Tales From The Box Office: How Lord Of The Rings Became The Fantasy Franchise To Rule Them All

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

The search for box office gold in the pages of classic literature can be a fickle thing. How many "Robin Hood" movies have we seen fail? Remember how badly "Eragon" flopped? Probably not! 

And that's kind of the point. The further away we get from "The Lord of the Rings," the more it seems like an absolute miracle, especially in the fantasy genre, where it is exceedingly difficult to succeed. On the big screen anyway; TV has had a lot of luck, most notably with "Game of Thrones," in that department. Would that have been possible without what Peter Jackson did, rather ambitiously, all those years ago with J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy epic? It's tough to say, but virtually every fantasy epic that has come since owes a lot to Jackson and co.

Recently, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" celebrated its 20th anniversary, and it represents the anniversary of one of the biggest gambles in the history of Hollywood. We're here to look back on the movie's wild journey to the screen, how it kicked off one of the biggest franchises in history, and what lessons modern Hollywood can learn from this gigantic roll of the dice.

The Movies: The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth books, "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," are some of the most cherished works of literature around. As such, it's not surprising that many people tried, and failed, over the years to bring these tales to the big screen. Peter Jackson, known up to that point as the guy behind smaller movies such as "Dead Alive" and "The Frighteners," was far from the first. As the tale goes, Jackson originally just wanted to make a fantasy movie, but any original concept he came up with was too close to Tolkien. So, they went to Harvey Weinstein (then the head of Miramax, currently serving a 23-year prison sentence) to secure the rights.

Originally, the idea was to do "The Hobbit," then do two "Lord of the Rings" movies. When "The Hobbit" rights proved tricky to obtain, it was decided to just focus on "Lord of the Rings." But during development, which involved Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, it became clear this needed to be at least two movies. Weinstein, on the other hand, didn't want to pony up the dough. It became contentious and, at one point, the mogul even threatened to replace Jackson with Quentin Tarantino, oddly enough.

After some back and forth, Weinstein relented and allowed the project to be shopped elsewhere. Enter Bob Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema. Ultimately, Jackson talked Shaye into the idea, but the executive requested that it be turned into a trilogy. Thus, a filmmaker whose biggest movie up to that point hadn't even eclipsed a $30 million budget was put in charge of making an entire blockbuster trilogy, with all three movies shooting back-to-back in one massive production. This resulted in a combined budget in the $280 million range, a shoot that lasted more than 400 days in New Zealand, and a gigantic risk on New Line's part.

Casting the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a herculean feat unto itself, with many discussions had before the final lineup was settled on. Famously, Nicolas Cage was offered the role of Aragorn, eventually played by Viggo Mortenson, as one example of the movie we nearly got. In the end, it was Elijah Wood leading the way as Frodo Baggins, with Sean Astin alongside him as Samwise Gamgee, and Ian McKellen as the great wizard Gandalf, among many, many others. Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, and a host of other famous faces would make their mark in Tolkien's universe. Andy Serkis brought Gollum to life, and the motion-capture technology employed would go on to influence future blockbusters in ways it would have been difficult to imagine at the time. None of them could have predicted just how big this bet was going to pay off.

The Financial Journey

After filming between late 1999 up through December 2000, developing new digital techniques to craft the special effects needed to bring these stories to life, and a big promotional campaign, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" hit theaters in the United States on December 19, 2001. Despite all of the uncertainty, it proved to be a gigantic success from the get-go. Opening to $66 million over the long Christmas weekend and $47 million over the three-day stretch against rave reviews, "Fellowship of the Ring" built a lot of buzz and faced little competition in the marketplace in the coming weeks. As such, it dropped just 18% in week two, taking in another $38 million. It continued to hold incredibly well during its entire theatrical run, which lasted a full 35 weeks.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" earned a staggering $313 million domestic and $567 million internationally for a huge $880 million global total. Back in 2001, numbers like that were extremely rare, especially for a three-hour fantasy epic. That sort of material didn't always lend itself to mass appeal, but Jackson and his crew helped make that possible. These were crowd-pleasers through and through. It didn't hurt matters that the movie ended on a cliffhanger, setting up audiences to return the following December for "The Two Towers," and in December 2003 for "Return of the King." It also didn't hurt that those movies delivered the goods. 

Through it all, the "Lord of the Rings" films lost no steam and continued to bring out moviegoers in record numbers, with the trilogy ultimately taking in more than $2.9 billion, to go along with a boatload of Oscars, including a Best Picture win for "Return of the King." When taking the combined $281 million production budget into account, that makes for an incredible return on investment, especially if we consider the robust home video sales that continue to this day. In the end, Jackson's vision and Shaye's foresight to allow the story to be told in the way it needed to be told allowed for three brilliant pieces of blockbuster filmmaking to exist, released annually, making for a moviegoing experience the likes of which we hadn't truly seen before, and perhaps haven't seen since.

The Lessons Contained Within

In the years since "The Lord of the Rings" movies came out, Hollywood has only become more franchise-obsessed. Honestly, these movies are partially to blame for that. We need look no further than "The Hobbit" movies, which came out nearly a decade later, and stretched one short book into three movies for commercial purposes. Speaking to just how much audiences loved "Lord of the Rings," those "Hobbit" movies earned a combined $2.9 billion globally as well, despite not earning nearly as much critical praise.

Part of what becomes frustrating in franchise filmmaking today is that everything needs to feel safe. Filmmakers are rarely allowed to spread their wings when playing in a gigantic, big-budget sandbox, as studios are terrified of losing lots of money (understandably so), often making for watered-down, up-the-middle blockbusters, remakes, or family-friendly flicks. Or we can get an absolute mess that emerges from the chaos, such as the theatrical version of "Justice League."

I'm not a filmmaker, I'm just a guy who loves movies primarily as a form of entertainment. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Star Wars"," and James Bond. My favorite director is Steven Spielberg and my favorite movie is "Jurassic Park." If movies were romantic partners, I'd have a type. All of this to say, the last thing I want to see in the streaming age is an acceptance of mediocre blockbusters that are just entertaining enough to get people to watch them. Modern Hollywood could take a lesson from this book. Jackson was allowed to execute his vision the way it needed to be executed. Was it easy? Absolutely not, but in the end that is why it all worked out. New Line took a bet on proven source material in a way that made the most sense.

Also, not for nothing, but some blockbusters cost more than $250 million individually these days. The fact that New Line did all three of these for $281 set them up to succeed. They didn't need to make $1 billion each to be successful, but it certainly helped that they were that successful. Granted, I'm not taking inflation into account here, but this was an example of responsible budgeting not getting in the way of a movie's ability to succeed. So, in short, allow vision to permeate big movies, and try not to let things get out of hand from a financial point of view, and everyone wins. Or at least everyone has the best chance at winning.