Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.

*****

Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.

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