Several int'l epics in the works are hoping to fill the 'Rings' void

Riding into the marketplace on the coattails of a blockbuster is a time-honored tradition in Hollywood. Given the worldwide B.O. and merchandising success of New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s hardly surprising that various projects aimed at keeping the fantasy epic crowd in theaters are well under way.

Set to hit the bigscreen first with a targeted release of summer 2005 is “The Runelords,” the initial $70 million installment of a proposed trilogy based on four novels by sci-fi/

fantasy scribe and Story Island Entertainment topper David Wolverton. To develop his New York Times bestsellers, Wolverton has teamed up with Entertainment Business Group (EBG), a newly formed business services outfit headed by John J. Lee Jr.

Lee initially approached the same foreign distributors that handled New Line’s blockbuster trilogy in the eight largest territories outside North America.

Explains Lee: “Basically, they made a commitment contingent upon our coming through with a number of elements before a certain date.”

The first element these partners were looking for was a North American distributor, Lee says. Originally, sources say, Paramount showed a serious interest in handling the film Stateside. Last autumn, however, a number of production companies with output deals at the major studios approached EBG, proposing an all-in-one production and distribution package. Although an agreement has yet to be finalized, Franchise Pictures, which has an output deal with Warner Bros., could be the outfit to handle the pic.

Once the film hits screens, it will reflect a carefully constructed marketing plan that had most of its business elements in place long before a first draft of the script was even written. EBG studied the marketing plans of recent blockbusters such as “LOTR,” “The Matrix” and “Spider-Man” and analyzed where others both underspent and overspent.

Although “The Runelords” novels do not carry the same cachet as J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, the source material brings a significant built-in audience to the movie. The first book appeared in 1997 and three subsequent titles (“Brotherhood of the Wolf,” “Wizardborn” and “The Lair of the Bones”) have been published every other year since then. Each book has a minimum of eight language editions. All of the books have made an appearance on a number of bestseller lists, and each book has outsold its predecessors. Current estimates for the first three volumes show a global readership of 6 million, 3 million of whom are Stateside. Global sales of the first three titles have surpassed $1.8 million, with over half of that generated in the U.S.

“The Runelords” is prepping in Prague for a late spring, early summer shoot.

Project, however, is far from the only entry in the race to fill the gap left by the completion of the “LOTR” trilogy. Munich-based Tandem Communications, for instance, began developing “Kingdom in Twilight” back in 1997. Originally titled “The Ring,” “Kingdom” is based on the German legend “Die Nibelungen,” which served as an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien tomes. Budgeted at $20 million, the production has just completed principal photography in South Africa with a cast including “T-3’s” Kristanna Loken.

According to Marc Weigert, who along with partner Volker Engel (both were on the visual f/x team behind “Independence Day”) and their company Uncharted Territory is co-producing the film, “Kingdom in Twilight” will be released in two formats: a two-episode miniseries for TV (each episode to be 92 minutes) and a 120-minute theatrical version. The project has a deal in the U.S. for DVD and TV through Columbia Tri-Star but is expected to go out theatrically in the U.K., possibly Japan and other territories.

The project has a number of financiers by way of pre-sales, a British sale and lease-back and a German tax fund, VIP.

“The tax funds have collected a shitload of money again,” says Weigert, “and this project is perfect for a fund like VIP. It was developed by a German company; it has international partners, European partners and East Asian involvement as well.”

With the possible reemergence of Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna’s “Evermere” trilogy and Cinamour’s more modest trilogy “Forbidden Warrior” ready to shoot, “LOTR’s” wake is likely to be long and strong. And, of course, New Line has its own follow-up project in development for a 2006 release: “His Dark Materials,” based on Philip Pullman’s novels.

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