“The heirs of Elendil do not forget all things past,” said Strider ...
From the age of 8, I have been on the front lines of a fan phenomenon that has taken me from the gatefold covers of my brother’s treasured Led Zeppelin albums to distant Kiwi lands where the stars are strange. But nothing, and I mean nothing, can reach the level of unique fan chaos generated at San Diego Comic-Con.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
With the exception of these two recent summers affected by COVID-19, I have attended SDCC yearly since 2000 as a panelist, emcee, and host for our fandom, and Lor’ bless me, Master Frodo, surely we’ve witnessed changes we should have seen a-coming (if you’ll forgive my inner-Samwise speaking out).
In 2001, the leviathan (and legendary) Hall H was yet only an architect’s fever dream, so it was the task of the newly minted Ballroom 20 adjacent to the Exhibit Hall to house the big-ticket studio presentations. These huge blowouts in a ballroom were the newest craze. New Line Cinema was ready to unspool that Mines of Moria escape footage it had just screened at the Cannes Film Festival (earning pivotal early buzz in the world press and delight from the studio’s foreign market investors).
Ringers were salivating. I was fit to explode with eagerness. The Fellowship of the Ring was five months from wide release, and the most anticipated meal ever was about to be served in that Ballroom. Assuredly we were all ignoring Gandalf’s famous advice that “those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder.” It was too late for that.
I wanted the team working on these films to feel the fan love, I genuinely did. Giving direct acknowledgment to these intrepid artists was my main goal. They told me how isolated they felt “way down there” apart from the larger apparatus of filmmaking in Los Angeles; and it made me want to share more energy with them so that these wonderful craftspeople could know, in their hearts, we had their backs. Yes, naïve and optimistic, but a little acknowledgment goes a long way. Try it sometime.
The Lord of the Rings’ Wellington, New Zealand-based filmmakers were thrilled with the famous Spy Reports delivered by TheOneRing.net at the time, sparking buzz and speculation nearly weekly for a production doing something of which they were already immensely proud. Now, at SDCC, they were about to get their first taste of wild honey from a fandom ready to embrace it all, from the top down, yet still slightly wary of Peter Jackson’s zombie splatter-film past. Admittedly, interactions with everyone from the Weta Workshop team signaled to me these artists were unprepared for the waves of adulation about to crash on their quiet shores. Attending SDCC 2001 was their first step toward receiving worldwide seismic acclaim.
Funny to see the tone I took back then, but I was indeed onto something when I observed the needle moving away from printed matter (illustrated fiction and actual comics) to film and TV promotions. I and many other pop-culture observers at the time had a foresight, perhaps, that Hollywood would carefully calibrate its use of SDCC as a blunt marketing instrument for its biggest “genre IPs.” At that time, being comic book-related or spun from fantasy, sci-fi, anime, or video games, was the low-bar prerequisite your show needed to have some studio executive throw money at such a convention push. All things being equal, it was billed as “Celebrating the Popular Arts.”
Unfortunately, the pattern grew and cemented its weedlike hold on the con: In eight more years, this metamorphosis would see studios and networks hawking their shows like any flimsy factory product even without it being genre storytelling. By the time the ABC network dragged Patricia Heaton into the ballroom for a pedestrian sitcom like The Middle (she famously exclaimed onstage, “I don’t even know what we are doing here!”), I knew with fallen crest that the Golden Age of Genre Goodness was annihilated forever from the landscape of San Diego.
A pity, that.
Nostalgia is powerful indeed: Even as Ringers of a new generation anticipate big things from Amazon Studios’ billion-dollar foray into a Middle-earth adaptation, we still hearken back. We learn something from such golden-hued memories of a time when the internet was a little more innocent, a lot less jaded, and happy to celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s works in boundless good faith. Over at TheOneRing.net, we still volunteer to keep those beacons lit, and welcome all generations of fans to join in fellowship.
What you’re about to read is a little piece we published on TheOneRing.net out of San Diego Comic-Con 2001 (under the online pseudonym Quickbeam, a habit of ’90s internet bloggers). Polygon has given me the delightful opportunity to look back and marvel at a behemoth of popular culture (observed from a safer distance) and to laugh at my own naïveté, perhaps. Here’s what we saw in 2001:
Greetings — Quickbeam here.
Last year all us Tolkien fans were just scratching the surface of the San Diego Comic-Con. In contrast, this year we hit the radar like never before!
It’s a combination of things that makes this Con such a powerhouse event for people who love fantasy, illustrated fiction, great movies, games, and all the “Popular Arts.” It ain’t just comic books anymore, kiddo. In fact, today’s Los Angeles Times had an article about how the movie industry is much more aware of how this type of gathering, this Comic-Con in particular, is a unique promotional spring-board for Hollywood’s biggest “event movies.” Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings included.
In this scenario you can’t expect a studio to overlook its fans, and in San Diego it is the genre film that reigns supreme. Highlights included sneak previews of Spider Man, Planet of the Apes, the new DVD release of Robert Wise’s completed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Harry Potter, and the crown jewel of all fantasy, LOTR. Lowlights that left a bad taste in the mouth included the painfully trite Smallville soon to premiere on the WB Network (beware viewers, your beloved Superman has been turned into Beverly Hills 90210 drivel) and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, which was ignored by a chilly audience.
The award for “Most Eye-Catching Display” goes to DreamWorks. They impressed many attendees with a massive floor exhibit from The Time Machine. The giant glass-and-brass apparatus was a marvel to see, nearly two stories high and about 3 tons of hardware, by the look of it. My friend called it, “A giant chandelier that was assimilated by the Borg.” The whole thing looked like an exhibit from the Smithsonian.
And where was New Line Cinema? Evidently they decided on a low-key approach, saving their big guns for the Saturday evening showing of Fellowship footage. As we have reported, it was a mind-blowing event with so many thousands of people jammed into the huge converted ballroom. Even though they didn’t pass out any free gifts or T-shirts (Tookish and I are quite fond of mathoms) you could not ask for more enthusiasm!
Remember last year when Sir Ian McKellen sprung out on stage and surprised the heck out of everyone? This time, as the video footage from Cannes played on the giant screens, you could tell from the look on his face that he wanted to be with us all in person, once more. You got the feeling he loved the passion behind the filmmakers’ work, and equally the passion that Tolkien fans have brought to this new project — and he said as much in a more gracious manner than I ever could. I recall him saying, “If it weren’t for you, and your love of these books, these films would never have been made.” From the heart of the wisest wizard comes a wonderful acknowledgement for all of us.
One shining moment during the Hobbiton footage made us stop and laugh. There were tables set with piles of food, wine, and delicious frosted cakes; and as the banners went up and tents were raised under the Party Tree, a rustic old hobbit was caught on film addressing someone off-camera. He defiantly declared, “Say what you like about Mad Baggins, but he sets the most bountiful table in three Farthings,” or something close to that. Tookish and I both debated this mystery Hobbit, and came to an early conclusion that it was the Gaffer himself! We shall see, we shall see.
Mr. Elijah Wood proved to be excellent and beyond patient. After the LOTR footage there were swarms of fans who piled up on him with flash bulbs, video cams, and pleas of, “Could you sign this for me?” I happened to be one of the culprits, so I must deeply apologize to Elijah for instigating the crowd. I just couldn’t help it. How often does one get the chance to meet the Ringbearer himself!? Later in the evening the whole dining company was in good spirits, as Tookish has already related. Elijah’s timing is quick and so are his wits; as the evening wore on he showed his gregarious side even in the late hours. No doubt it was great fun working with him in New Zealand for 18 months!
Last year we had lunch with Gandalf. This time it was dinner with Frodo. Who knows what might happen in 2002? The mind boggles.
But seriously, no star shined brighter than Richard Taylor, President of WETA, and his brilliant team of designers from New Zealand (and at least one of them from Australia, or else I’m a ninny-hammer!). All people around them are touched by their generosity. All discussions turn to quiet listening and wide-eyed wonder when they speak of LOTR. All doubts about these films wash away when you hear Daniel or David or Richard talk. We were thrilled to be part of their company and doubly lucky that Richard took part in our presentation. Here is a transcript of Richard Taylor’s eloquent words before a packed house, all Tolkien fans eager to learn more of WETA’s role in the filmmaking process:
“Hullo and this is obviously a great pleasure to even have come to San Diego and come to the Comic-Con, but ah a few of our guys from the workshop have just been invited and had the opportunity to have a quick word to you. We started on the film five years ago now; we’ve been in the film industry for 14 years so it’s over a third of our working careers have been committed to bringing the world of Tolkien to the audiences of the world. We chose at the very beginning to look after the five departments under the one roof of our Weta workshop. We’ve looked after the special make-up effects, the creatures, the armor, the weapons, and the miniatures, and in effect looked after all of the war and injury rigs as well. To look after the design, fabrication, and onset operation of so many departments on one film is obviously an unenviable task—but to be stupid enough to suggest that we could look after all three films was sheer madness. But there certainly is probably not a better audience in the world then those sitting before me now who will appreciate likewise (applause) what I say about this.
Tolkien – any individual author — writes a singular vision of their creativity; likewise did Tolkien, and when we came to make this film and Peter (Jackson) offered us the decision on what departments we wanted to look after we knew that if we didn’t take on as much as we possibly could and came to the world of Middle-earth with our own singular Tolkienesque brushstroke there was the possibility that the project would become fragmented. There is no more important thing to this film project than an integrity and a realism to the vision of his writings.
At no time did we consider we were making a fantasy. We considered this a piece of English folklore; we believed we were trying to bring the writings of Tolkien in the way he tried to bring modern folklore to the world of England and our world to the screen. So to that end we’ve invested a phenomenal amount of our time — our preproduction time — developing the cultures that you’ll come to discover in the filmmaking. We’ve entered a huge amount of effort to create the graphic design of Middle-earth so that every culture has its own iconic realization. We were fanatical at a number of levels. At all times I said to the guys in the workshop — we had 148 people working in the facility and another 38 on set — and I was absolutely adamant at all times that this wasn’t film-making, this was legacy-making and if all of us weren’t in the mental position that we would want our grandchildren to sit on our laps and remember this project with them then we weren’t worthy of the project. (applause) At all times we had to approach this with a level of fanaticism some people bring to the Christian religions. (audience laughs) Yes!
Alongside Peter Jackson obviously we’ve had the most incredible five years of our lives. We’ve been blessed to have been given the opportunity to do this. We have been touched at a level that we could never have considered at the beginning. We knew it was going to be special but it has been special beyond our wildest imaginations. I hope you all watch these three films that you likewise will be touched again after reading the books for so many years: You’ll be touched again by the visual imagery, the wealth and richness that we hope we’ve brought to your Middle-earth.
Thank you very much.” (loud raucous applause)
Again, we extend our gratitude to Sideshow Toys, WETA, and Decipher Games for giving us a chance to share our Tolkien fanaticism. Congrats to all on an excellent four-day showing.
It was a long ride. It was also satisfying. Beyond the many people and events we experienced (or collided with) during the Con, we were impressed above all else with one grand, unavoidable thing: the building wave of excitement! The Eyes of World will soon be turning to LOTR, and through the prism of our shared media J.R.R. Tolkien will come under a brighter spotlight than ever before. This is the just the overture, as the sweeping arms of pop culture embrace the Professor and his works.
And with that, we bring the 2001 Comic-Con to a close. See you all next year.
Much too hasty,
Quickbeam & Tookish