New Line bracing for ‘Rings’ challenge

Wingnut to produce Tolkien's epic

When rival outlaws join forces in a spaghetti Western, anyone with any sense runs for cover.

No surprise, then, that a gang of grizzled vets comprising Bob Shaye, Michael Lynne, the Weinstein brothers and Saul Zaentz has the industry holding its breath to see which of them will draw first.

The franchise they’re collaborating on is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” a highly prized literary property that has eluded filmmakers for years.

New Zealand filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the duo behind the disturbing pic “Heavenly Creatures,” will bring Tolkien’s epic to the screen. Jackson and Walsh are co-writing the pics and producing them through their Wingnut Films banner; Jackson will direct.

Weta wizardry

Weta Digital, Jackson’s own special effects outfit, is in charge of technical wizardry — and there’ll be plenty of it.

“Rings,” which is set in a mythical land known as Middle Earth, is the story of a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, who, armed with a magical ring, embarks on a perilous quest to save humanity from the evil Dark Lord Sauron.

New Line says it will commit more than $130 million in production financing to a trilogy of action-adventure films based on “Rings,” making it one of the Time Warner-owned company’s most ambitious production ventures.

The plan is to begin shooting the films in New Zealand in May 1999. New Line wants to make the films in the trilogy in succession and release the first pic at Christmas 2000. New Line’s deal with Miramax and Zaentz gives it worldwide rights to consumer products based on the films. (“Lord of the Rings” has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 25 languages.)

“This is an incredible currency for an entertainment franchise,” said Shaye, chairman of New Line Cinema. “We’re talking about literary material that is familiar to a huge number of people.”

The historic collaboration between New Line, Miramax and Zaentz can be traced back to 1978, when Zaentz, who previously acquired the film rights to “Rings” and “The Hobbit” from Tolkien, produced a 133-minute animated version of the fantasy directed by Ralph Bakshi.

Miramax optioned the live-action rights from him in January 1997. The plan was for the Disney-owned indie to finance and distribute the franchise, with Zaentz exec producing.

Miramax entered into script development and worked on the special effects with New Zealand-based Jackson and Walsh for over a year.

But the studio and Wingnut couldn’t reconcile their differing approaches to the material. “Lord of the Rings” is, in fact, three books in one: “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” While Miramax wanted to compress them into a single pic, the filmmakers stubbornly held out for their original vision of three.

New Line now has assumed Miramax’s option, and, for about $10 million, reimbursed Miramax for all of its development and research costs. In addition, New Line has bought the film rights to the “Rings” prequel, “The Hobbit,” from Miramax.

Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Miramax co-chairmen, will serve as exec producers of the live-action “Rings.” Miramax also has a “significant” back-end position on the franchise, as does Zaentz.

New Line wants more

New Line hopes to convert its option with Zaentz into full ownership shortly, with the exception of certain rights that Zaentz may hold back. The studio would not divulge specifics of its deal with either Zaentz or Miramax.

And, with dealmakers such as Shaye, Lynne, the Weinsteins and Zaentz all throwing their 2¢ worth into the negotiations, it’s likely that striking a pact was anything but straightforward.

“Miramax was completely professional about it,” says one source involved in the negotiations. “But they certainly didn’t go gently into the night.”

Miramax declined to comment.

Jackson and Walsh are now working furiously to have the three scripts ready by the end of the year, so that they can begin casting.

According to Jackson, the lead cast of each of the pics will be unknowns, probably mined from the U.K., with more prominent actors in secondary or cameo roles. Jackson says that he expects filming to be divided equally between exteriors and a studio. New Zealand, he believes, with its rugged landscapes, is particularly suitable for recreating Middle Earth.

Jackson has screened an effects reel for Shaye in Los Angeles, and the New Line boss says that he was impressed by the number of digital and optical effects that Weta had developed for “Rings.”

Jackson history

Jackson first appeared on the New Line radar with his early, student-like splatter films, “Bad Taste” and “Brain Dead.” Fine Line prexy Mark Ordesky, then a junior executive at New Line, struck up a particular rapport with the innovative but bizarre Kiwi helmer.

New Line gave Jackson his first Hollywood paycheck — for writing a proposed installment of its “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher franchise. Although his installment never became a film, the director stayed on good terms with the studio, even crashing occasionally on Ordesky’s couch, and getting to know New Line Prods. prexy Michael De Luca, too.

Fittingly, Ordesky was instrumental in bringing Jackson back to New Line for “Rings,” and he and De Luca will oversee production of the films for the studio.

Jackson says that his vision for the “Rings” films is both epic and personal. “My philosophy is that these are historical films, not fantasies or fairy tales,” he says. “It’s a story with heart and soul, but also one that’s romantic.”

Jackson hasn’t directed a feature since 1996, when he made a foray into Hollywood filmmaking with the Universal ghost comedy “The Frighteners,” exec produced by Robert Zemeckis. But the pic was a flop, grossing less than $17 million in the U.S.

He acknowledges that he’s stepping into another potential firestorm by taking on a property as beloved as “Rings.” But he has no intention of aiming to please everybody. “It’s inevitable that in the eyes of some fans you’ll never get there,” he says.

The costly “Rings” also represents a major challenge for New Line.

“We didn’t always have the wherewithal to mount this sort of production,” admits Shaye, referring to his company’s genre and low-budget origins. “We do now. But that doesn’t make it an automatic slam dunk.”