The Lord of the Rings: The marketing of a high concept film trilogy

Paper by Markus Linecker. Viewed on DVD.

The Lord of the Rings (Jackson trilogy is one of the biggest film projects that was ever brought to the screen. Because of the popularity of the novels, amazing filmmaking techniques, and the high-profile marketing strategy of the studio New Line Cinema, these three films have become some of the most successful films in history. From its screenplay to its trailers, Lord of the Rings is a perfect example how a picture is produced as High Concept film, one that has influenced many others.

The movies are closely based on a book series which has gone through many incarnations. In 1937 J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford University professor, wrote the children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit. Because of the popularity of the novel, Tolkien started to write a sequel which eventually became The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which over the years has emerged as one of the most beloved and read fantasy novels.

It is the story about a young hobbit named Frodo who lives in a small village in the world of Middle-Earth. His uncle Bilbo Baggins found a ring sixty years ago, which is actually a Ring of power forged by the Dark Lord Sauron. Now on Bilbo’s hundred and eleventh birthday, he bequeaths the ring, so powerful that it takes over one’s life, to Frodo. Frodo’s friend Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, finds out what power this ring has and tells Frodo that he needs to bring the ring to the elves. With his eavesdropping friend Sam Gamgee and two other fellow hobbits, Merry and Pippin, Frodo undertakes to go on this dangerous journey. When they arrive the city of the elves, a council is called and it decides that the ring need to be destroyed, which only is possible if it is thrown into the fire of Mount Doom. Frodo volunteers and is joined by an Elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, and the men Argon and Boromir on their laden task to destroy the ring. This is accomplished through much travail by the end of the series.

In 1978, Ralph Bakshi directed the first The Lord of the Rings movie attempt. With a mix of animation and life action scenes, the film only contained the first half of the story. Even though the film became a success, which revealed demand for a film version, Bakshi never made a film about the second half. However eventually the studio, which produced an animation version of the Hobbit for TV, took on the second part but without Bakshi’s influence.

In 1997, director Peter Jackson won the rights to The Lord of the Rings and made a deal with New Line Cinema to produce a trilogy based on the three books. In 2001, the first film, The Fellowship of the Rings, was released. The plot seems very simple at first, but through many subplots and characters, the films become very complex yet still manage to keep their strong entertainment value. Because these films are based on a book series, the filmmakers needed to be sure to stay close as possible to the original story but to make it exciting and understandable for the larger audience who didn’t know the novels.

The New Zealand director Peter Jackson, who loved this book since he was a teenager, took on this difficult task. Jackson started filmmaking as a child when a friend of his parents gave him a Super-8 camera(Sibley 14). He found inspiration in films like King Kong (1933), The 7 Voyages of Sinbad (1958) and The Lost World (1925) . At an early stage, he created his own remake of King Kong using stop motion technique. Furthermore, he created little spy movies or World War Two dramas. With his ten minute short The Valley (1976) he won a special film prize. At sixteen, Jackson dropped out of school and worked as a photo-engraver to save up money for film equipment. He bought a 16mm camera and started to shoot the film Bad Taste (1987), which over the time of four years (1983-1987) went from a planned short to a ninety minutes horror comedy. The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received immediate recognition. Jackson next project was Meet the Feebles (1989) a Muppet-style film satire. After finishing Dead Alive (1992), a horror splatter film, Jackson produced and directed the film Heavenly Creatures (1984), a film about two girls who become murderers. The film became an international success, and Jackson got offered to direct the film The Frighteners (1996) starring Michael J. Fox. The film was a failure in the box-office but created a strong fan base from the auxiliary market. In 1997 Jackson acquired the rights for the Lord of the Rings, on October 11, 1999 he started shooting, and ended on December 22, 2000. With the Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson truly became a High Concept director.

High Concept is a marketing strategy to create a larger-than-life film which draws in the audience in mass numbers. Many believe High Concept started with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas when they created Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and moved away from complex and ambiguous characters to lighter and simpler films. It means that in the most cases the character development becomes secondary and the conflict becomes the main point. The primary aspiration of a high concept film is to draw people into the theater by assuring that they have an emotional experience which is created by promising a plot with an abundance of conflict. Hollywood has been successfully using these conventions for a long time. For example the film Speed (de Bont 1994) creates this conflict without taking too much time on the characters’ development. The goals and obstacles of the protagonists are very clear. The hero is a L.A.P.D. S.W.A.T. officer who has to prevent the explosion of a moving bus by holding its speed above fifty miles per hour, and to find the bomber. In this lowest-common-denominator formula, besides the simple conflict, there is also always a simple romance where the hero gets the girl. Speed’s officer meets a girl, a passenger on the bus, who helps him with his task, and he becomes attracted to her. Michael Hauge describes all this as the outer journey of the character. This creates a hook for the audience and pulls them into the theater. High Concept is all about money-making; it places no priority on the artistic goals and creations. High Concept is all about simplicity of the plot that makes it very relatable for wide audiences.

Besides Hollywood conventions, there are other factors that sell a High Concept film. The relation of image and soundtrack also play a great role in high concept. For example Footloose (Ross 1984) was designed as a high concept film, as a product. The plot was simple and appealed to a young crowd with its distinctive sound track that created a popular-music-video and MTV feel. Furthermore many High Concept films deal with timely or fashionable affairs (Wyatt 12), for example the film Perfect (Bridges 1975) was built around the fitness and aerobic boom, it creates an identification with the characters for the audience because they were really into health clubs at the time. Therefore to create a film that is High Concept, the studios have to keep up with the changes in the culture of the market.

A vital factor of high concept is the marketing. Marketing creates the awareness of the film that causes mass audience interest. This starts with print advertisement and trailers and continues with merchandising and associated toys and products. The right promotion of a film is crucial for it to have success. For a negative example of this, recently the High Concept film John Carter (Stanton 2012) was released. Even though the studio spent around a hundred million dollars on marketing, they failed to have the right advertisement for the film. The prints and the trailers were confusing for people who don’t really know the books. The film was a disaster in the box offices and is ranked as one of the biggest flops. To avoid this, some studios create a trademark for their films and released it out in public everywhere they can. For example, for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), the marketing department designed the Jurassic Park Logo and one could see it everywhere in the country before anybody even knew what Jurassic Park was. It created a curiosity and an interest for the film.

In many cases a High Concept film has an A-list star who draws people into the film. For example the Die Hard (McTiernan 1988-2007) franchise is built around Bruce Willis, and the audience identify and relate to the character of John McClane with the actor. (Wyatt 113) Most of the time, A –list actors guarantee the success because the audience needs a familiar hero, somebody one can look up to and admire. These admirations form a relationship between the actor/character and the audience. Therefore if one knows and admires the actor this creates an ethos for the character. There are many of this type of A- list actors today where only the name shows up on the casting list, and the film is already sold to the audience.

With all of these factors in mind, Jackson needed to create a film which pleases the people who love the books and have built the Lord of the Rings world into their fantasies, but also to interest a new crowd who was not familiar with the stories. Many of the high concept films have only one purpose: to make money; the majority of the box office successes are High Concept films. The Lord of the Rings is an unexpected movie in regard to this, in some ways. On paper The Lord of the Rings appears to be the perfect High Concept film, a big budget, preposterously expensive and expansive sets, an amazing film score, and epic battles. Even though the film was created for success and money making and seemed to have a good chance to be a success, however, it still was a gamble.

Jackson brought new elements to the High Concept strategy. He started with not using any big name Hollywood stars. All of his actors were well established but they were not the big box office magnets of the time. It somehow helped the film to establish its own identity and not be carried by or relying on a big name.
The next idea Jackson had was to have three films, which could have been a box office killer. The audience was used to a resolution in the end of the film. With The Lords of the Rings, they had to wait until the end of the third film (no simple process). The first two films have many unresolved conflicts which is unnatural for the standard interpretation of High Concept.

Furthermore, the settings are not easy to follow. The films have many locations which could create confusion sometimes, especially for the viewer who doesn’t know the books. For example, in the second film, The Two Towers (2002), the plot jumps from the mountains, where Frodo and Sam are trying to find their way to Mordor, to Rohan’s King’s castle and the fortress, where Argon, Legolas and Gimli fight against the Orcs, then to the living trees, which find the lost Pippin and Merry, who then together fight against the Orcs at Saruman’s tower; combined with the settings of the other two films, this could have a negatively-overwhelming effect. This also creates many subplots, which make the films more complicated and harder to follow. For example, there is the plot with Frodo and Sam and the development of their friendship; furthermore, the romantic relationship between Argon and Arwen becomes very complicated in The Two Towers when the nice of King Rohan Eowyn becomes attracted to Argon. Finally, the genre of the film is fantasy which was not really a box office magnet. Fantasy films like Legend (Scott 1985), Willow (Howard 1988), or Labyrinth (Hansen 1986) seemed more to be for a specific subgroup than for the general audience. It takes a genius of a director to maintain the High Concept approach with all of these artistic complications.

All of this modification to the High Concept method worked because of his incredibly strong marketing campaign. Jackson built a voluminous hype based on expectation and strong adherence to other Hollywood conventions. Also, there is no real deep character development, none of protagonists change significantly throughout the films, and there is a basic, simple conflict, which can be told in one sentence: The Ring needs to be destroyed by Frodo and Sam suffering to bring it to the Mount of Mordor. The audience can see the main conflict but also can empathize that this is not an easy task. The plot of High Concept films needs to be easy to understand by the broader audience, so that many people get curious about the film. Steven Spielberg defined the aspect of high concept:” If a person can tell me the idea in twenty-five words or less, it is going to make a pretty good movie.” (Wyatt 24) A simple plot with no complicated twists and turns can make the difference between success and failure.

These days, computer generated imagery (CGI) is an assumed part of High Concept strategy. These films overuse CGI almost to the point that impressing the audience is more important than communicating the narrative. For example, the character Golem is totally created as a CGI which leaves almost no boundaries for how the character looks, but also takes out the human factor which a puppet player or an actor in a costume brings, and has the effect that certain parts of the film feel soulless.
The films marketing was almost too much, over the top. Many months before the premier, a person could buy almost anything with the name or a picture of The Lord of the Rings on it. Printed film posters were virtually everywhere throughout a city and almost every TV channel at any hour showed the trailers of the film. Each film had three different teaser trailers and at least two different full trailers, which on the website one could explore frame by frame. This created an “Lord of the Rings saturation”. Peter Jackson used the internet intensely. During filming, he created a video diary and put updates on a webpage regularly so that people could follow the shooting of the film in its blow-by-blow and get excited for it. Also the trailer premiered on the Internet, with1.7 million downloads on its first day alone. And if all that wasn’t enough, the webpage had a store where one could by Lord of the Rings products, from t-shirts to coffee mugs to books. In many stores around the country, The Lord of the Rings signature title with its specialized font became well known. It appeared on cereals, sodas and candy. Department stores sold t-shirts and bed sheets with the characters printed on them and most toy departments had their exclusive collectors’ action figures (“Lord”). The marketing effort for the films was so perfect that even before the release of the first film, over four hundred fan websites were established on the Internet. The fan base was built way before the films were released, and this momentum guaranteed a success.

Though this also changed the approach of High Concept, it created the notion of splitting up pictures in two or more parts. It reminds one of the cliffhanger serials of the 30s. This strategy gives filmmakers the opportunity to not shorten the narrative, and the studios to sell two (or more) films because the viewer feels a commitment to the series and wants to know how the films end. As a result, many studios have resurrected previous High Concept films and produced a sequel or prequel. One of the best examples is George Lucas in his creating prequels of the Star Wars. Because of the demand of the fans, the success of this film was guaranteed, even though many people thought that it lost its style because of all the CGI effects, a result of today’s High Concept style.

Lord of the Rings has significantly influenced the way High Concept films are made today. It brought fantasy to a broader audience. It created the idea of splitting up films and transformed fantasy genre. Suddenly everybody wanted to see more of these films, which created a demand for Harry Potter (multiple directors 2001-2011), Twilight (Hardwicke 2008-2012), Pirates of the Caribbean (multiple directors 2003-2011) and The Chronicle of Narnia (multiple directors 2005-2010). Furthermore, filmmakers and studios changed their approach to how they produced and marketed their films. Many started to use the Internet as one of their main marketing tools. Studios have discovered the popularity of social networking and started to use this for their advertisement. A final result is that studios have become more bold with their plots, and some have tried to copy the recipe of success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with varying success.

With the success of the Rings trilogy, Jackson was able to branch out and fulfill one of his childhood dreams: a remake of King Kong (2005) which made over five-hundred fifty million dollars worldwide. In 2011, Jackson also decided to direct the prequel of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, which unlike the original book will be produced in two parts. Jackson is now not only a successful director but also a producer. His has produced films like District 9 (Blomkamp 2009) and Tintin (Spielberg 2011) which have become box office successes. With his three Academy Awards and Golden Globe, Peter Jackson is one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood.( Van der Sluijs)

Peter Jackson took on a very difficult task when he produced and directed these films, but through great filmmaking, an excellent marketing effort, and usage of the popularity of the original books, The Lord of the Rings trilogy became one of the most successful franchises in film history. With its amazing filmmaking techniques and fascinating script, Jackson created a experience which perfectly fits the basic desire of a High Concept film – to make loads of money – and in the process rewrote the basic aspects of the High Concept itself.

Works Cited

Hauge, Michael, narr. “Michael Hauge on high concept movie.” YouTube. SABehindTheScreen,
09/2011. web. 12 Apr 2012. .
Sibley, Brian. Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy. 1. 1. Bosten, New
Y ourk:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 14. Print.
Van der Sluijs, T. “Biography of Peter Jackson.” IMDb (2011): 1. IMDb. Web. 15 Apr 2012.
Wyatt, Justin. High Concept: Movie and Marketing in Hollywood. 4. 1. Austin, Texas:
University of Texas Press, 2003. Print.


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