The Frodo Franchise: An Interview with Kristin Thompson (Part Three)

In many ways,Lord of the Rings turned out to be a watershed project in terms of the relations of movie producers to their fans. Why do you think Jackson was so successful in building partnerships with his fans? What do you see as the benefits of this relationship? What lessons do you think the film industry has taken away from this experience?

Tolkien's novel had a fairly large fan base already, though it could only form a relatively small portion of the world audience such an expensive film needed. The fact that existing fans and non-readers both needed to be appealed to forced New Line to create an innovative and carefully planned internet campaign. Obviously they were very successful, but they had a lot of help from fan websites.

Peter is quite amazing in his understanding of fans and his ability to communicate with them. Back in 1998, when New Line announced the production, Peter's decision (not approved by the studio) to do Q&A sessions online with the fans was brilliant. Many people who were aghast that a splatter-film director was making LOTR got won over. He was also the one who persuaded New Line to allow big sites like and Ain't It Cool News to have limited access to the filmmaking. The online "Production Diaries" that he created for King Kong took his approach a big step further. Other directors are now imitating him and going online to communicate with the fans.

Peter has often declared himself to be a fan who makes movies for other fans. I don't believe that's just a publicity ploy.

One hallmark of your book is that you treat the cultural productions of fans alongside those of the commercial producers as all part of the story of the Lord of the Rings films. Can you describe how you approached fan culture in this book? Do you consider yourself to be a LOTR fan? Why or why not?

From early on, when I was first trying to outline the chapters for the book, I knew that the internet campaign would be one of the main topics. I took a broad view of what "campaign" meant, and I included fan sites as well as the official and quasi-official ones. Ultimately I got so much cooperation from various webmasters that the internet chapter became too long, and I divided it in two: one dealing with the official sites and the fan sites that New Line cooperated with and the second dealing with wholly unofficial fan sites and fan activities.

Given how vast the internet is and how many LOTR sites there were, I coped with it by creating a typology of LOTR-related websites and doing case studies of each.

Since I couldn't interview anyone at New Line, I didn't have access to Gordon Paddison, who ran the official online campaign. He had, however, written up a long case study himself in a textbook called Internet Marketing (which no one writing about LOTR seems to know about). unexpectedly served as a sort of quasi-official site. Ian McKellen already had this site, and when he started adding LOTR content, New Line wasn't entirely happy, but they didn't try to stop him. I interviewed Ian and his webmaster Keith Stern, so that site gets a case study. I also interviewed three of the four co-founders of and Harry Knowles and Quint of Ain't It Cool News for other case studies.

For the second internet chapter, I interviewed one fan webmaster, Lilith of Sherwood, and got to know her fairly well. She lives in Chicago, but I couldn't really travel all over the world doing face-to-face interviews with all the fans I mention, so I depended on email for the rest.

To learn about fanfiction and fanart, I obviously visited archives, but I also joined Yahoo! groups. (Luckily for me LiveJournals and fanfilms were still largely a thing of the future, which helped make all this doable.) I would join a dozen or so, stay on each for a few months, and move on to others. I communicated via email with some of the moderators and contributors. I also attended one major fan convention, the One Ring Celebration (ORC) during its first year, 2005. All that allowed me to get a pretty good sense of fan creativity and interests, I believe.

Given that you have pioneered the study of fan culture, I know you've done comparable sorts of things. But I'm amazed that so few of the people in media studies who claim to be interested in reception have done much with the internet. I've just reviewed a couple of anthologies of essays on LOTR for the annual Tolkien Studies (Volume IV, which came out in May), and the approaches to fans reflected in them are largely condescending and very limited. Questionnaires and face-to-face interviews are used, which I think would yield a very artificial notion of how fans behave among themselves.

I have obviously been a fan of the books for years. Like many long-time fans, I was dubious about the films and went to Fellowship with a fear that I would hate it. And, like many others, I found that I enjoyed it. Indeed, at the end I was ready to sit through it again immediately. Not that I agreed with all the changes that were made in the script, and there were many, great and small. The writers themselves have said that no fan would approve every change. So, yes, I'm a fan of the films as well. I don't collect nearly all the products or go to fan conventions (except for the one I mentioned, when I was researching the book).

Objectively speaking as a historian, I should be able to do a case study like this one dealing with a film that I don't care for. Realistically, to keep one's enthusiasm and determination up for years, especially in the face of long delays and obstacles, one has to be able to live with a film for years, and that means you have to like it.

Much of your work on Hollywood cinema has emphasized "typical" films and norms. Yet, in this case, you are devoting an entire book to a single film/franchise, something you haven't done since your initial study of Ivan the Terrible. Do you see the Lord of the Rings films as "typical" or "exceptional"? What can you tell us about the place of

such an extended case study of the production process within your larger body of work on contemporary and classical filmmaking?

This book is quite different from what I've written before, it's true.

Still, as you suggest, it does fit into one thread running through my work. In The Classical Hollywood Cinema (written with David Bordwell and Janet Staiger), I examined the original formulation of classical guidelines for style and narrative that was done in the pre-1920 period. That book as a whole stopped its coverage in 1960, mainly because of industry changes rather than because we thought the classical approach to filmmaking ended.

Storytelling in the New Hollywood was my attempt to examine classical narrative principles as they continue to exist in modern American studio films. That covered the period from the 1970s to the 1990s.

In a sense, The Frodo Franchise follows on and comes up to contemporary Hollywood, even though I barely touch on the question of whether or not LOTR fits my model of narrative structure. But it is an attempt to talk about how industry pressures and the digital revolution have helped shape filmmaking, marketing, and merchandising.

I consider LOTR to be both exceptional and typical. The great Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovski (who from my grad-school days on has influenced my approach tremendously), wanted to write an essay to discuss the concept of delay, or "stairstep construction" as he termed it, in literary narratives. He chose Tristram Shandy as his case study. That's obviously a unique and eccentric work as novels go, but it also uses delay in a very obvious way; it's really the novel's dominant device. Shklovski chose it because of that, because it would be a very clear way of explaining what exists less obviously in all novels. So for him Tristram Shandy was both exceptional and typical.

I took a somewhat similar tack in Storytelling in the New Hollywood. I took films that were successful with the public and respected for their story structure by critics and filmmakers--like Back to the Future. They aren't typical films, but they use typical techniques so skillfully that they display the norms in an ideal way. That is, if we take norms to equal guidelines, then these are typical, because most filmmakers want to make movies that conform to good Hollywood practice. Most would aspire to make films as good as Back to the Future or Amadeus or Hannah and Her Sisters or Tootsie, so the techniques as displayed in those films are normative.

LOTR offers that sort of example, the ideal to which others aspire, but on the level of the franchise rather than the single film. It was not only a mega-hit theatrically, but it provided a model of an effective internet campaign (even though New Line was learning how to do that as they went along, and there were some missteps). Its licensed products were mostly successful, including the video games, products which have become increasingly central to franchises. The DVD supplements set a new standard, one which has not been surpassed. The fact that the film was made at a sophisticated set of facilities that had recently been built in a small producing nation had implications for the future of international filmmaking. Its method of financing, with 26 overseas distributors forced to help finance the film in exchange for the local rights, was an extreme case of how independent films (which LOTR is) are ordinarily financed.

In short, LOTR embodied almost everything that's new and important in Hollywood practice these days. People could read about it and get a pretty good sense of why things are the way they are in Hollywood today, and they could also find out a great deal about a film they love. It's an exceptional example because of its enormous success, but everything I discuss is done on a lesser scale for typical franchises.

Your book also features an extensive discussion of the games which have been developed around the LOTR films. Historically, we would have seen games simply as another form of licensed merchandise around the central film franchise. How central do you think the LOTR games are to our understanding of the franchise as a whole? What kind of creative collaboration emerged between the games company and the film producers?

For the LOTR franchise as a whole, the video games are a big factor. Studios pick up a significant amount of money by licensing tie-in games. It's not as big as one might expect, and I do debunk the persistent myth that on average games now earn more than films. Far from it. Still, games are also a way of extending the income beyond the end of the film and in keeping up interest in case the studio someday wants to make more films in the franchise.

Right now, the LOTR franchise is still alive, even though the films stopped coming out more than three years ago. It's considerably smaller, of course, but products continue to appear. Both Sideshow and Gentle Giant are making new collectible statuettes and busts, Topps continues its trading-card game, and the third CD set of Howard Shore's complete music is yet to be released (alongside a licensed tie-in book about the musical score). On a recent trip I checked some airline bookshops and found rows of the mass-paperback copies of the trilogy volumes with publicity photos from the film on their covers. In terms of income, though, the video games are at the moment the core of the franchise. Electronic Arts initially had the rights to base games on the films, and later it bought the book-based rights as well. Now they can go on making Middle-earth-based games as long as they want to (though the licenses would need to be renewed occasionally).

The collaboration between EA and the filmmakers was unusually close. For most films, very little material is provided to the game designers. In this case there was a person from EA in charge of requesting "assets" (sound clips, photos, helmets, whatever) to be sent to EA's studios. It's hard to remember that in those days actors, particularly stars, seldom did the voices for their game characters. Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, a lot of the actors did one or more LOTR games. I was lucky enough to interview both the EA executive in charge of requesting assets and the Three Foot Six archivist in charge of filling those requests, so I got a good feel for the nuts and bolts of their procedures.

EA handles all its film-based games in the same way now, and I would imagine other big games companies do. So LOTR had a distinct influence in that area.

What insights might your research give into the breakdown of relations between Jackson and his production company? Given the credit given to Jackson to the series success, why are we unlikely to see a Jackson-produced version of The Hobbit any time soon?

Before responding, I should say that have no inside knowledge. I haven't tried to contact any of the people I interviewed back in 2003 and 2004, since I know they wouldn't be at liberty to tell me where things stand now. What I have had to say on this topic and will say here is educated speculation.

Since last October, I've been blogging at intervals of a few months, trying to piece together the hints that appear in interviews and trade-paper stories. Those entries give a more complete rundown than I could possibly do here (and I assume you'll link to them), so I'll be brief.

Editor's Note: Here are Links to the posts she mentions:

The Hobbit Film: New Developments

The Hobbit Film: Faint Signs of Movement

Once more on New Line, Peter Jackson, and The Hobbit

Cautious, that's c-a-u-t-i-o-u-s optimism concerning The Hobbit

Peter's lawsuit has gotten a high profile, of course, especially after Bob Shaye statement in January that Peter would never make The Hobbit while he runs New Line (which Shaye founded in 1967 and has been president or co-president of for its entire existence). But given the creative accounting of Hollywood studios when they're dishing out money to the people who own percentages of the receipts, lawsuits are not uncommon. New Line has dug in its heels about this one, but it also has reason to know that Peter is a very determined man and one of the few individuals who can afford lawyers of the same standing as those working for New Line).

As things stand right now (June 17), we're not likely to see a version of The Hobbit produced by Peter or anybody else soon. Pre-production and script-writing take forever these days, and those processes haven't started, as far as we know. Peter has one card up his sleeve, in that Weta Workshop designed Hobbiton and Rivendell and so on for LOTR, so it would make sense to continue with that company. And though the props and sets belong to New Line, they're in storage in New Zealand as far as I know.

The only director who has been rumored as a possible replacement for Peter, Sam Raimi, has said he would only direct The Hobbit with Peter's approval. New Line says they have the production rights until 1909. Presumably they only need to have launched a project by that time in order to retain the rights. To get a finished film out by then without undue rush would mean they should have started already.

MGM holds the distribution rights and will co-produce. They want Peter to direct. Michael Lynne, co-president of New Line, has recently said that he thinks the legal dispute can be worked out. Saul Zaentz, to whom the rights would revert in 1909, wants Peter to direct. Ian McKellen has strongly hinted he wouldn't play Gandalf again if Peter doesn't direct. Certainly the vast majority of the fans want Peter for The Hobbit. I suspect just about everyone except Shaye wants Peter to direct. His name attached (possibly even just as producer) would be worth at least many tens of millions of dollars. Unless New Line is hiding some terribly big sums of money that they owe Peter, settling with him makes sense. And if they are hiding money, it might well come out anyway if the case goes to court.

So I don't think I'm being wildly optimistic when I say that, knowing what we know now (I'm writing these replies in mid-July), there still seems to me a good chance that Peter will ultimately direct the film, or at least be asked to. Who knows, he might turn it down, though he was enthusiastic enough about it before the lawsuit business turned ugly. And if he were to produce and hand-pick the director, I expect the fans would settle for that. Still, I don't see any obvious reason why he couldn't direct. His Lovely Bones adaptation, which is a relatively modest project, is due out in late 2008, and despite many other possible projects, he hasn't committed to any specific one beyond Bones.

Of course all this could change tomorrow.