The summer movie season may be just about to kick off, but in Hollywood, thoughts are turning to Christmas.

Christmas 2003, that is.

As moviegoers settle into theaters for “Pearl Harbor” or “Tomb Raider,” many will be greeted by a trailer for one of the biggest movie gambles ever: Not one, not two, but three “Lord of the Rings” films, coming to theaters each December between now and 2003. Usually studios make Rocky I, say, before Rocky V. But all of these “Rings” have already been shot, put in the can and are ready for postproduction.

Why would anyone make three hugely expensive films at the same time, when they don’t even know if there’s an audience for one? Turns out the studio, New Line Cinema, isn’t alone in making this kind of bet. Before audiences ever lay eyes on WWF star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “The Mummy Returns,” Universal Pictures has already given him his own $60 million movie. Warner Bros., meanwhile, is currently making two sequels to “The Matrix,” its Keanu Reeves hit of 1999. And the producers of the Jackie Chan action movie “Rush Hour” are talking about “Rush Hour 3” — “RH2” doesn’t hit theaters until August.

But at a time when moviegoers’ tastes seem to change faster than Gwyneth’s boyfriends, the “Rings” movies are by far the riskiest. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classics, not only do the movies have a combined price tag of $270 million, they’ll also be going up against the first “Harry Potter” film. Both movies, plus Disney/Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” will be battling for the same family audience, in the theaters and also in the toy stores. Beyond that, we’re talking about a studio trying to create a franchise without any input from ticket buyers. Aren’t they supposed to have some influence?

Bob Shaye, New Line’s co-chairman, has an answer. He says the Tolkien books have a dedicated fan base, and besides, making three films at once is cheaper than making them individually.

Sequel Economics

Here’s how: When studios make sequels, the costs always go up for special effects, for sets and costumes and — especially — for actors. Mike Myers got just $3 million to star in New Line’s 1997 hit “Austin Powers.” For the 1999 sequel, “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” Mr. Myers’s price jumped to almost $10 million; he’s getting a whopping $25 million for “Austin 3.” And when Dino De Laurentiis tried to get Jodie Foster to return as Clarice Starling in “Hannibal” last year, he says she wanted $20 million (she is believed to have gotten about $1 million for “The Silence of the Lambs”). The producer hired the much less expensive Julianne Moore instead.

For the “Rings” movies, New Line also had to build just one enormous Middle-earth set (in New Zealand), not three. And it had to pay the fees and salaries of all the technical crew just once, before anyone’s won an Oscar and before it’s a blockbuster, when the studio had the most leverage. The other company co-chairman, Michael Lynne, says the studio estimated it might have cost almost twice as much to make the “Rings” movies individually.

Then there’s the lesson in sequel reality that New Line got from “The Mask,” the 1994 blockbuster starring Jim Carrey as a bank clerk turned super-hero. When the studio wanted to make a sequel to it, Mr. Carrey balked, not only wanting more money than New Line was willing to pay, but also not sure he wanted to revisit the character. The result: A potentially big hit never got made.

In the case of the “Rings” movies, Mr. Lynne also insists the studio has limited its financial risk by selling off nearly all the foreign rights and driving some hard bargains on merchandising. He says New Line is on the hook for only about $60 million of the films’ $270 million cost. (Others say the number is more like $90 million.)

Still, if the first “Rings” film bombs, the studio — which was founded as a niche player making movies on the cheap — could be left with two very expensive sequels that nobody wants to see. That’s hardly inconceivable, given that for every “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park” out there, there’s an equally expensive bomb that studios once claimed could be a franchise movie. Remember “G.I. Jane,” “Last Action Hero” and “Howard the Duck”? But, says Mr. Shaye, New Line is investing in an event, and “one of the very few that you’d decide was worth it.” Still, he concedes, “anything could happen. I’m sitting here crossing my fingers.”

‘Ishtar’ Again?

But why worry about the future when the present is even scarier? This weekend, New Line finally opens its troubled Warren Beatty comedy, “Town & Country,” the most fabled runaway production in recent memory and a film that’s already being compared with legendary disasters like Mr. Beatty’s “Ishtar.”

‘Town & Country’ Publicity Proves an Awkward Act

Originally slated to open in April 1999, the movie has had its release date changed 13 times. Initially given the green light at $55 million, industry executives say the film ended up costing closer to $85 million due to what Mr. Shaye calls “logistic” issues.

That’s a pretty frightening number given the film’s cast. Besides Mr. Beatty, it has Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, all of them over 50 and none of them with great appeal for the core young moviegoing audience these days. Plus, “Town & Country” arrives with the baggage of a long and tortured backstage drama (shoots, reshoots, and then more reshoots) well known among the public. The main problem: The movie started production without a finished script.

Mr. Shaye says despite its troubles, the movie is “sassy and funny and definitely worth your nine bucks.” That may or may not be true, but, most incredibly, he adds, New Line isn’t going to incur huge losses on the film the way the studio did with last year’s “Little Nicky.” “I think we’re going to get out in one piece.”

Whatever happens, the studio, part of AOL Time Warner , recently announced that it was going back to making fewer — and cheaper — movies.