism and escape angles,
"People hadn't seen these kinds of landscapes,
she says regarding the lush New Zealand terrain that provides a fantastical backdrop to the film's action. To highlight that aspect, the film was first covered by Vanity Fair, whose photographer was let onto the closed set for a pictorial spread.
The New York Times Magazine featured coverage soon thereafter, but then the studio pulled back until the Cannes Film Festival, where 25 minutes of footage was shown to the global press - eight months before the film's release.
Thirteen Oscar nominations - including Best Picture and Best Director - gave the film the "important
status New Line wanted. A $278 million domestic take - making it Variety's 14th all-time domestic grosser - gave the film "epic
"We had some very high-profile, strategic kinds of hits,
says Donovan of early publicity efforts. That included the cover of Entertainment Weekly's 2001 forecast issue, as well as a later five-cover collector's series.
TV Guide did four covers that could be put together as one large photo.
Virtually every entertainment media outlet of note clamored for access to the film's stars and information, and the full-swing Oscar push is having no trouble gaining media interest.
With the Oscars only days away, current efforts are focused on influencing Academy voters. But plans for the sequel, The Two Towers, are underway - the release date is December 18.
Donovan says that New Line is in the enviable position of being able to "piggyback on some of the press we're doing now,
but is also very cautious not to "inundate
the audience with too much, too soon. That means a slow build to The Two Towers, beginning with 2002 preview issues for entertainment magazines. New characters and plot lines will also make their way into press reports in the next few months, meaning names like Shelob and Eowyn will be rolling off movie-goers' tongues long before the film hits theaters.
Though New Line originally nixed the idea of tacking a trailer for The Two Towers onto the end of the first installment, rumor has it that a trailer may be added to The Fellowship of the Ring in the next few weeks to encourage second-time viewing. The home video release of the first film is slated for a few months before The Two Towers hits theaters.