By RICK LYMAN
HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 10 — At 12:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on Friday, the official Web site for the forthcoming film trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books is to be simultaneously reinaugurated around the world in 10 languages.
Making their first appearance on www.lordoftherings.net will be dozens of features, including video and audio clips, an interactive map of Middle Earth, chat rooms, screen savers, interviews with cast members, links to other Tolkien sites, and probably much more than most people care to know about how the director Peter Jackson and his crew members are creating Tolkien’s world of hobbits, elves, wizards, orcs, dwarfs and black riders.
But the people at New Line Cinema are not dealing with most people. They are dealing with Web-savvy, hobbit-obsessed fans of “The Lord of the Rings.” And there are millions of them out there.
In April, when New Line offered a trailer about the films on the previous movie Web site, there were 1.7 million downloads the first day and 6.6 million by the end of the first week, surpassing the download fever evoked by other films, including the 1.1 million downloads of the trailer for the most recent “Star Wars” film during its first day on the Web.
Anticipation has been fervid for the official Web site’s reintroduction and for the two-minute trilogy trailer that is to be shown in theaters for the first time on Friday at the beginning of New Line’s latest release, “13 Days.” Some 400 Web sites are dedicated to the movie trilogy and several hundred more focus on other Tolkien-related themes (www.25hobbits.com, for example, ranks Tolkien-related sites by their popularity).
For months, sites have been counting down to the Dec. 19 release of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first installment in the film series, and in recent days many sites have added a daily countdown to the reintroduction of the film trilogy’s Web site.
“This has taken 30 percent of my time for over a year, and the commitment of materials and resources has been massive,” said Gordon Paddison, New Line’s senior vice president for worldwide interactive marketing and business development, who is focused on building a relationship with Tolkien fans. “”Not until the movie comes out do we want to ask the audience for anything. Until then, it’s all about giving things to them.”
Since “The Blair Witch Project” streaked out of nowhere to hit status in the summer of 1999, with its success built partly on a fervent Internet fan base, Hollywood has been wondering how best to market movies on the Web. The challenge has not proved easy, and nothing has matched the viral power of the “Blair Witch” phenomenon.
When a movie is almost magically embraced by the Web — sometimes with the connivance of the distribution company — a strange relationship forms among the cybercommunity of fans, the filmmakers and the studio marketers. The online ferment includes nitpicking about casting choices, complaints about script changes and gossip across the globe about every nuance of the production. However, when everything clicks, a network of eager Internet evangelists evolves to promote and support the film.
Last summer “X-Men” was embraced. The forthcoming “Spider- Man” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” have been similarly charmed.
Movies with superhero, sword and sorcery, science fiction or teenage horror themes appeal to young and predominantly male moviegoers, the same demographic that spends the most time Web-surfing and often makes up the bulk of opening-weekend moviegoers.
“You need the product that matches the audience,” said Amir Malin, chairman of Artisan Entertainment, which bought “The Blair Witch Project” at the Sundance Film Festival. “I’d say that 95 percent of the films in the marketplace don’t really lend themselves to an Internet marketplace.”
For the last year many movie sites have trumpeted such nuggets as pirated photographs from the trilogy’s filming locations in New Zealand or gossip gleaned from newspaper interviews with the films’ cast and crew members.
Harry Knowles, the creator of the best-known of these Web movie sites, www.aint-it-cool-nws.com, flew to New Zealand to hang around the sets during the final days of shooting and to attend the wrap party. New Line, which is owned by Time-Warner, was rewarded with a multipart, near book-length series of gushing reports that Mr. Knowles filed on his site and that were linked to dozens of other movie and Tolkien sites.
Joe Nimziki, New Line’s president for theatrical marketing, said: “On the positive side, when you have a project like this that has generated so much interest on the Web, you know that you already have a built-in core audience.
“What you have to be careful of,” he said, “is making sure you don’t do anything that alienates your rabid core audience.”
The trilogy’s filmmakers decided to be as open as possible with the Tolkien Web sites, going so far as to adopt 40 of them, providing them a steady diet of images, sound clips and behind-the-scenes news.
“We decided very early on that, whatever bumps and headaches occurred during production, and they are inevitable in any film project, we would be open about them,” Mr. Nimziki said. “Total disclosure, we felt, would in the long run be a positive.”
These close relationships have helped the movie company squelch false rumors about the production before they made it onto the Internet, Mr. Paddison said. Just as important, they have helped the filmmakers understand what is most important to Tolkien fans and what sorts of departures from the books they would not tolerate.
When it was revealed that some Tolkien characters would not be in the films or that some would have expanded roles, there was an outcry from fans, many of whom see themselves as protecting the Tolkien canon against Hollywood exploitation.
Through their relationship with Web fans, filmmakers said they have demonstrated that the films will respect the richness, seriousness and epic scope of the books. That assurance, they said, will help sell the film.
And the excitement on the Web seems to be spreading to old media as well. Houghton Mifflin, one of the publishers of “The Lord of the Rings” and other Tolkien books in the United States, has seen sales of those books double in each of the last three years, with indications that the trend will only accelerate as the movie’s premiere approaches. “This matches the period of the building anticipation for the films, which we believe will only help to increase the book audience exponentially,” said Clay Harper, the Tolkien Projects director for the publisher.
Also tapping in to the Web constituency is Sony Pictures, which is making “Spider-Man” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” an animated film based on a popular computer-game series.”One of the things we have realized in the past couple of years is that the Internet audience is actually the same consumers as those moviegoers we get opening weekend,” said Dwight Caines, vice president for Internet marketing at Sony Pictures. “When these guys become evangelists for you, their demographic profile looks just like early- weekend frequent moviegoers, and that’s the best kind of evangelist to have.”
The producer Laura Ziskin, who is overseeing “Spider-Man,” said she understood New Line’s desire to build a relationship with Web fans of Tolkien, and she hopes to do the same for Spider-Man fans.
“We want to make them happy and keep them in the loop,” Ms. Ziskin said. “But ultimately, we are responsible for the movie. We are not looking for a Web-based focus group.”
Mr. Jackson, the director, who is best known for “Heavenly Creatures” (1994) and “The Frighteners” (1996), spent 15 months, until Dec. 22, shooting the live-action sequences for the Tolkien trilogy around his native New Zealand. Digital effects are being added now. Following the “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the release of “The Two Towers,” in December 2002, and the final installment, “The Return of the King,” in December 2003.
Many in Hollywood consider the “Lord of the Rings” project financially risky, particularly for a studio like New Line, which has had a rough time at the box office in recent months. New Line says the budget for the trilogy is $270 million, or $90 million per installment.
“It’s a very major thing for us,” said Mr. Nimziki. “But we decided, if you are going to gamble on a trilogy, this was a good one.”
Wizard-and-magic films have not always performed well at the box office, however, and marketing and distribution executives from several studios expressed wariness about the trilogy’s prospects.
“You know those 1.7 million people who downloaded the trailer that first day?” said one rival marketing executive. “I think that’s the whole audience for the movie.”
Bob Friedman, New Line’s co- chairman of worldwide marketing, said: “Our task is to expand interest in the films beyond the current core fan base on the Web. To be a success, we have to broaden the franchise.”
The filmmakers are wooing three audiences, Mr. Nimziki said. The first is the most fervent fan base, which they are courting online. The second is older moviegoers, in their 30’s and above, who may have read the books years ago and must now get reacquainted with them. The final group, younger than those in the second group, are also regular Web users and can be reached that way, as well as via what Mr. Nimziki called the “pass through,” in which parents or grandparents suddenly begin talking about Tolkien or buying them the books.
“I don’t think we could have made this movie 10 years ago,” Mr. Friedman said. “The proliferation of new media, in which I include cable television and especially the Internet, allows you to so specifically target audiences that without that I don’t think we could have effectively launched a franchise as big as this one.”
Visitors to the film trilogy’s revamped Web site will be greeted with a series of areas in which they can watch videos about the making of the film; click on a map of Middle Earth to learn how Hobbiton, home of the trilogy’s hobbit heroes, was built and filmed; and join chat groups and a cybercommunity of Tolkien fans. One thing they cannot do now is download the new trailer.
New Line is showing it to no one in advance of its premiere in theaters on Friday, hoping that Tolkien fans will swell the weekend grosses for “13 Days.” Part of the strategy, studio executives said, is to lure younger hobbit fans to a movie about the Cuban missile crisis that they otherwise might not have gone to see.
The trailer will become available online on Jan. 19, when a new section of the Web site opens in a partnership with Real Networks. Available then will be a library of video pieces expanding weekly until the movie’s release as well as the trailer. Other partnerships in the works include one with the American Film Institute to promote middle school, high school and college-level study of the Tolkien books, augmented with material from the films and the Web. A five-minute behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the films will hit the Web, probably in February.
What the site will not have, Mr. Nimziki said, is actual clips from the finished film. All materials on the site will be about how the film was made, the characters were designed and the sets were constructed, sometimes in excruciating detail. (One segment is about how crew members worked to make the hair on the hobbits’ oversize feet match the hair of the actors.) To see actual filmed scenes, moviegoers must go to theaters in December.
“At the end of the day, if it turns out to be `Star Wars,’ they’ll look like geniuses,” Mr. Malin of Artisan Entertainment said. “If it doesn’t, then they’ll be sitting there in a lot of trouble with their corporate parents.”