The idea of turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings into a live-action feature film eluded filmmakers for decades. Then, when Peter Jackson finally accomplished the near-impossible — adapting the books, securing the money, realizing Tolkien’s vivid detail in every set and prop — he began the real challenge: selling audiences on his epic trilogy.
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.
The hype was already real by the time promotion for The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring ramped up. In April 2000, the internet-exclusive trailer for Fellowship was downloaded from Apple Trailers 1.7 million times in its first 24 hours, breaking a record set by Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. (Compare that, though, to the present-day record: Spider-Man: No Way Home’s first trailer, released in August and viewed 355.5 million times in the first 24 hours.) But by May 2001, the time had come to reassemble the fellowship ... for many, many, many step-and-repeat red carpet opportunities.
Photographic evidence of the high-stakes press gauntlet for Fellowship suggests that Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, and Liv Tyler (bringing some much-needed femininity to the red carpet bro-out) had a decent time flying around the world to preach the blockbuster word. Or, to quote McKellen’s blog from the time, it could have been much worse:
In all standard film contracts, amidst the verbiage that surrounds the interesting paragraph about remuneration, there nestles a commitment that, I suspect, few actors read before signing. Only when the filming is done and the release date approaches comes the realisation of what, months before, was agreed to — a promise, if free of other professional work, to participate in the business of publicising the movie.
How much of this is actually required will depend upon the actor’s individual status. To a junior, unknown actor, for instance, attending a “junket” (i.e. meeting the media en masse over a day or two or three) can seem the very stuff of glamour; and television, radio and press interviews, the enviable terrain of stardom. But when I found myself in Berlin one weekend in 1996 publicising Richard III, a film which I had instigated and starred in, I experienced the reality — 75 interviews, short and long, over three days, and a subsequent headache that lasted for a week. When I was then despatched alone on a 13-city (sometimes two in a day) tour across the United States talking to the local media, you might think I would have learned that glamour and publicity don’t belong in the same sentence. Junkets are events to be avoided — but there is always that contractual obligation.
Sifting through photos of the contractually obligated Fellowship of the Ring press tour is both a trip down memory lane and a snapshot of a very particular moment in early-2000s pop culture and style. So let’s relive it. What follows are some highlights from the journey to the film’s release on Dec. 19, 2001. One does not simply walk into the annals of blockbuster history ...
The Cannes Film Festival, May 11, 2001
Financing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a gamble for New Line Cinema — if the first movie failed, three movies would fail. And it was enough of a gamble that New Line president Bob Shaye opted to gamble even more in the months before The Fellowship of the Ring’s premiere. In May 2001, Shaye flew Jackson and the cast to the Cannes Film Festival to wine and dine the press, and show of 26 minutes of (incomplete) footage. The film did not premiere at Cannes, but the event was blown out like a premiere. Shaye spent a reported $2 million to transform the Château de Castellaras in the nearby French town of Mouans-Sartoux into Middle-earth, a project overseen by Jackson’s actual crew. The footage entranced festivalgoers, and Jackson has been quoted over the years as saying that the event was the reason why Lord of the Rings ultimately soared upon release. “If you were there that night in Cannes,” Shaye recently told Deadline, “it would be something you’d always remember.” Luckily, they invited photographers.
McKellen wrote at length about his moment at Cannes, and I would be remiss to not pair these gleeful photos of the cast hanging out with orcs with a few of his words:
Over three days, the sun shone on a massive balloon in the shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was tethered out in the bay amongst the millionaire’s yachts. I accompanied Elizabeth Taylor at a press conference about AIDS, narrowly avoiding permanent eye damage as 500 cameras flashed at her everlasting beauty. Whatever happens to those photographs? It’s the same at the Oscars’ ceremony — miles of film shot along the red carpet and next day every paper seems to carry the same picture as if it were the only one that had been taken.
This year at Cannes, coinciding with a local holiday, tourists kept a constant vigil four-deep around the main hotels along the curved seafront (La Croisette). Their cameras at the ready, they never seemed to care when I passed them by and that’s fine with me. I kept my eyes open too but stars were thin on the Croisette this year, apart from the Lord of the Rings cast.
We met up first at the downtown cinema where we were to be shown, ahead of the distributors and selected media, the first completed footage from the trilogy. Extra sound equipment was installed to ensure the full Dolby onslaught. I sat near the back, next to Saruman and Mrs Lee, with Frodo in front of me. Peter Jackson and Bob Shaye, New Line’s supremo, welcomed us and warned us that not everything we would see was entirely finished. They could have fooled me.
The bookstore stop, Nov. 8, 2011
How hard did the cast of The Lord of the Rings have to go in the weeks ahead of the film’s December release? Here are Astin and McKellen promoting not the movies themselves, but The Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Visual Companion at bookstores. Astin in particular appears to be having a blast showing a 20-minute footage reel to customers at Brentano’s Bookstore in Los Angeles. Things get more fun from here.
Class photos, Dec. 5, 2001
Before the formal premiere, the Lord of the Rings cast descended upon New York City to go toe to toe with the media. The days involved hours of being asked questions like, “What was it like to wear hobbit feet?” and taking photos that look like first-grade picture day for adults. Bless Orlando Bloom’s “Blue Steel” here.
Not pictured is Tyler, who, based on this account from the weekend, was maybe a little over it by the end:
Liv Tyler is feeling cold, and maybe a little cranky. It’s unseasonably, uncannily warm outside, on the first weekend of December in Manhattan, but all she’s got on is a white tank top above what looks like velvet pants. After three hours of nonstop interviews with gangs of journalists assembled on the 34th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for the “Lord of the Rings” press junket, Tyler has swaddled herself in a hideous purple checked blanket whose fluorescent tinge makes her porcelain skin look even paler than it is.
The Lord of the Rings world premiere in London, Dec. 10, 2001
The big day arrives, and from here on, every member of the cast looks like they’re having the greatest time of their lives. They did it! They really did it.
The premiere at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square in London is overrun with Rings-themed decorations and the biggest smiles you can imagine. Most of them are coming from British celebrities who were very popular in the early 2000s, so let’s just focus on the cast.
(Did Peter Jackson wear the same outfit for the entire week of premieres? The investigation begins now.)
“After the Balrog,” McKellen writes of the premiere screening, “I left for some fresh air and a cigarette. There the fans were still waiting, entertained only by the repeating relay of Howard Shore’s score. They were mostly in their 20s and younger. I know of one 40 year old who flew from the States just to stand outside the cinema, the occasion was so momentous for him. Momentous for me too, who made the same journey.”
I do need to stop for a second to admire this photo of the British pop group A1 / beg us all to avoid full-blown nostalgia for this era. We can’t go back to these haircuts, I’m sorry.
New York premiere, Dec. 13, 2001
The New York premiere of Fellowship took place just a few weeks after the events of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the vibe was one of jubilation. Even Gov. George Pataki showed up to the premiere with his kids. According to one report, after “the initial bombardment of press and people most of them actually had time to spend a few minutes talking one on one; there was even moment where [Wood] and [Astin] jokingly slipped back into character when Elijah said, ‘Come on, Sam. Jump on my back!’ And he did.”
Note: Everyone is in black except for Jackson, who is wearing that purple shirt again ...
The real highlights of a 2001 premiere: 2001 celebrities and looks. Joining a kilt-wearing Boyd on the red carpet were Ethan Hawke (who did his Oscar-season due diligence on the red carpet that year while campaigning for Training Day), former couple Padma Lakshmi and Salman Rushdie, and Cosby’s Doug E. Doug!
Total Request Live, Dec. 14, 2001
Oh my god.
The Los Angeles premiere, Dec. 16, 2001
Another premiere on the other side of the country? Why not. Much like the sparsely attended Pirates of the Caribbean premiere two years later, the first bow of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was ... not widely attended by famous people. With all due respect to Lucy Lawless and Wes Craven, the L.A. premiere was not an A-list event. A few Oscars later, and things would drastically change.
New Zealand and Australian premieres, Dec. 19-20, 2001
After the U.S. premiere, Jackson and the cast flew around the world to New Zealand and Australia for back-to-back events. This was the finish line, and it was both raucous and muted. New Line blew out Cannes and London, and left Jackson and the crew to celebrate on their own Down Under. But the New Zealand premiere brought out local talent, including Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis, and was introduced with the fanfare of Māori dancers. Also, Jackson wore his purple shirt.
In other news, Miranda Otto had a blast at the premiere for the Lord of the Rings movie she was not in, Rose Byrne was pre-famous but in attendance, Toni Collette was riding high from The Sixth Sense, and Hugo Weaving looks to have done his fair share of celebrating. May we all be Hugo Weaving after watching The Fellowship of the Ring.
These boys. These movies. This time in life. What a journey.