By Kristin Thompson
Up until about 15 years ago, movie franchises had been largely limited to the James Bond pictures and horror movie series. Now, of course, they are one of the tentpoles of Hollywood moviemaking and moneymaking. Many directors therefore are faced with the prospect of initiating a franchise or stepping into one initiated by others. For some idea of what lies ahead on such projects, one could do worse than consulting Kristin Thompson’s epic, multi-angle saga of the “once in a lifetime” making of Peter Jackson’s magisterial The Lord of the Rings trilogy. At the center of her account stands the bearded wizard Jackson, who turned his temporary possession of the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books into the basis for not merely a franchise but a complete overhaul of the way such movies are made (i.e., filming all three movies in one lengthy burst of activity), to say nothing of building almost from scratch a brand-new film industry capital in Wellington, New Zealand. But it wasn’t easy going. Thompson explains how Jackson fended off doubts from skeptics at New Line while making what he called “an oddball New Zealand movie with an English sensibility” using American money. In part, it was this “fluid, improvisatory, let’s-try-it-this-way approach” that in no small measure contributed to the success of the franchise. Thompson, an academic film historian and a fan of the novels, got in on the project early and was afforded invaluable access to almost everyone involved—actors, writers, digital effects crews, and creature shops, and also the many fan websites that received official help from the filmmakers and producers. The book offers a fascinating insider’s view of the step-by-step mechanics of creating and selling a three-part epic. It will either thoroughly educate potential franchise-helmers or put them off the idea forever, so intimidating and complex is the task and accomplishment chronicled here.
Review by John Patterson