Buzz greets ‘Ring’ as New Line begins blitz

New Line Cinema breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday as the Internet went on overload with positive buzz for “The Lord of the Rings” after an exhibitor screening this week, which also got thumbs up from theater owners.

“We’ve had our fingers crossed for two years,” said New Line distribution prexy David Tuckerman. “(The exhibitors) are as happy with the film as we are.”

This is great news for a movie that, until now, has to be considered an underdog — despite the fact that it’s a $270 million, star-laden project based on an all-time bestseller with a rabid global following.

But that’s the perception of New Line’s “Rings” trilogy in the wake of extraordinary promotional hoopla and record-breaking B.O. for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” from sister company Warner Bros.

The worldwide launch Dec. 19 of the trilogy’s first installment, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” will be an acid test of New Line’s ability to pull its weight within the AOL Time Warner empire — and to justify its continued existence as a quasi-independent unit.

However, the mega-project still faces numerous trials on its quest for mega-success.

New Line has skedded a day-and-date release (except Japan and Italy) overseas via a network of independent distribs, each with its own strengths and vulnerabilities. This is a formula that’s been used more with action films than “event” pictures, so it’s uncharted territory for all involved.

While it has sold more than 100 million copies, “Rings” has a demographic appeal that’s broader and older than that of “Harry,” meaning it will take a lot of education to make the setting and characters familiar to the core youth audience.

New Line has embarked on this project of unprecedented size and ambition at the exact moment that the company itself is at its most vulnerable. NL has released more than its share of flops in recent years, and AOL is not likely to be impressed by anything less than a blockbuster.
While both “Harry” and “Rings” are both massive projects sprung from the same corporate parent, there is a world of difference between them — for starters, they are from the respective directors of “Home Alone” and “Heavenly Creatures.”

“Harry” is the engine of a vast merchandising empire, intended to embody the vision of the book’s author J.K. Rowling as literally as possible.

“Rings,” by contrast, is pitched as the work of a visionary filmmaker, the end-product of more than six years of obsession by Peter Jackson.

On a business level, Warners’ decision to greenlight the first installment of the “Harry Potter” franchise was made after the AOL-TW merger in January 2000, but the conglom inherited New Line’s greenlight of “Rings.”

And while “Harry” is AOL-TW’s baby worldwide, New Line president and chief operating officer of worldwide distribution and marketing Rolf Mittweg paid for 65% of “Rings” through foreign pre-sales. That means the parent has much less risk, but also less upside.

Still, AOL-TW is putting its synergistic muscle to use: The trailer for “Fellowship” ran at the end of series “Angel” on the WB, AOL is sporting the brand on everything from chat rooms to sweepstakes, and Warner Bros. Records will release the soundtrack.

It won’t fail for any lack of passion or money from New Line and its foreign partners. While New Line would not confirm the P&A spend on “Fellowship,” New Line domestic marketing prexy Russell Schwartz said it was on the scale of other major holiday films such as “Harry Potter” and “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Tie-ins abound

In addition to aiding the bottom line, New Line sees tie-ins as a good way to introduce the characters to an audience beyond the “true believers,” as hardcore Tolkien fanatics are known.

“Rings” is attached to more than 40 licensed products, including videogames, toys, collectibles, trading cards, even swords. The partnerships extend to tie-ins with Burger King, JVC, Barnes & Noble and General Mills.

“You have to practice prudent aggression,” Schwartz says — an approach that also extends to Mittweg’s international distribution strategy.

In late 1999, Mittweg convinced 25 distributors that in order to have a blockbuster, they would have to pony up some $160 million — in advance. Now Mittweg is coordinating his merry band of distributors to create a worldwide day-and-date release.

For all their logistical challenges, foreign indies may be New Line’s secret weapon. The marketing and distribution of “Rings” is more akin to a guerrilla campaign fought by a loose network of local tribes with an unrivaled knowledge of the terrain — and a hell of a lot more at personal stake than Warners’ colonial officers.

“I think we have the best companies out there,” Mittweg says. “They will do everything possible not to pale against the big (distributors).”

Powerful locals

In some countries, such as Italy, with Medusa, the films’ local distrib is more powerful than any major. In Australia, “Rings” distrib Village Roadshow also releases Warners pics.

“It has involved three times as much work as any other film we’ve released” says Metropolitan’s Victor Hadida. The Gallic distrib has committed $5 million on P&A, twice as much as the company spent on its B.O. smash “Brotherhood of the Wolf.”

New Line also gets a dose of synergy via Warner Bros. Intl., which is releasing “Ring” in Latin America, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and Russia.

Early indications are good, with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers rating the pic as the best of the year, and Swedes shivering in line for five days to get advance tickets, but New Line won’t know for almost another month if the underdog will come out on top.

“You can’t worry about what they’re going to do to you,” Schwartz says. “Our people are hungrier, they have a lot to prove, and they have to find a way to make this work.”

After all, Frodo Baggins is the ultimate underdog, but he triumphs in the end. New Line is hoping to follow in his hobbit footsteps.

(Don Groves in Sydney, John Hopewell in Madrid, Alison James in Paris, Ed Meza in Berlin and David Rooney in Rome contributed to this report. )