The first episode of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy opened today to nearly universal critical acclaim. While advance ticket sales have run high for this fantasy epic, don't expect it to match Harry Potter's $90.3 million three-day total. Historically, the weekend before Christmas has never been as good a movie opening slot as the weekend before Thanksgiving, and The Fellowship of the Ring faces much more competition at the Cineplex than did Harry Potter. LOTR will open on some 5,700 screens, some 2,500 fewer than did Harry -- and the 3-hour running time of The Fellowship of the Ring makes setting a new all-time weekend box office record nigh unto impossible.
The Box Office Doesn't Matter
But the scope of the success of The Fellowship of The Ring almost doesn't matter at all to pop culture retailers (though if the film does become truly huge, it will be good for the industry in much the same way that Star Wars was back in the 70s). The point is that every indication of fan reaction from Internet sites like Ain't It Cool News etc. is that the Tolkien devotees have embraced the film wholeheartedly. To put it in today's parlance, 'the geeks are totally jazzed over this one.' The allusions to Star Wars (the original trilogy, not Episode I), which pepper fan effusions on the new LOTR film like poppy seeds in a $4 muffin, testify to the profound impact the film has had on those who have already seen it. Like the Harry Potter film, The Fellowship of the Ring has managed to please an audience that wasn't at all sure that filmmakers could ever come close to doing justice to what they consider a literary masterwork.
In ICv2's most recent survey of movie merchandising pop culture retailers were unanimous in choosing LOTR as the most important film property of the winter season (see 'Retailers Wary of Harry'). Still, orders on a number of LOTR items do not indicate all that much interest on the part of retailers. For example the Topps LOTR trading cards were not even the top trading card product in Diamond pre-orders for November -- in fact the LOTR cards were topped by Xena Season 6 cards. Does this mean that the Xena cards were over-ordered? Certainly not since that character has maintained a solid core of fans, but considering that there is actually of dearth of true 'collectibles' associated with The Fellowship of the Ring, the trading cards were severely under-ordered -- and if the LOTR trilogy of films does go on to become a landmark in film history like the original Star Wars trilogy, these trading cards will probably be among the most highly sought after collectibles because they were produced in such relatively small quantities.
Books, especially the new movie editions of the Tolkien trilogy, are the most natural merchandising product -- and, though various editions of the Tolkien books will be all over the mass market, it still makes perfect sense for independent pop culture retailers to have them on hand. Though many older fans have already read the LOTR trilogy, many never have, and many (like this writer) want to go back and read them again. Younger fans who want to explore a darker, scarier fantasy world than that of Harry Potter also might want to 'graduate' to the denser world of the Tolkien trilogy.
ToysThe wide array of LOTR toys available provides retailers with some tough choices. The lower priced Toybiz figures are the best that Toybiz has ever created in terms of likeness and features, but these will available all over the mass market (see 'Toybiz Gets Rings'). Sideshow Toys (see 'Second Series of LOTR Toys From Sideshow') has prepared a brilliant line of more expensive figures and statues aimed directly at the collector's market, but during the current recession in the U.S. consumers have exhibited considerable resistance to higher priced, 'luxury' items. It all comes down to how profound an impact that retailers see this film making on the fan community. The early indications are strong, but it is important to talk with the customers in your store and see how excited (or blas?) they are about the LOTR film. At this point almost all the LOTR merchandise that we checked on is still available from manufacturers and distributors, but if The Fellowship of the Ring really takes off, this situation could change rapidly. With another episode in LOTR film trilogy set to come out in each of the next two holiday seasons, investing in LOTR merchandise is not as risky as buying most movie tie-in items. While it's true that Sturgeon's Law ('90% of everything is crap') needs to be tweaked upwards when dealing with movie merchandise, the obverse of that proposition is also true -- a special film like the original Star Wars or the 1989 Batman can be a ferocious engine that operates on a different scale than ordinary films and television series. The Fellowship of the Rings has given some indications that it might have a similar reach; the next few weeks will tell.