A Fan's Tale: Following the LOTR Project

by Celedor
I can't believe it's nearly August of 2003, and we're mere months away from ROTK. Where has the time gone?

Five or six years ago I would fantasize about what it would be like to be at the cinema in December of 2003 shedding tears and watching the trilogy come to a close. And it seemed like the wait would be eternal.

You can actually say that I started following the movie project in the late 80's. After reading the books several times, I became absolutely convinced that one day the film industry would be rocked by LOTR and Tolkien fanaticism would skyrocket to levels never seen before. There would be merchandise and conventions and magazines, and everyone would be talking about Frodo, Gollum, and Aragorn. I told people this. Frequently. They thought I was crazy. They were probably right.

At that time I did some research to find out who owned the LOTR film rights, and that led me to Saul Zaentz. I began to follow his career. (Zaentz produced "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", "Amadeus", "The English Patient", and "The Mosquito Coast" - he has won multiple Oscars.)

Over the years, Saul heard many pitches for the rights, but it wasn't until 1996 that someone's idea intrigued him. And that's when I first heard of some guy named Peter Jackson.

I still have the article:


Tuesday, January 28, 1997
New film for Lord Of The Rings?

NEW YORK - Producer Saul Zaentz, director Peter Jackson and Miramax Films are negotiating a new film version of Lord Of The Rings, the fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Zaentz, who received a Golden Globe for producing The English Patient, will not produce the film, The Hollywood Reporter says.

Zaentz owns the film and merchandising rights to all of Tolkien's work.

The producer confirmed that "serious" negotiations were under way with Miramax and Jackson, the New Zealander best-known for his 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures.


Following the project in the early days was certainly an adventure. One day the it was on, the next day it was off. We heard there were going to be two movies, then one movie, then no movies, then three. The internet movie database had LOTR up one day and down the next.

Of course, when the dust settled, Miramax was out, NLC was in, and there were three movies with a budget of $270 million.

Today people would think that this decision was a no brainer. The Lord of the Rings was book of the century with an incredible and cinematic story. The core fanbase has been gigantic and building for 40 years. Obviously it's worth pouring money into.

But that was not the mentality in the late 1990's. You could not have said that then. In those days there was much cynicism. Fans of the book didn't think much of the film industry and nonfans thought that hobbits were for kiddies and geeks, and the films would just be a bunch of silly adventures. I remember USA Today openly questioning New Line Cinema's sanity. (And this questioning was certainly valid when considering NLC's track record. The studio had repeatedly gambled and lost before the late 90's. If not for Austin Powers and the Lord of the Rings, NLC would have probably gone bankrupt.)

I think it was in 1998 that lordoftherings.net debuted. It had nine pencil drawings. And nothing else! NLC was so worried about giving away too much too early, they wouldn't even let the finished concept art be seen.

In 1999, like many people I saw The Phantom Menace. Unlike many people, I was very interested in Jar Jar Binks. I certainly didn't like his character, but he was the first CG star, and I knew Gollum would be of a similar nature. I was wondering: how far has CG come? Can a lead CG character be convincing for two hours? I came away from the movie rather happy with what I saw. That gave me hope that a CG Gollum really could work.

About that time the casting for LOTR started to be announced, and I learned that Ian McKellen would play Gandalf. Today he's got 4 trillion people trying to get his attention, from the media to fans to collectors; but back then (before X Men and LOTR) he was quite easy to contact.

Let me say this: Ian McKellen is just cooler than cool. All during principle photography we exchanged e-mails. We talked about what was going at the set, how Gandalf should be played, as well as Shakespeare, Alec Guinness, and a lot of stuff I don't even remember. Here he was, a big star, and here I was, nothing. And he talked to me like I was an equal. After years of thinking of book Gandalf as a good friend, suddenly movie Gandalf was treating me like one.

Those early years, 97 to 2000, they seemed to take forever. So many films were going from greenlight to premier (including Harry Potter) while LOTR was still working on releasing their first film. I couldn't help but wonder "Will LOTR ever come?" (Although I've always been so happy that the movies have been done patiently.)

To pass the time, and to keep some semblance of organization, I created a website to use a scrapbook. Back then, I was writing pieces for TORn, Tolkien Online, Ringbearer, etc, and I thought it would probably be a good idea to give them (and my collection of pictures) a home. I even filled out an application asking to be listed at Yahoo. (Yahoo is the center of the internet world, and a listing there is so coveted, sites like TORn and lordoftherings.net pay hundred of dollars to be moved up the waiting list and not be ignored like most other appliers.)

2001 was a very eventful year of course, and that's when the time really seemed to speed up. In January, a teaser trailer for the trilogy was attached to "Thirteen Days", and one for FOTR was attached to "Pearl Harbor" in May. Neither set the world on fire, with the first one containing the lame tagline: "You will find adventure... or adventure will find you." I was wondering if there would be a bounce at the box office for either film, but that didn't happen. (That caused some concern for us fans. No one was really certain how the films would do financially.)

In September, two things happened. FOTR's theatrical trailer was released, and it was jaw droppingly amazing. It still gives me chills. Fans worldwide had geekgasms.

And that month, terrorists attacked the United States.

For us fans, there was a concern over what effect this would have on the LOTR movies. (If FOTR would have been scheduled to be released in the shadow of September 11, the whole trilogy would have been sunk. Every movie released at that time bombed. People did not want to see movies that month.)

As it turned out, three months was enough time for people to return to their normal routines, and the event didn't hurt the box office. In fact, I think it may have helped. September 11 was such a landmark event, I believe it changed our popular culture in North America. We became a less cynical and mocking society and one more willing to embrace something hopeful. Also, when something bad happens, something good is treasured more. People often forget or don't realize that the Beatles appeared on Sullivan less than three months after Kennedy was assassinated. This gave their appearance added impact and helped propel them to new heights in America.

Before the December release, there was an event which had all of us fans of the project on the edge of our seats: Howard Shore's score was released in November. And it was officially available for free online.

Most of us were really surprised when Howard was announced as LOTR's composer, as he wasn't a "big" name, and we were very very concerned over the music. Take a look at the top grossing films sometime and you'll notice something: they all have killer scores. You simply can't have a good film without a good score. In LOTR's situation, if FOTR had a bad score, it would be triply crippling. TTT and ROTK would be sunk as well.

I'll never forget listening to the score for FOTR and getting tears in my eyes.

Around this time, the question of FOTR's length came into play. Everybody today takes for granted that the theatrical cuts are three hours apiece, and the Extended Editions are 3 1/2 to 4 hours each. That is not what was originally intended.

Until November, the idea was for the three films to have a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes each. In fact, Peter Jackson was contractually bound to deliver films no longer than that. But after cutting the films down to three hours, it became apparent that nothing more could be edited. New Line Cinema made their decision: FOTR would be three hours. And if people thought it was too long, TTT and ROTK would be 2 hours apiece. This almost surely cost NLC money in the short run, but it was a thrilling decision for those of us following the project.

And so the stage was set. December arrived. And on the 17th of that month, I got a surprise e-mail. Yahoo approved my application, and my website was being listed under their "Lord of the Rings" directory. Their policy at that time was to display the new sites first to people engaging in a search. For the week of December 17 to December 24, 2001, whenever someone searched Yahoo for "Lord of the Rings", my site was at the top of the resulting list.

Let me tell you: people were searching for "Lord of the Rings" that week. My traffic went through the roof, and I was getting e-mails from advertisers, newspapers, professors, people from the LOTR project, and many, many fans. And my website wasn't even all that good. I really started to work hard after that and pretty much reinvented the entire site. (I'm not going to plug the site, by the way, because that's not what this essay is for.)

You know, for years I knew LOTR was going to be a big deal. But I never thought I'd be part of it!

Obviously I was in at the cinema on December 19, 2001. It was a day I had waited years for. And it was a day I had envisioned for over a decade and will remember for the rest of my life. And I knew that then. It was very emotional. It was also just like I always imagined it.

Over the last few years my website has proven to be a double edged sword. It's been a great fun to talk with so many fans over the years. It's also been so enriching to talk to so many people associated with LOTR. But it's been a lot of hard work and very time consuming. And sometimes the work and time nobody even sees!

Here's a funny story. I asked Jasmine Watson, LOTR's jeweller, if she'd do an interview for my site. She said, "Oh, I'd love to! But first you should get a Press Kit." And she gave me some contact info. After jumping through a few hoops, with people passing me onto other people, I ended up talking to some sort of public relations director for New Line Cinema. She told me, "I'm sorry. Press Kits are for the real media. And only they can interview LOTR personel." I didn't have the heart to tell her that I'd been interviewing LOTR personel for over a year.

It's been interesting seeing my stuff talked about on message boards, making headlines on the Tolkien News sites, and getting e-mails from friends at Weta saying, "just to let you know, your site was the talk of the shop today". It's been overwhelming to talk to people like Ralph Bakshi, Peter Jackson, Warwick Davis, and Dan Madsen. I'm just this little guy Wisconsin who has never been on an airplane!

But it's also meant a lot of sacrifices. I don't have a staff, I do have job, and I do have many other responsibilities. Working 50 hours a week on a website is rather difficult when you're doing it on your free time! It has meant giving up nights out, days off, vacations, and Christmas. But with tens of thousands of readers and the LOTR project being so incredible, it's certainly all been worth it, even if I've never gotten a cent for it (though a number of people have sent me gifts.)

Of course, I'm looking forward to just being a normal fan again. And living a normal life. Hopefully I can get married and have children someday. LOTR will always be a part of my life, and the website will remain online. But it will certainly be a relief, albeit bittersweet, when the journey comes to an end.

What a joyride it has been the last six years. We're going to end up with 12 hours of LOTR now? It's amazing. I think back to when I assumed it all would happen, that it was all mean to be; and I don't think, "I told you so." I think, "I was so stupid." This wasn't meant to be at all. This was a decision by Peter Jackson. This was an incredible effort by many. And yet even that would not have been enough for my vision to become reality. Peter and company have been lucky. You can't do a project like LOTR without many things falling into place (such as internet and DVD technology appearing at just the right time) or without the support and faith of the suits with the money.

It's absolutely ridiculous that everything has turned out the way it has! And yet my vision has turned out to be right. Go figure.