When “The Lord of the Rings” first became a blockbuster franchise with Peter Jackson’s filmed adaptation, it was seen as a monumental achievement in both storytelling and craft. Jackson’s combination of cutting-edge CGI and a flair for classical fantasy transformed J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels into an epic trilogy that ultimately grossed $2.92 billion worldwide off a combined budget of roughly $281 million.
But that scale sounds like peanuts compared to the current project underway at Amazon Studios, where a new television series based on the novels is underway for a reported $1 billion. Elijah Wood, who catapulted to fame as beloved Hobbit Frodo Baggins, can’t quite process that figure.
“That’s crazy to me,” the actor said in a recent interview, pointing out that the success of the original films likely set the stage for Amazon’s costly endeavor, which includes the $250 million it spent to acquire the rights. “That wouldn’t have happened back then because the Tolkien estate didn’t know what they had as much as they do now,” Wood said. “It’s all a product of the world they live in. They know now what they have, they know how lucrative it is.”
Wood has lived in the shadow of the “Rings” trilogy for almost two decades, but in his professional life, he moved past it long ago. At this week’s Tribeca Film Festival, he stars in the wacky slapstick thriller “Come to Daddy,” a bloody midnight movie about a young man who reconnects with his estranged father. The project is typical of Wood’s sensibilities on both sides of the camera, as he also produces low-budget genre efforts like last year’s “Mandy” through his SpectreVision production company. Those experiences have also led him to reevaluate why Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” worked so well in the first place.
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“The thing that was wild about ‘Lord of the Rings’ was that it felt like an independent movie, made by [Warner Bros. subsidiary] New Line in New Zealand,” he said. “It was kind of tucked away. If that movie was made now, it would be under very different circumstances, and a much larger machine. That doesn’t mean it can’t have soul. It’s just harder to do that.”
He stressed that even as he remained outside of the studio system in recent years, he wasn’t philosophically opposed to large-scale productions. “Certainly some of the Marvel movies do have a soul,” he said. “But I don’t know. Franchises are tough. It’s hard to make eye candy that makes a lot of money that’s also artistically satisfying.” He felt optimistic about the potential for disruptors like Netflix to bring back certain kinds of studio projects that no longer get made in today’s tentpole-obsessed industry. “I think we’re in a really different realm now that’s been helped by streaming platforms like Netflix,” he said. “The studios that can only do big movies are disappearing, and new smaller movies might be coming back as well. The problem with a lot of studios is that they tend to be in the business of risk management.”
However, Wood said he was keeping an open mind about Amazon’s series, which is set in the Second Age of Middle-Earth and is reportedly set for at least five seasons. “We have no idea what this is going to be like, and it could be great,” he said. “Maybe they’ll go to New Zealand and shoot a bit there for visual continuity. Who knows? ‘Lord of the Rings’ just felt like a movie made by this small cottage industry out of New Zealand that had never made anything on that scale before. It’s a completely untested thing. But I’ll be watching. I’m curious.”