'The Lord of the Rings' Gamble Pays Off

Risky Film Trilogy Could Top $3 Billion for New Line Cinema

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Sean Astin on Themes of Brotherhood, Sacrifice

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Ian McKellan on Watching Gandalf On the Screen

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Peter Jackson Describes Seven-Year <i>Rings</i> Odyssey.

Peter Jackson and Ian McKellan

hide captionThe Lord of the Rings triology director Peter Jackson directs Ian McKellan, portraying the wizard Gandalf, in a scene for the final film The Return of the King.

© New Line Cinema

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The view from behind the camera:

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Viggo Mortensen

hide captionViggo Mortensen plays the title character Aragorn in The Return of the King.

© New Line Cinema

The Return of the King, the last installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, opens next week. The series has already grossed nearly $2 billion at the box office worldwide — and The Return of the King could add another billion to that total. Kim Masters reports on a film epic that has made Hollywood history.

The most unlikely plot twist in The Lord of the Rings saga is that the trilogy ever got made in the first place — the obstacles that director Peter Jackson faced seem as formidable as those that confront the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien's tale.

New Line Cinema took what may be the biggest gamble in movie history: It agreed to give Jackson $300 million to shoot three movies simultaneously. That budget grew to $400 million by the end of production.

"It was such a gamble that it defies common sense, really," says Jackson, who has spent the past seven years creating the trilogy. "In many respects, it never should have happened."

Jackson says when he assembled a rough cut of the first film in the trilogy, he was sure it would be dubbed the worst film ever. But Ian McKellan, who plays the wizard character Gandalf, knew it would be a hit when he watched The Fellowship of the Ring and was drawn in.

"And I thought that if I'm enjoying it, an innocent audience is going to like it even more," he tells Masters. He was right: The first film earned rave reviews, numerous Academy Award nominations and more than $850 million worldwide.

"For executives at New Line, the making of The Lord of the Rings trilogy began as an exercise in faith," Masters says. "They saved their company — and they have irrefutable proof that in this case, at least, their faith was not misplaced."

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