By 1996, Jackson swung enough clout to direct Robert Zemeckis' The Frighteners. The Michael J. Fox vehicle grossed a mere $17 million, but Jackson's CGI effects made some powerful jaws drop. Just as crucial to winning Jackson a shot at Tolkien was his creepy critics' favorite Heavenly Creatures (1994). Based on the true story of two matricidal New Zealand schoolgirls, the film launched Kate Winslet's career. More importantly, it sealed a first-look alliance between the director and Miramax, and won the approval of producer Saul Zaentz, who owned the rights to LOTR. "When you saw Heavenly Creatures, you knew he was a director," says the 80-year-old Zaentz. "Even now you get goose bumps."
Having an admirer in Zaentz was key: The producer of Best Picture Oscar winners in three different decades (1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1984's Amadeus, and 1996's The English Patient) had been scorched by LOTR once, when he and director Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) conceived a two-part animated version in 1978. The first installment was greeted with such love-hate divisiveness that a second was never attempted. "Maybe we didn't do as good a job as we should have," Zaentz admits. "But we went in with the right intentions." For the next two decades, Zaentz spurned all suitors. (In 1996, his Tolkien Enterprises even sued a Long Island man who used Gandalf the Wizard Clown as his stage moniker--a battle that recently ended with an undisclosed settlement that allows the sobriquet's continued use.)
So 'twas with much pomp and circumstance that Miramax announced in January 1997 that it had secured the LOTR rights on behalf of Jackson. Planned as a two-parter, the production then stalled for more than a year amid rumors that Miramax couldn't get the budget okayed by parent Disney. "Miramax asked us to abandon the idea of two films and compress it into one as their way of dealing with the budget," Jackson says. "But you'd be losing so many characters and so many events, anybody who read the book would have a natural disappointment."
One company's castoff is another's cash cow, or so New Line hoped. Hot off franchise launchers like Austin Powers and the critically lauded Boogie Nights, the studio was in a daring mood. And Jackson had a friend on the inside: Mark Ordesky, head of the studio's indie division Fine Line. Nearly 10 years earlier, Ordesky, then a fledgling story editor, had imported Jackson for his first Hollywood gig--penning a Nightmare on Elm Street installment. When Jackson's L.A. budget ran out, he crashed on his boss' couch. "I had a ratty little apartment a few blocks from New Line," Ordesky says. "We played Risk and did other things that geeks like us do." (Alas, Jackson's Nightmare script, titled Dream Lover, never got made.)
So in August 1998, it was Ordesky who ushered Jackson and his wife/collaborator, Fran Walsh, into a meeting with then New Line chairman and CEO Robert Shaye. After Jackson's 45-minute presentation, Shaye had one question: Why was he pitching two films if there were three books? "It was one of those unbelievable moments," says Jackson. "Three films, of course, was our dream." That month, New Line sealed the deal, reimbursing Miramax a reported $10 million for research and development costs, and leaving Miramax and Zaentz with a nice chunk of the back end. The frightful task of casting was next.