In terms of iconic film franchises, it does not get much more cherished than Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Starting with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and concluding with the epic The Return of the King two years later, each of the three instalments were a resounding critical and commercial success, with the entire trilogy grossing nearly £3billion at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing film series of all time.
Famously, the movies were produced by a label of Warner Bros and New Line Cinema in tandem with Jackson’s own company, WingNut Films — but it could have all been very different.
As was reported in a piece in The Hollywood Reporter back in 2013, not long after the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for a time in the early stages of its development, Disney and their subsidiary, Miramax, were to be the ones releasing The Lord of the Rings movies but they decided not to fund it due to hefty costs.
The decision turned out to be arguably the worst mistake in cinema history, as The Lord of the Rings went on to be obscenely successful, and a reflection of the fact that sometimes, a director with a vision needs to be backed for the good of everyone.
It was pointed out in the piece that the infamous heads of Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, were receiving a small cut from the first of The Hobbit films due to a deal that had been struck years before, even though they had nothing to do with their production. This went back to the days when Miramax controlled The Lord of the Rings series.
Before delving into that, a little background knowledge is required on how Peter Jackson and Miramax’s partnership came to fruition. In 1995, when wrapping up the post-production on The Frighteners, Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh discussed making an original fantasy film, but they could not come up with an idea that didn’t feel Tolkien-esque, so they decided to look up the film rights for The Lord of the Rings books instead.
The pair went to Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the rights from Saul Zaentz. Jackson knew that he’d have to create multiple films to do the work of Tolkien justice, but he initially pitched just a single trilogy: one film based on The Hobbit, and if that succeeded, two Lord of the Rings titles that would be shot in quick succession.
Jackson later recalled: “We pitched the idea of three films and Miramax didn’t really want to take that risk, but we agreed on two.”
As the scripts were developed, it became clear that the budget needed would greatly exceed the capabilities of Miramax, even if they were a subsidiary of Disney. In order to circumvent the issue, the Weinstein’s suggested that they cut the project to just one film. In response, Jackson asked if the one title could be around four hours in length, but Miramax refused, insisting on two hours, with major cuts to the story. Understandably, Jackson outright rejected this direction.
Things got so tense that Harvey Weinstein threatened to replace Jackson with the screenwriter Hossein Amini and a new director in the form of someone such as John Madden or Quentin Tarantino. Jackson held firm, as he saw this as an empty threat to force him into conceding to make a one-film version of Tolkien’s story. Eventually, it was Harvey Weinstein who agreed to put the project on a turnaround, but the difficult conditions he had demanded were intended to put off other studios from picking up the project.
Believing in the potential of his multiple-film undertaking, Jackson was undeterred, and he secured an audience with the CEO of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, who accepted his propositions but requested that it be expanded into a trilogy after delivering many concrete reasons why it would be successful. Before too long, Jackson had secured an expansive budget for each movie, and the rest is history.
Returning to the deal that the Weinstein’s made for The Hobbit and Disney’s decision to not fund The Lord of the Rings series, it becomes clear just how much of a significant blunder they made.
It was reported in The Hollywood Reporter that the Weinstein’s tried but failed to persuade Miramax’s parent, Disney, to fund a two-picture version of The Lord of the Rings, and feeling that they could do no more, they agreed to let Jackson go to New Line Cinema, on the condition that they were paid $10million in “turnaround” costs and a portion of the backend. Strangely, this was when Miramax and the Weinstein’s were also contractually granted 5% of the first-dollar gross from any future Hobbit film.
Whilst Peter Jackson, the world of Tolkien, and the story of The Lord of the Rings all triumphed by moving to New Line Cinema, it is hard to shake the feeling that Disney, and to a lesser extent, the Weinstein’s, made a grave mistake. If they’d given Jackson what he required to bring his vision to life, they would have been at the helm of one of the most successful film series of all time, but instead, were left looking rather foolish, backing other projects that were not as fruitful or as everpresent in popular culture as Jackson’s films are.