The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywoodby Kristin Thompson
"Once in a lifetime." The phrase comes up over and over from the people who worked on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. The film's seventeen Oscars, record-setting earnings, huge fan base, and hundreds of ancillary products attest to its importance and to the fact that Rings is far more than a film. Its makers seized a crucial moment in Hollywood/i>/i>
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"Once in a lifetime." The phrase comes up over and over from the people who worked on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. The film's seventeen Oscars, record-setting earnings, huge fan base, and hundreds of ancillary products attest to its importance and to the fact that Rings is far more than a film. Its makers seized a crucial moment in Hollywoodthe special effects digital revolution plus the rise of "infotainment" and the Internetto satisfy the trilogy's fans while fostering a huge new international audience. The resulting franchise of franchises has earned billions of dollars to date with no end in sight. Kristin Thompson interviewed seventy-six people to examine the movie's scripting and design and the new technologies deployed to produce the films, video games, and DVDs. She demonstrates the impact Rings had on the companies that made it, on the fantasy genre, on New Zealand, and on independent cinema.
In fast-paced, compulsively readable prose, she affirms Jackson's Rings as one the most important films ever made.
"For any person interested in the role of franchise film making on modern Hollywood, The Frodo Franchise should be considered required reading."--Film International
"A lively and quick read that should appeal to scholars and fans alike."--Tolkien Studies
"It's always more satisfying to follow the art than the money, but in this comprehensive study you can do both."--Metro Newspapers
"Whether you are a film scholar, a student, or a Tolkien enthusiast, you will benefit from her [Thompson's] efforts."--Journal of Popular Culture
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Read an ExcerptThe Frodo Franchise The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood
By KRISTIN THOMPSON
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter One Prudent Aggression
I always got the impression that, as far as studios go, New Line definitely had a tradition of allowing the filmmaker to run with it. RICK PORRAS Coproducer, The Lord of the Rings
THE STORY HAS A CHARMING David-and-Goliath quality. A Hollywood studio entrusts hundreds of millions of dollars to an eccentric, largely unknown director from a distant country where film production barely exists. He undertakes to adapt a beloved classic book with a devoted cult following-a large cult, certainly, but hardly enough to ensure box-office success for such an expensive venture. The director refuses to leave the little country, instead building a world-class filmmaking infrastructure in his neighborhood. He shoots three long features simultaneously and creates the biggest box-office franchise in history. To top it off, despite being in the despised fantasy genre, the three parts of The Lord of the Rings win a total of seventeen Oscars.
These days, any expensive Hollywood feature that actually makes it to the screen relies on considerable luck and travels a circuitous path to completion. That said, Rings needed-and had-more lucky breaks than most, and its path was circuitous indeed. Peter Jackson has pointed out just how unlikely success might have seemed at the outset:
If you were entrusting $270 million to someone making three movies, you wouldn't choose me. You would not choose a little New Zealand digital effects company to do your digital effects, either. And you wouldn't choose Philippa Boyens, who's one of our co-writers, to write the screenplay, because she has never written a script before in her life [laughs]. I like the way that this project has, somehow, against all common sense, gotten itself made.
True in a way, but we should probably amend this to "against all apparent common sense." Hollywood studios do not make such important decisions on whims, and the executives at New Line Cinema and the many other companies that invested in and ultimately made large amounts of money on Rings had solid reasons for thinking that there was a decent chance of success.
Despite the high budget and his own lack of a track record, Jackson was able to keep a remarkable degree of control over the Rings project, partly by making the film far from New Line headquarters, partly by having sympathetic producers working with him, and partly by sheer stubbornness. (Ian McKellen described him as "a terrier" when it came to disputes with the studio.) The proof was also in the pudding. Even during the early design and shooting stages of production, Jackson and his team were able to show visiting New Line officials props, sets, costumes, and computer images that convincingly displayed the high quality of the work that was going into the films.
So it was common sense, although of a very high order, that brought Rings along its convoluted path from cult fantasy to major international franchise.
ZAENTZ AND ZAENTZ ABILITY
Projects to adapt Rings into a film began within a few years of the three volumes' original publication in 1954 and 1955. On 4 September 1957, Forrest J. Ackerman, then a literary agent, visited Tolkien and presented him with some sample pictures and a treatment for a proposed animated film based on the novel. Although Tolkien was impressed by the images, he heartily disliked the synopsis and in June of the following year wrote a lengthy critique of it ("[Morton Grady] Z[immerman] may think that he knows more about Balrogs than I do, but he cannot expect me to agree with him").
Yet Tolkien was pragmatic. For many years before the royalties for Rings started to appear, he had supplemented his modest professor's income by drudging at exam grading during the summer. Fearing that the royalties from the trilogy would decline, Tolkien was willing to talk terms: "[Publisher] Stanley U[nwin] and I have agreed on our policy: Art or Cash. Either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author's veto on objectionable features or alterations." Rayner Unwin soon succeeded his father as Tolkien's editor at Allen & Unwin. Inexperienced in coping with movie rights, the firm hired a Hollywood agent-who ultimately proved of little assistance. In 1959, Ackerman abandoned his project. During the previous year he had founded the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. As part of his subsequent role as the guru of horror fandom, he would also appear in cameo roles in numerous films, including Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992).
In 1967, two producers, Gabe Katzka and Sam Gelfman, set out to obtain the film rights to Rings, intending to make a feature for United Artists. Unwin writes that their inquiries started "a negotiation of nearly two years' duration that was eventually consummated in a fifty-page contract, the complexities and uncertainties of which have dogged the publishers and the author's estate ever since." In October 1969, the contract was finally signed, and "what seemed substantial sums of money" were paid. "Complexities and uncertainties" may refer to the fact that the contract granted the film rights in perpetuity, rather than the normal arrangement of a limited period of time. The lapse would prove crucial to Jackson's project.
During the two years of negotiations, Apple Films, the Beatles' production company, also became interested in adapting Rings, to star the Fab Four. Apple discovered that the rights to the novel were apparently soon to belong to United Artists. Given that the group's first two films, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), had been distributed in the United States by United Artists, a relatively straightforward arrangement for a Rings project seemed not impossible, and indeed the Hollywood Reporter stated that United Artists was in talks to involve the Beatles. Not surprisingly, Apple's inquiries to David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Michelangelo Antonioni failed to secure a director for the project, which went no further. Instead United Artists commissioned a script-not intended for the Beatles-from John Boorman, but that project also came to nothing. The rights sat with United Artists.
Producer Saul Zaentz, whose main source of income at the time was Fantasy Records, was also moving into film production in the 1970s. Fantasy Films' first significant release was One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), which won a Best Picture Academy Award. (Zaentz has also produced two other Best Picture winners: Amadeus in 1984 and The English Patient in 1996.) Zaentz acquired the film rights to Rings from United Artists in 1976. He also obtained from the Tolkien Estate the trademarks for the names of all the characters, places, and objects in the novels. According to Unwin, however, "The 1969 contract, a complicated and ambiguous document especially in its definition of merchandising rights, has been a perpetual source of trouble, and although efforts are spasmodically made to redefine areas under dispute in the light of the new technologies that are now evolving, the [Tolkien] Estate and Fantasy Films have tended to block each other's actions and have consequently exploited very few non-book rights." Zaentz set up Tolkien Enterprises in 1978; the company licenses "dramatizations, musicals, puppet performances, services and merchandise using the Tolkien trademarks."
Zaentz produced one film based on the Rings rights: Ralph Bakshi's animated J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1978), which covered the trilogy's first half. Its critical and commercial failure meant that the intended second part wasn't made. There matters concerning the film rights to Rings sat for nearly two decades. (Figure 2 provides an outline of the convoluted path Rings took before reaching the screen.)
About ten years after Bakshi's film appeared, a young filmmaker in New Zealand was struggling to make his first feature. Peter Jackson had been born in 1961 in the small town of Pukerua Bay, a short way up the western coast of New Zealand's North Island from the capital city of Wellington. Jackson's fascination with film had been fired at the age of nine, when he saw King Kong (1933) on television, and he began shooting his own version of Kong and other films on 8mm, using homemade models and prosthetics. Upon getting out of school in 1978, he was rejected for a job in the government's postproduction company, The Film Unit. Twenty years later he would buy The Film Unit and transform it into one of the world's most sophisticated postproduction facilities.
Jackson instead got a job as a photoengraver at a newspaper. On weekends he worked with friends on more 8mm films. In 1983 he bought a used 16mm camera and began a planned ten-minute short, Roast of the Day. The next year the success of Sam Raimi's microbudget film, The Evil Dead, convinced Jackson that it was possible to shoot a commercially successful horror film on 16mm, and the short quickly evolved into the feature-length Bad Taste. In 1986, Jackson applied to the government's funding body, the New Zealand Film Commission, for money to complete his project.
The Film Commission was understandably puzzled by the footage of Jackson's cheerfully gory tale of space aliens invading earth and slaughtering people to supply meat for fast-food restaurants-a puzzlement no doubt compounded by the fact that Bad Taste had been shot silent. The commission asked veteran film editor Jamie Selkirk for his opinion. Selkirk was a bit puzzled himself, but he saw signs of a good eye and distinct talent. He recommended that it be funded and ended up serving as editor for Bad Taste and nearly all of Jackson's subsequent films-culminating in a Best Editing Oscar for The Return of the King. Selkirk also became one of Jackson's business partners in building Weta Ltd., the special-effects company at the core of Wellington's growing filmmaking infrastructure.
Upon receiving NZ$30,000 from the Film Commission, Jackson quit his newspaper job and finished Bad Taste, which was released in 1988 and distributed in thirty territories internationally. He cemented his reputation as a director of eccentric, blood-drenched films with Meet the Feebles (1989), a perverse tale of Muppet-like creatures involved in the behind-the-scenes intrigues of a popular television program that lead to mass murder. His next feature, Braindead (1992; aka Dead Alive), was a comic zombie film with a notoriously sanguinary finale.
Jackson's tongue-in-cheek splatter films, screened at various horror and fantasy festivals, spawned a cult following. His next film, however, brought him a new audience. With partner Fran Walsh, he wrote Heavenly Creatures (1994), a psychological drama based on the true story of two teenagers who develop an obsessively close relationship and murder the mother of one of them when she threatens to separate them. The film was a critical success and played widely in art cinemas. It even earned an Oscar nomination for its script. Ultimately, though, it grossed only $3 million on a $5 million budget.
Although it was far from apparent at the time, Heavenly Creatures also created two factors that would enable Jackson to make Rings. First, the American distributor of Heavenly Creatures was Miramax, a prestigious art-film distribution company that would later acquire the rights for Rings from Zaentz and launch Jackson's production. Second, in 1993 Jackson had seen Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and realized that the future of special effects lay in computer-generated imagery (CGI). He and Walsh added some psychological-fantasy sequences to Heavenly Creatures, using the creation of these shots as the justification for acquiring Weta Ltd.'s first computer.
Also in 1993, Jackson and Walsh submitted a ghost story script for a proposed Tales from the Crypt film series, to be made by major directors like Robert Zemeckis. Instead, Zemeckis offered to produce The Frighteners for Universal, to be directed by Jackson, who persuaded Zemeckis to let him make the film in New Zealand. Weta's computing power rose from one computer to around fifty, and 570 effects shots were done for The Frighteners. (Jurassic Park, made two years earlier, had about fifty computer-generated shots.)
At the same time that he was making The Frighteners, Jackson codirected another project with his longtime friend Costa Botes (who would later film extensive candid footage of the making of Rings). A TV mockumentary called Forgotten Silver (1996), it purportedly told the story of Colin McKenzie, an overlooked New Zealand film pioneer. Forgotten Silver featured convincing "talking heads" interviews, simulated footage from McKenzie's silent films, and a framing story of Jackson's earnest search for the remains of the great man's work. Many viewers took Forgotten Silver for an actual documentary, and controversy erupted when the public learned that their patriotic fervor over a neglected national genius had been aroused for nothing. Apart from being a clever film, Forgotten Silver gave Jackson experience with directing two overlapping productions: "Jackson swore he'd never again make two films at the same time. 'Ultimately it proved to be good training,' he says with a grin."
The terms of the Heavenly Creatures distribution deal had left Miramax with a first-look option on Jackson's future projects. Any film property that he owned or controlled would have to be offered to the company, and if he didn't control the rights, Miramax would have to try and obtain them. When Zemeckis offered Jackson The Frighteners, Miramax had nothing for him to direct, so it agreed to a standard "suspend and extend" arrangement, whereby Miramax's first-look deal would be lengthened by the amount of time Jackson spent on The Frighteners.
By the autumn of 1995, the CGI work for The Frighteners was going so well that Jackson and his colleagues decided to seek another, even more effects-heavy, project. In late September or early October, Jackson asked his agent, Ken Kamins, to track down the film rights for Rings. Kamins quickly discovered that Zaentz owned them. Because of the first-look deal with Miramax, Jackson and Kamins contacted the firm's president, Harvey Weinstein. Jackson's initial pitch was to make The Hobbit first and then, if it was successful, to go on to Rings, filming it in two parts, back-to-back.
Weinstein was excited about the idea and revealed that, by a happy coincidence, he had recently come to Zaentz's rescue when his project to produce The English Patient had nearly fallen through. Twentieth Century Fox had been set to produce the film with Zaentz, but disputes over casting led it to pull the plug about five weeks before shooting was due to start. Miramax stepped in and financed the film. Apart from its six Oscars, including Best Picture, The English Patient was Zaentz's top-earning film, with a $228 million worldwide gross. Zaentz definitely owed Miramax a favor.
The problem was that, although Zaentz owned the production rights to The Hobbit, its distribution rights had somehow stayed with United Artists. For Rings, however, he had a full set of rights. By 1995, United Artists had merged with MGM to form MGM/UA. Weinstein approached the company about the rights, but since MGM/UA was up for sale, it was not about to let any of its assets go. (Sony's purchase of United Artists in 2004 further delayed any negotiations over The Hobbit's distribution rights.) In early 1996, Weinstein told Jackson that they should start with Rings rather than The Hobbit. Despite Zaentz's debt of gratitude to Weinstein, the negotiations dragged on for nearly a year.
Excerpted from The Frodo Franchise by KRISTIN THOMPSON Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
"For any person interested in the role of franchise film making on modern Hollywood, The Frodo Franchise should be considered required reading."Film
"A lively and quick read that should appeal to scholars and fans alike."Tolkien Studies
"It's always more satisfying to follow the art than the money, but in this comprehensive study you can do both."Metro Newspapers
"Whether you are a film scholar, a student, or a Tolkien enthusiast, you will benefit from her [Thompson's] efforts."Journal of Popular Culture
Meet the Author
Kristin Thompson is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her many books include Film Art: An
Introduction and Film History: An
Introduction (both with David Bordwell) and Storytelling in the New Hollywood.
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