That means LOTR will serve as New Line's tent-pole flick for the next three years (The Two Towers and The Return of the King are scheduled for December 2002 and 2003, respectively). But studio execs shrug off suggestions that an underperforming franchise could sink them. For one thing, in a bold move, New Line demanded that foreign distributors commit to all three films, with fees up front. In March 2000, Jackson hosted more than 20 wary distributors representing the major players throughout Europe, Mexico, and Japan. The group read the scripts, chatted with the cast, and saw early footage. "Nobody's ever had to commit to three films--these are hefty numbers," says Rolf Mittweg, New Line President and COO, Worldwide Distribution and Marketing. "There were questions: If the first one doesn't work, what do we do with the second and the third? But they came to the conclusion that this was worth taking the risk." Mittweg estimates that these international presales cover almost two thirds of the films' budget. Plus, once the distributors recoup their base investment, New Line will share in the profit on a roughly 70-30 basis. (If there is a profit--if not, expect to hear a big global Gulp!)
Numerous toy, clothing, gift, and game makers are also shouldering the risk. Burger King will provide multimillion-dollar marketing support, as will JVC, which is releasing a tie-in LOTR DVD player. (JVC's massive Times Square billboard is just the tip of its estimated $40 million marketing campaign.) Like distributors, licensees had to sign on for all three films. New Line gets a cut once a certain number is reached. But if the toys stay on the shelves? "If the company you license to doesn't do an adequate job, that's their fault," says New Line exec VP Worldwide Licensing and Merchandising David Imhoff. "The studio's risk are the films."
Which are, at last, coming--the first clocks in at two and a half hours, with a PG-13 rating (bloodier, R-rated cuts will be featured on the DVD). As you read this, the faithful are gluing on Gandalf beards and securing hobbit ears for their final stand--in line for tickets, the true measure of a proud geek. Right now, a London venue is being transformed into a Rings-themed setting for the premiere party Dec. 10. Ten thousand screens across the world are reserved for Dec. 19. And the waiting, which has provided such good entertainment for the past three years, is about to be upstaged by an actual film. "I'll be very relieved when The Lord of the Rings becomes a movie, because it's always been this anticipated thing," Jackson says. "I think it deserves a chance to just be treated as a piece of cinema that you pay 10 bucks to see at your local theater. I don't want anything more than people saying, Well, that was okay." That's humility befitting a true Middle-earthling. Just don't let Hollywood hear you.