Film Web site draws Hobbit fans

Hobbit fans hurry to New Line Cinema's spruced-up "The Lord of the Rings" Web site featuring behind-the-scene snippets of the trilogy due to hit theaters by year-end.

3 min read
Hobbit fans hurried over the weekend to New Line Cinema's spruced-up "The Lord of the Rings" Web site featuring behind-the-scene snippets of the trilogy due to hit theaters by year-end.

About 41 million fans clicked on LordOfTheRings.net since the Web site's relaunch last Friday, studio representatives said Tuesday.

Movie studios have long turned to the Web as a promotional vehicle, offering everything from trailers to chat forums for fans eager to catch early glimpses of their favorite stars in action. The Rings site raises the ante by coming so far in advance of the scheduled theatrical release and by planning an extended shelf life to fit the trilogy's serial format.

The site serves up the latest production information, interviews with filmmakers and cast, and an interactive map of the fictional world known as Middle Earth, among other things. New elements will be added each week until 2004, when all three movies will have been released.

A trailer of the first installment of the movie sequence will run on the Web site midnight PST Friday.

"We were expecting a strong response but not this strong," said Gordon Paddison, a senior vice president in the studio's marketing department.

The online push is part of New Line's marketing strategy to pump interest in the movie long before it premieres in theaters. At the same time, it targets a devoted audience hungry for crumbs of news about the making of the movie, such as how actors learned to speak the mythical Elvish language devised by Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

New Line knew it was on to something when in April last year an online preview trailer drew about 1.7 million hits in less than 24 hours, Paddison said.

For the relaunch, the studio partnered with Neoplanet and RealNetworks to help promote the movie. Neoplanet is developing a Rings browser. Seattle-based software company RealNetworks has created a Rings channel on its upcoming Web video players. The feature is expected to reach about 50 million consumers a year, plus an additional figure for those who upgrade the software, Paddison said.

New Line has also formed an alliance with AOL Time Warner, which has areas within the Web site dedicated to the moviemaking of Tolkien's epic, such as photo galleries, games and news stories about "The Lord of the Rings."

Hollywood and the Internet has not been an easy marriage. Over the past year, movie studios have struggled to take advantage of the far-reaching nature of the Internet. Web sites that served as an outlet for filmmakers, actors or screenwriters have largely failed.

But the strategy used for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy seems to be an indication of how Tinsel Town can tap into the cyber audience. "Blair Witch Project," the box office hit in 1999, was perhaps the most successful in terms of generating hype on the Internet before it was shown in theaters. Other Web site hits include the wacky "Austin Powers" movies, in which fans were able to send jokes to friends or use Austin material as screen savers, among other things.

"Movie sites can take advantage of the viral marketing of the Internet and create a buzz about the movie before it launches," said Idil Cakim, director of media strategies at Cyber Dialogue. "The Internet can be tremendous to produce a hit online then transfer it offline."

That is precisely what New Line is after with the Rings Web site. The studio isn't talking about online production costs, but Paddison said it was "minimal, under a penny on the dollar to anything else."

The plan has already generated a considerable buzz--nearly a full year before the first movie is due. The films will be released during the holiday seasons of 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Rings is a story about a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, who embarks on a desperate journey to get rid of the One Ring, a source of power for an evil lord bent on destruction. The trilogy, which includes "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," drew an immediate following after publication in the 1960s.

"The book has over 90 million copies sold in more than 40 languages," Paddison said. "It has a global pre-built fan base, so we embraced that community."