NL payoff is worldwide B.O.

At the beginning of the first “Lord of the Rings” film, a prophetic reference is made to “a time when hobbits will shape the fortunes of all.”

That time has come for New Line, which as of Feb. 29 saw its payoff for betting on the three films surpass $2.8 billion in worldwide box office receipts.

Over the past three years, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has accrued so much to New Line, to Jackson and to its many stars, that it’s easy to forget how long a road it was to its 30 Oscar noms — and what a long shot the franchise was.

“We never tested the first film, and we were biting our nails right until the moment it opened,” said Russell Schwartz, New Line’s domestic marketing prexy.

“It was a movie with a lot of people, with a lot of funny names, in a place that doesn’t exist.”

This was, Schwartz said, the central challenge of marketing the franchise.

Long before Air New Zealand began putting Frodo and Gandalf on its planes, New Line’s own research showed that, alarmingly, only 20% of the marketplace had any idea at all about what the 50-year-old books were about.

Educating what would need to become “that middle 50%” of the audience — which Schwartz calls “the ‘Hobbit, Schmobbit!’ crowd” — was crucial. By focusing its marketing efforts on just a few of the main characters, the complex “Rings” tale was made understandable.

And by releasing the first film during the 2001 holiday season, it set the tone for the movie as a prestige picture at a studio long known as the mailing address of Freddy Krueger, not Oscar.

But these were just tactics, albeit successful ones.

What made the “Rings” trilogy different from all others before it was its storytelling strategy.

“What we had to get across to the press, the public, to everybody, was that this was one film, told in three parts. That was the strategy right from the get-go,” said Rolf Mittweg, New Line’s worldwide distribution and marketing prexy.

As both older and recent trilogies demonstrate, uniform praise and increasing grosses are hardly typical.

From “Star Wars” to “Indiana Jones” to “The Matrix” films, audiences have usually singled out one pic as the black sheep of a trio: “Return of the Jedi,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Matrix Revolutions.”

Not so with “Lord of the Rings.” “Fellowship” raked in $871 worldwide; “The Two Towers” scaled $926 million; and “Return of the King” is cruising past $1.005 billion worldwide.

Was part of this steady growth tied to the best picture Oscar nominations?

Maybe, but Schwartz said he doubts it, insisting, “This was never an Oscar play for us.”

Schwartz noted the DVD release of “Fellowship” turned the film’s weakest demographic, younger females, into its strongest audience on “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.”

In all, some three-quarters of a billion dollars was generated in DVD rentals and sales — repeated viewings that only served to reinforce the cliff-hanger elements of the tripartite film.

Yet a similarity to global politics may have as much to do with worldwide auds’ embrace of the films as the pics’ articulation of ancient archetypes.

Just as Mount Doom casts a dark, menacing shadow over a once carefree Shire, the orcs of Al Qaeda threaten a Western civilization that, daily, still misses its own Two Towers.

Whatever the case, the “Rings” films have changed Hollywood permanently.

A town that used to shoot year ’round has learned how to shoot around the clock, using time zones from Wellington, N.Z., to Los Angeles, to Gotham, to London and back again.

As for the ‘Kings’ bounty, many of Sunday’s winners had also been nommed the past two years.

Wins included art direction (Grant Major, Dan Hennah and Alan Lee, the first win for all three); costume design (Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor, her first win; he’s won twice before); makeup (Taylor, a double winner this year, and King, first-time victor).; editing (Jamie Selkirk, his first nom); sound mixing (Christopher Boyes, a triple nominee this year; Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges and Hammond Peek).

Howard Shore’s victory for original score puts him in the Oscar history books, since he also won for his score of the first film, “Fellowship of the Ring.”

Shore was another double winner, as writer with Fran Walsh and Annie Lennox of the song “Into the West.”

The visual effects prize marked a triple crown for “Lord”: It won visual effects Oscars for the past two films as well. Jim Rygiel and Randall William Cook also won for both earlier films; Joe Letteri and Alex Funke won for the second. The “Star Wars” films won three f/x Oscars, but “Rings” was the first franchise to win three consecutively.

As if it didn’t have enough honors, “King” has the distinction of being the longest-titled best pic winner ever, eclipsing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It’s not the longest film, though: At 200 minutes, it’s shorter than the 222-minute “Gone With the Wind.”

It also the first time that the big trophy went to a fantasy (whatever that word means); though the film features wizards and magic, its themes of war, loyalty and survival are arguably more relevant to these times than more “realistic” films.

Quite literally, the legacy of Jackson’s “Rings” may be that the sun never again sets on epic filmmaking.

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