Something strange was afoot at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Among the high-brow mainstays like David Lynch and Michael Haneke, four hobbits, two men, one elf, one dwarf, and a wizard invaded the gleaming white tents and red carpets. The powers that be at New Line Cinema entered into a risky gamble to get the filmgoing upper crust to consider the studio’s costly, high-fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, as bona fide cinema. And it worked.
The first screening of just 26 minutes of footage from Peter Jackson’s epic undertaking dazzled the film critics in attendance to such a degree that they gathered in the aisles afterward to excitedly chew over what they had just seen. New Line would go on to further win over hearts and minds in tried and true Cannes fashion with a $2 million party furnished with imported film sets from New Zealand. Most surprising of all is who else New Line invited to rub elbows and pass hors d’oeuvres with the Cannes elite: the die-hard fans of Lord of the Rings’ creator, J.R.R. Tolkien. Twenty years ago, catering—literally—to the fandom simply wasn’t done. By the end of that year, that would all change.
You can’t throw an infinity stone in Hollywood these days without hitting an executive, filmmaker, or critic eager to complain about how fans have “taken over” the industry. While many of those complaints are overblown, it’s impossible to miss the impact that increasingly vocal fans—with their social-media-assisted direct line to power—have in shaping our entertainment. The fingerprints of fandom are everywhere in modern blockbuster filmmaking, whether it’s pushing for more inclusive casting, a multimillion-dollar director’s cut of a superhero film, the improbable return of a fan-favorite character, or the complete redesign of a movie’s main character. And though vocal fandoms—particularly the geekiest strains—can be traced back to a galaxy far, far away and beyond, they came into their full power at the turn of the last century with the oddly synchronized box office explosions of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
As these major 20th anniversaries collide in the final month of 2021, it’s worth remembering that both the Boy Who Lived and the Fellowship of the Ring set off on their cinematic adventures under the shadow of the September 11 attacks. “I had forgotten Sorcerer’s Stone came out the same time as Fellowship,” Game of Thrones writer-producer Bryan Cogman says. “Obviously those movies were already in the works, but I’m sure the shell shock of 9/11 and international grieving is intertwined with their success.”
The timing of it all is completely coincidental, of course. Various filmmakers had been trying to get a live-action Lord of the Rings movie off the ground for decades and J.K. Rowling had sold the Potter film rights before the third book had even hit the shelves. These films provided a post-9/11 world with escapism, yes, but also a way to process trauma through the lens of fantasy. There was something inspirational in these twin stories of humble heroes emerging from either a room under the stairs or a cozy hobbit hole to fight a large, elemental evil from the past that just keeps coming back.
The emergence of these highly lucrative franchises also coincided, unexpectedly, with the dawn of online fandoms. In the early days of pre-Y2K internet, fans scattered across the globe had only just begun to discover its powerful potential for connectivity. Before “extremely online” was a condition anyone with a desk job or an internet-enabled device might find themselves susceptible to, it was the geekily inclined who were most likely to seek out friendship and shared interests on the web. Small-scale fandoms began to cluster and form in chat rooms and message boards around late-’90s genre TV properties like Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The X-Files. “Back then we didn’t have the mega-sites that we have today,” recalls Susan Miller, owner of the Game of Thrones fansite Watchers on the Wall. “It was just scattered.”
Fanfiction.net opened in October 1998 and radically altered the way fans would think about ownership of their favorite properties. In the world of fan fiction, amateur writers can create their own what-if scenarios involving famous characters and pop culture icons and anything can happen. Don’t like how Game of Thrones ended? Write your own ending. To this day, plenty of people are more invested in the idea of Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter having a happily ever after than anything Rowling herself actually wrote. The online boom of fan fiction (which would eventually spawn a multimillion-dollar book and film franchise of its own) kicked off a large-scale experiment in the death of the author, one (potentially smutty) story at a time.
“Fan fiction was huge for giving marginalized groups like women and LGBT communities a voice in fandom,” Miller says. The anonymity of the internet granted many the courage to speak up for the first time and widened the scope of what a fan base might look or sound like. Less than a year after fanfiction.net entered the scene, LiveJournal, a curious blend of online blogging and social networking, launched. Two years later, IMDb created a message board feature that soon saw movie fans interacting directly with actors and filmmakers.
Out of that turn-of-the-millennium internet stew, the concentrated online J.R.R. Tolkien and Potter fandoms took their first wobbling steps. TheOneRing.net and the Leaky Cauldron, still considered the preeminent fan websites in their domains, launched in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Though they have much in common including wizards, malignant dark lords, and magically portentous jewelry, the Potter and Tolkien fandoms were, at this time, in two very different stages of development. Still, both were uniquely positioned to welcome all-comers and encourage astronomical growth across demographics. Gatekeeping can be one of the nastier aspects of established fandoms. “Once a fandom has been around for 20 years or more, you’re going to get people who set themselves up as being more knowledgeable than others. That’s human nature,” Miller says. But even though Tolkien first published The Hobbit in 1937, TheOneRing’s Justin Sewell explains that Tolkien himself made it impossible for his fans to lord their superior knowledge over others: “There are many letters from Tolkien about what the reader brings versus what the author intends. He made it very explicit over his lifetime that everyone can see themselves in his stories. There is no right and there is no wrong because you bring your own experience into these worlds of Middle Earth. That’s our standard.” Their fandom, Sewell argues, has always been demographically diverse and inviting to PhD Tolkien scholars and newcomers alike.
The Potter fandom, on the other hand, was much too young, in every sense of the word, to gatekeep. Not only was the average Harry Potter reader still in school, but the fandom was smack dab in the middle of Rowling’s seven-volume epic, which wouldn’t be complete until she published The Deathly Hallows in 2007. The Potter fans got in on the ground floor of the online era. “Nobody was doing fan journalism at the time,” Leaky’s Melissa Anelli says. “It wasn’t a thing. Nobody knew what that meant. The Leaky Cauldron was just gathering every link they could find and treating it like a beat. … Leaky and TheOneRing were really close in terms of just being a collecting service for fans.”
You might think that this collected concentration of eagerly excited fans would look like fish in a barrel to film and TV marketing execs hoping to sell their franchises to the masses, but the opposite is true. In the early days of online fandom, studios openly attacked fan sites in the attempt to control messaging and protect their intellectual property. These skirmishes have since taken on colorful names like the Viacom Crackdowns of 1995, which saw Paramount attempt to not only scrub traces of Star Trek fan fiction, but also shut down fan clubs and ban unlicensed conventions. In 2000, Warner Bros. kicked off the Potter Wars by sending cease and desist letters to fan sites, many of them run by teens, with domain names using copyrighted words or phrases. The teens fought back and found strength in numbers. In the 2006 book Convergence Culture, a 16-year-old leader of the fan resistance Heather Lawver, said: “They underestimated how interconnected our fandom was.” Warner Bros. gave up the fight after being raked over the coals in the press for coming after its own young fandom.
Another source of tension between the fandom and the studios around the launch of the Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises is that the die-hard book lovers weren’t at all sure these films would do their cherished stories justice. “The fans didn’t necessarily want to see a film made,” former New Line marketing strategist Gordon Paddison says. When they weren’t busy suing their fans, he says, film studios weren’t all that invested in marketing directly to the core loyalists. Despite their vocal skepticism, the studios assumed those dedicated fans would buy tickets no matter what.
But in a marketing move that would later become the gold standard, Paddison—inspired by one of the biggest Tolkien fans of them all, The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson—made wooing the skeptical base his primary directive. “Internally at the studio I think my job was seen by many people as the marketer to malcontents,” he says. Paddison built personal relationships with the leaders in the Tolkien communities including, yes, inviting them to Cannes. “We were very careful to work with the existing fan sites [and invited them] to join our efforts and become stewards in new communities. It elevated the fans to serve as extensions of our marketing. It gave our efforts a high level of acceptance within the established fandom and facilitated acceptance for the property as a whole.” Paddison says that at the time he considered the fans “evangelists” for the film. Now, he says, you’d call them “influencers.”
Whenever New Line launched new Lord of the Rings material on its website, whether it be a video, or photos, or a press release, Paddison says they would send it to the international Tolkien fan sites as well. This is now common practice from all studios, but at the time “this was groundbreaking stuff,” TheOneRing’s Justin Sewell says. “I’m actually shocked Gordon hasn’t written a book about it. He recognized that we’ve got to get the fans on board and they’re going to be the biggest champions. This is 2001, two years after Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. People watched what happened with the fan reaction around Episode I but no one else knew what lessons to take from that.”
Paddison is quick to give credit to Peter Jackson: “The fans loved him.” The director had earned rave reviews for his artful 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, but was fresh off a box office disappointment called The Frighteners when he started making The Lord of the Rings. A self-described fanboy, Jackson was both a frequenter of and friendly with fledgling movie blogs like Ain’t It Cool News. His instincts, then, were to give the Tolkien fans exactly what he himself would want: a peak behind the curtain. Paddison credits a behind-the-scenes video that dropped online in April 2000 as the turning point for the skeptical Tolkien enthusiasts.
In 2000, “dropping” something online was no mean feat. If fans wanted to get a look at film trailers, they might have to wait long minutes or sometimes hours (depending on their internet connection) for a video file to load or download. The Lord of the Rings internet “pre-teaser” revealed a bit of footage from the films but also Jackson’s groundbreaking work with Weta Workshop’s digital effects. “The technology,” Jackson explains in the video, “has caught up with the incredible imagination that Tolkien injected into this story of his.”
Though Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was also benefiting from the technological advances that would bring Rowling’s wizarding world to life, Warner Bros. was less inclined to work with the Potter fandom. In fact, they were still at war. Leaky’s Melissa Anelli says that the Potter sites were running chiefly on news about Rowling’s still-developing novels, which were “always the kind of thing where you stopped making dinner and ran to the internet to post.” But in 2001, Leaky leaped ahead of the other sites thanks to, well, a leak.
“I still don’t know how this happened, but a Leaky staffer found a link to a trailer,” Anelli says. “It took like an hour to download from AOL. It was an early glimpse of the full trailer before anybody was ready and it was maybe an inch-wide. There was some random AOL link that somebody, through whatever tools, found and we put it on Leaky.”
The studio went into a panic. “I have heard stories of angry internal meetings,” Anelli says. “That exploded. Nobody could believe that a fan site had sniffed out the trailer. Because I was obsessed and bored at my old job, [I started] comparing the books to the movies. I did a frame by frame comparison.” That kind of obsessive poring-over-details trailer work is now de rigueur on countless websites, but it all started here.
After both teasers drummed up enormous enthusiasm and early Fellowship footage was a hit at Cannes, the first official Lord of the Rings trailer did the equivalent of breaking the internet in 2001. “That was the coordinated power of the community,” Paddison says. “We got 1.7 million downloads the first day and 10 million within 21 days. The most ever up until that point had been The Phantom Menace, which only got to 8 million within 38 days. To not only be in the dialogue but to smoke Star Wars?”
Conversely, Warner Bros. didn’t pay much attention to the power of weaponizing the fandom until its second film, The Chamber of Secrets, when Anelli finally wrangled an invite to the press junket. By the third film, the Leaky Cauldron writers were the first press allowed on the set of The Prisoner of Azkaban. At the junket for that film, Anelli overheard a Warner Bros. publicist say “but we would never post the Leaky Cauldron.” She had no idea what they were referring to until later when she received an email asking her to write a pull quote for the film poster. After that, Anelli says, “all the fan sites were invited to the set visit for the fourth film.”
This new, empowered breed of fandom soon started to influence how the content itself was made. It began, Paddison says, with special features. As the ever-dialed-in Jackson noticed which changes to and absences from his The Lord of the Rings adaptation left fans frosty, he decided to address those concerns directly in the film’s DVD extras and the popular extended editions. “There was a huge amount of dialogue that [Peter and] I had to go through with fans to explain why things were included or were not included,” Paddison says. “A lot of that is addressed in the supplemental materials. Every one of the films had an extended edition that ran 40 to 50 minutes longer.”
Those increasingly elaborate take-home editions of The Lord of the Rings helped keep the legacy of those films alive. As for Harry Potter, the impact it has had on the generation that grew up with it is still yet to be fully seen. But the massive box office returns of both film franchises meant that Hollywood was eager to follow the money into more and more genre properties. Without Rowling and Tolkien, audiences likely wouldn’t have been so eager for both the comic book superheroes to take over the film industry and the swords and dragons of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones to dominate a decade of television.
The Lord of the Rings’ impact on HBO’s Game of Thrones is about as direct a line as you’ll ever see in Hollywood. In the original pitch document for the series, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff described Martin’s world as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.” Cogman says: “It was hard for HBO to wrap their minds around our show. There really had never been a premium high fantasy show produced at that time. … Because Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings had come out, they laid the groundwork for something a little darker. I don’t know that a mass audience would have been ready if they hadn’t been primed by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.”
The Emmy-winning success of Thrones and the box office supremacy of Marvel all came to fruition in an era of Hollywood when the power of the movie star was waning and the value of intellectual property was on the rise. Now it’s nearly impossible to get something made in Hollywood without the promise of the built-in audience and fandom that a book series or video game franchise might provide. “IP is king these days,” Cogman says. “If you can create something out of nothing and get it sold, congratulations.”
With the era of IP in full swing, the fandom cottage industries that have sprung up around them have become their own kinds of cash cows. “Those all became multimillion-dollar enterprises,” Cogman says of the fan sites, conventions, and more that developed from these shows and film franchises. San Diego Comic-Con, which started as a niche expo for serious comic collectors in the 1970s has now essentially become a marketing opportunity for studios hoping to make direct contact with the very fans they once rejected. Meanwhile, vocal objections from the Potter fandom, which was once on the outside looking in at this franchise, likely played a role in the decision to replace controversy-embroiled Johnny Depp with Mads Mikkelsen in 2022’s Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Some corners of that fandom have also denounced Rowling herself in the wake of her increasingly anti-trans stances. In possibly one of the most dramatic cases of separating the art from the artists, many of those Potter fans are clinging to their love of the world even as they condemn Rowling herself.
In 2017, the story of The Lord of the Rings came full circle. Once considered a risky financial gamble, the new fandom era meant the property was now considered nearly priceless. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the rights for $250 million with a five-season production commitment worth at least $1 billion, making it the most expensive television series ever made. Unlike New Line 20 years ago, Amazon seems to prize secrecy above all else. The Lord of the Rings fans who were welcomed into the fold by Jackson have, so far, felt somewhat shut out by the studio. However, to paraphrase Tolkien, the road to this new series, which won’t premiere until September 2022, goes ever on. There’s still plenty of time for the streamer to relearn the lessons New Line discovered on the red carpet of Cannes 20 years ago.