CANNES — New Line kicked off its three-“Rings” circus in a big way this week.

Cannes is famous for its film promotions, but it’s hard to remember a pic with a splashier launch here than “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

As part of its worldwide media launch, the company has flown in the filmmakers and a dozen stars for four days of tubthumping that began May 10 with a screening of footage from the three pics. It culminated May 13 with a “Rings” wingding, where designers, sets and mammoth props were flown from New Zealand to dress up a chateau just outside of Cannes.

It’s no surprise that New Line is pulling out all the stops. At a press confab at the chateau May 11, Fine Line Features prez Mark Ordesky (an exec producer on the films) admitted to an aggregate budget of $270 million for the three films. While denying the studio’s entire future rests on the pics’ success, he said, with smiling understatement, that it’s “the most ambitious thing we’ve ever attempted.”

The first pic bows Dec. 19 in the U.S., with Europe, Australasia and Latin America openings in the following 10 days.

Looking surprisingly relaxed and unsurprisingly enthused — the media reaction to the 25 minutes of footage ranged from upbeat to wildly enthusiastic — Ordesky declined to tell Variety the marketing budget. He only said it’s “commensurate with the investment we’ve made in these films,” and then laughed at his own corporate-speak.

However, since the marketing budget for the second “Austin Powers” movie was estimated in the $30 million-$40 million range, it’s safe to bet “Rings” will at least fall in that shagadelic neighborhood.

Rolf Mittweg, prez of worldwide distribution and marketing, agreed with Ordesky that they don’t want to “hype” the pic — in other words, they’ll market it, but they don’t want the public to overdose on it before it’s opened. (“You’ll notice we don’t have any posters on the Croisette,” Ordesky pointed out.)

Mittweg told Variety, “We’ve rounded up some amazing promotional partners,” but declined details. Still, the promo push will shift into a higher gear this fall.

Ordesky added that Cannes was the logical place to kick off the media launch. The company closed pre-sales on the film here last year, and the “Rings” launch has three goals: “Our partners are here and we wanted to show them their money had been well placed and was up on the screen”; second, the worldwide media is gathered here for the fest, with 150 of them gathering for the junket meets with stars and filmmakers; and, tied in with that, the company wants to get the word out to the public and fans of the books.

Their challenge is marketing a work that, said Ordesky, is “so well known, so loved” to so many (100 million copies have been printed of J.R.R. Tolkien’s three books in 40 languages), but totally unknown to large segments of the world, including many American teenagers.

The films will be released each December through 2003. Though principal lensing has wrapped and three teams of editors are working simultaneously, each will be finished only shortly before its bow.

At the press sesh, director-producer-co-writer Peter Jackson said he set about making “one big, long movie.” Producer Barrie Osborne said all three shot simultaneously, mostly for logistical reasons: They had to build roads into remote areas of New Zealand and, since it was protected land, the roads had to be removed immediately after end of filming. Thus, it made sense to avoid doing that three times.

Also at the press confab was co-writer Philippa Boyens. The press then had a chance to sit down with “Ring” actors Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Christopher Lee, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies and Liv Tyler.

Richard Taylor, of WETA special effects, said the long work schedule was often hard — the first pic alone features 550 CGI shots — but when workers would feel a slump, he’d just say, “It’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ — c’mon, pick up your plate!”