Will ‘Lord’ ring New Line’s bell?

Despite thumbs up, Lynne sez more work to be done

CANNES — It’s hard to imagine a more relieved group of distribs gathered into one place than the collection who’d just finished watching a 26-minute film from New Zealand that cost $270 million.

The enthusiastic response from distribs, exhibs and worldwide press to the screening of footage from New Line’s “Lord of the Rings” at Cannes’ Olympia theater means that foreign companies who’ve bet the farm on the three-year franchise now have cause for confidence they’ll recoup their investment — with coin to spare.

Still, as New Line co-chairman and co-CEO Michael Lynne told Variety, there’s plenty of work to be done. Key issues to be resolved include the pic’s length — the question is how far over two hours it’s going to go — and the rating for a movie with a lot of explicit (albeit fantasy) violence.

But it’s easy to forget about the hurdles amid the euphoria. While there has never been a shortage of hype at Cannes, those involved with “Rings” feel the expectations are warranted.

Never before has the global film market taken such a huge collective gamble.

Since “Lord of the Rings” is a trilogy, huge advances have been ponied up for not one $90 million movie, but three — with the worth of the second and third largely dependent on the performance of the first.

In marketing meetings after the screenings, NL execs told distribs that the target is for all of them to outdo the previous top grosser in their territory. In some countries that’s going to mean spending as much again on P&A as they did to buy the films in the first place, but at least now that seems more like an opportunity than a terrifying risk.

“My Japanese distributor said he had a knot in his stomach for the whole year, and now it has dissolved,” says Rolf Mittweg, president and chief operating officer of worldwide marketing and distribution at New Line.

“They have another ‘Star Wars’ on their hands,” says Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who described the footage as “spectacular.”

Weinstein, however, is not exactly impartial — more like conflicted.

He’s releasing his megabudget “Gangs of New York” head to head with the first “Rings” pic, but he also has an exec producer credit on “Rings” and a piece of the backend. That’s because he set the development in motion before reluctantly letting it go into turnaround to New Line when he couldn’t commit to financing all three pics at once.

“I think Mark Ordesky and the whole New Line team deserve to be applauded. They were willing to bet the house,” says Weinstein, referring to the Fine Line chief who acted as production exec on “Rings.”

The global marketing machine has been cranking up since last September, with an NL hit squad touring the world to close merchandising, tie-in and promotional deals, many of which will be announced in the next fortnight.

The three pics are being released by market-leading outfits in every territory — the likes of Entertainment in the U.K., Nippon Herald in Japan, Village Roadshow in Australia/NZ, Metropolitan in France, Medusa in Italy and Aurum in Spain.

“The Fellowship of the Ring,” will be released Dec. 19 in the U.S., and worldwide bows will follow that week. Failure would take the cream of the distrib crop with it. But if the pic succeeds, a tsunami of cash will sweep through the coffers of these distribs, buoying up the whole indie financing business.

“We should definitely rank in the top 10 films of all time in every territory,” predicts Mittweg. “We’ll definitely be number one in New Zealand. We’re going to break a lot of records.”

Of course, helmer Peter Jackson has yet to finish the movie, and concerns over length and the film’s rating are real.

The target is a PG-13 rating in the U.S., and its equivalent elsewhere. Mittweg suggested it may be necessary to do extra trims for some territories. “Censorship is definitely an issue,” Mittweg says. “But Peter is very amenable to making any cuts necessary.”

At the end of the trilogy, there will be a boxed-set director’s cut on DVD –for a likely 2004 release — on which Jackson is already working. This will probably have more extreme footage than the tamer version released in theaters.

The DVD aims to be ground-breaking, particularly considering its three-year release strategy, which is being orchestrated in minute detail. New Line Home Video has had a crew filming in N.Z. for two years.

At Cannes last year, buyers had seen 20 minutes of dramatic scenes with no scope or effects. Most of the global sales were closed then. The only territories unsold for the second and third films are Germany and Eastern Europe, where Kinowelt has the first pic under its NL output deal.

Mittweg is shopping parts 2 and 3 as part of output deals for 2002 and 2003.

He says Kinowelt is still at the table, but so are two or three other leading distribs. But he acknowledges that he will have to accept far lower prices than were coming out of Germany a year ago.

There are two notable exceptions to the pre-Christmas release for “Fellowship”: Italy (early in 2002) and Japan (March).

In Japan, more groundwork needs to be done, since the J.R.R. Tolkien books are little known. In Italy, a lot of big local comedies, plus sister company Warner’s “Harry Potter” are coming out over Christmas.

Looking forward to the U.S. release sked, which has “Potter” bowing over Thanksgiving and “Ring” rolling a month later, Mittweg says, “AOL Time Warner will own Christmas this year.”

No foreign distribs will be designing marketing of their own. NL is delivering the first teaser trailer May 25 in the U.S., in the can with “Pearl Harbor.” That will be followed by a new poster in July and, a three-minute trailer in September.

New Line can only hope that trailer has the same effect on theater audiences that the footage did on relieved distributors.

Which only leaves one problem. At this stage, anything less than the highest grossing film of all time would seem like a disappointment.