Ring Masters

Top webmasters have been similarly wooed, and the studio's also not above slipping them the occasional scoop. "I was the first one outside of New Line and Peter Jackson and Liv Tyler to know she was cast," says TheOneRing[Registered Trademark].net webmaster Mike Regina.

Quid pro quo, of course. When more than an hour of raw LOTR footage popped up for sale on the Internet, it was a fan who rang the police. The operation led to three arrests (the guilty parties turned out to be crew members) and the return of the footage. "We took a quick look at it," admits a police source. "Just a quality check, of course. It was pretty stunning." And when New Line complained to Regina about his sneak peek at CGI ghoulie Gollum, the image was promptly whisked away. "They said: [F/X supervisor] Richard Taylor is really, really saddened you put that up--could you think about taking it down?" Regina says. "It's one thing if the suits in Los Angeles [threaten] to sue you. But if you hear the guys in the trenches are saddened, it really gets to you."

Back in Wellington, New Zealand, the minister of Lord of the Rings is in Parliament counting down the days to Dec. 19. Disappointingly, his corner office bears no resemblance to a hobbit hole. Nor does Hon. Pete Hodgson, a dapper, silver-haired man, scuttle about Bilbo-like, offering tea or pipe-weed (his assistant does make a mean cup of joe, however). No, it turns out that despite the quaint moniker, Hodgson's job is dead serious. Between work on genetic-engineering guidelines and global climate change, Hodgson is charged with using the attention-grabbing LOTR trilogy to raise his country's profile as a place to spend money and do business. "The message is, Dear old sleepy, down-in-the-bottom-of-the-left-hand-corner-of-the-Pacific New Zealand is surprisingly on to it," he says. "This country has an image to do with sheep and mountains and a reality that's very different."

New Zealand, in addition to its beneficial exchange rate, gave a passel of tax incentives for LOTR. Now the country's ready for some return on investment. Already its trade arm has distributed thousands of maps titled New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth to attract more filmmakers. Hodgson's office is readying a massive PR campaign tied to the movie, emphasizing New Zealand's attributes, from landscape to technology. The anticipation--and pressure--is tremendous. Of course, New Zealand has less at risk than other parties. As one Kiwi industryite put it: "New Zealand was here before The Lord of the Rings, and it will be here after. But New Line? I don't know. It's a huge risk they're taking--it's beyond gutsy."

Indeed, New Line is in no position for a flop. A string of stinkers, from Adam Sandler's $80 million bomb Little Nicky (gross: $39.5 million) to the rewrite-and-reshoot-and-rewrite debacle of the $80 million-plus budget-busting Town & Country (gross: $6.7 million), has rattled the House That Freddy Krueger Built and Austin Powers Refurbished. Last January, the new merger of AOL and Time Warner (which also owns EW) triggered cost cutting at New Line, which shed around 100 employees. Hotshot production chief Michael De Luca was ousted (he's now at rival DreamWorks). The studio's new marching orders call for a moratorium on big budgets, with most films hovering below the $30 million mark.

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