The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 45-63
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Fantasy, Franchises, and Frodo Baggins:
The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood
Get ready to write a sequel.
—Gandalf to Bilbo in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Wizards Enchant Hollywood
Three of the seven films that have grossed over $800,000,000 worldwide were released within a five-month period, and all three were fantasy films: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (number 2, released November 2001, gross $965,700,000), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (number 5, December 2001, $860,200,000), and Spider-Man (number 7, April 2002, $803,600,000). 1 Indeed, except for the highest-grossing film, Titanic, the top ten are all fantasies (assuming The Lion King can be put into that category) or science fiction. The rapid succession of three big hits launching franchises, the publicity drama of New Line's risk in making all three Lord of the Rings (LOTR) films simultaneously, and the enthusiasm of fan bases created a high profile for Harry Potter, Fellowship, and Spider-Man. Two of these films were wizard tales adapted from prestigious British fantasy series with an appeal to both children and adults, and the advantages of such largely overlooked source material for franchises struck a chord in the industry. As I finished revising this article this trend was continuing: The Two Towers was in its sixth week of release and was approaching a worldwide gross of nearly $800,000,000, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, though not doing as well as the first film, will probably cross the same figure eventually.
Why are fantasies so suited to franchises? The genre offers many obvious advantages. Fantasies are assumed to appeal most to the teenagers and young adults who have since the 1980s been the demographic sector of greatest interest to Hollywood studios because they had the highest moviegoing frequency and considerable disposable income. Moreover, fantasies lend themselves to a broad range of merchandizing, and fantasy fans tend to collect things. We do not see action figures of the characters in A Beautiful Mind, a film that also lacks the potential for tie-ins with fast-food chains and other producers of publicity-generating ancillary products, especially videogames. Another advantage is that in most cases where a film attracts repeat viewings, it is young people who are going more than once—as in the case of the teenage girls who go to LOTR over and over to see Orlando Bloom (playing Legolas). Young people are more likely to purchase DVDs than VHS cassettes, and the industry would like nothing better than to have the new format take over completely, given that the manufacturing cost per unit is lower and sell-through prospects are more robust. 2 If fantasy films are adapted from popular literature or comic books, some among their existing fan audience will be willing to provide free publicity on Websites. Certainly, fans in various genres provide this sort of publicity, but fantasy series tend to foster an interest in esoteric knowledge (e.g., studying Klingon). The same sort of self-proclaimed geekiness that leads people to construct Websites also tends to be found among fantasy fans. Fantasy films can also be turned into video games, which bring in additional revenues, promote the video releases of earlier [End Page 45] films in a franchise, and generate interest in upcoming entries. These films usually include elaborate special effects, which can spawn making-of documentaries, and these stand a good chance of airing as half-hour or hour-long advertisements for the film on the Sci Fi Channel and similar cable outlets hungry for infotainment programming. Comparable coverage appears in magazines—and of the specialist magazines within the general area of film, the greatest number are devoted to horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Explanations of special effects also make attractive supplements to DVDs. Thanks to publicity, big budgets are enough in themselves to create events: tentpole films designed for...