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'Lord' of the Budget

And you thought Titanic was big. Get ready for Lord of the Rings, the biggest gamble in Hollywood history: a $300 million trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien tales.

And that doesn't count the expected $150 million marketing budget. Though the first film doesn't open worldwide until Dec. 19 — on an unprecedented number of screens  the marketing push is already well under way. 

Here's why: No movie has ever had more money riding on it  and the challenge for New Line is not only to have a hit with the first installment, but to sustain public interest over two years and two sequels. 

"This is an unproven and very risky concept they're undertaking here," says Robert Buxbaum, president of box-office analysts ReelSource. 

"Everyone expects this first film to be huge. But when you're dealing with sequels, you face diminishing returns, especially on the third one. If the first movie doesn't make $200 million, what's going to happen to the next two?" 

Adding to the risk, there are no marquee stars like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts in sight  just respected actors such as Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler and Ian Holm. The topliner — Elijah Wood playing Frodo Baggins — is not a major box-office draw. 

Still, early signs are promising. 

When 26 minutes of footage from the film was screened for the international press at the Cannes Film Festival, the crowd  comprised of both critics and a sprinkling of hard-core fans broke out in applause five times and gave director Peter Jackson a standing ovation. 

And when New Line's official Web site, lordoftherings.net, posted two minutes of footage, the site got 1.7 million hits in the first 24 hours alone. 

"I don't think there's any doubt it's going to be massive, based on the books' hard-core following alone," says reel.com columnist Jeffrey Wells. 

Buxbaum is less bullish. "These movies get a tremendous amount of hype before opening, but those who are vocal about wanting to see the movie are a very select group. They're the sci-fi geeks who sit on their computer all day and have read all Tolkien's books  they don't represent the mainstream." 

Fantasy has been the kiss of death at the box office recently, with films such as A.I., Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy underperforming. 

But, Buxbaum says, New Line has a reputation for putting out films with fantasy themes that cross over into the mainstream, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask and Mortal Kombat

"They may just pull it off," he says. 

New Line's teasers have concentrated on amazing special effects and mind-blowing action sequences. 

But online film guru Harry Knowles  who has read the Rings screenplay and seen more of the footage than most says the story line is also solid. 

"The critics who have seen the early footage are thinking of it as another special effects fest, but when they get into the theater they're going to see some very real, amazing acting and a Shakespearean level of writing," he says. 

"The only time I've felt this confident about a film was before Titanic came out." 

The publicity machine cranked up a notch this week with the launch of the official Lord of the Rings fan club. Director Jackson offered to put the charter members' names in the film's DVD credits. 

A one-year charter membership costs $39.95, and also includes magazine subscriptions, discounts at the fan club's on-line store and preference in purchasing limited-edition collectibles. 

In the coming weeks, images of Frodo Baggins and company will crop up on everything from T-shirts to video games, action figures to fast food. (The tie-in with Burger King prompted Web site quips about Lord of the Onion Rings.) 

Jackson, for one, is showing no signs of nervousness. 

Knowles visited the Rings set for the last 10 days of shooting last December and sums up Jackson's mood then as "giddy." 

"He's been working for three years solid on this project and he feels like he's on the other side of the hump now," Knowles says. 

"There hasn't been any scramble for massive re-shoots, and when he screened the film for (studio execs) the only thing they did at that point was boost the amount of money they were going to spend on advertising." Knowles, who paid his own way to the New Zealand set, reports that the actors are also excited. 

"Christopher Lee, who's 79, said he just hopes he lives long enough to see all three films," Knowles reports. "And Ian McKellen says Gandalf is the greatest part he's ever played." 

In the current climate of fear and anxiety, a cinematic flight of fancy in which good battles evil in a time and place far away could be just the ticket. 

"I couldn't be happier that Lord of the Rings is on the way," said actor-director Jon Favreau recently, musing about the state of cinema in the post-Sept. 11 world. 

"I want to see hobbits and orcs, not spies and terrorists; show me good and evil in a way I can stomach. I think I speak for all of us when I say that right now, I feel like a confused hobbit about to enter Mordor."

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