Lord of the Rings: From QuickTime To Real Media... And Back Again

Last week, New Line Cinema and the official site for The Lord of the Rings, in conjunction with Apple, released the new theatrical trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three movies based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, exclusively in QuickTime format. Within minutes of posting this movie, the servers hosting the trailer slowed to a crawl from enormous demand. For well over twelve hours the servers were virtually inaccessible. Those who were successful at getting the trailer had nothing but praise for the nearly three-minute-long video clip.

At TheOneRing.Net, Xoanon simply exclaimed that the new trailer was available "in GLORIOUS QuickTime," just minutes after it was posted to the official site. Similar reactions echoed around the iNet. It wasnit always this way for The Lord of the Rings trailers and video content, however. The journey to this release exclusively in QuickTime has been a long one, full of seemingly sudden decisions and behind the scenes battling.

On April 7th, 2000, Apple and New Line unleashed perhaps the most highly anticipated footage ever to the masses of LOTR fans in the form of an exclusive "QuickTime Internet Preview" of the new movie trilogy. Available in four sizes, including a full screen QuickTime movie with interactive controls, the preview was released at 12:01 AM EST to the masses. The bandwidth of the servers hosting the files was tested within the first 24 hours as every single fan with an network connection attempted to download the preview. The images contained in the first look at the new films injected a new excitement into the already high anticipation for the movies.

"Apple Computer has partnered with New Line Cinema," read New Line Cinemais press release, to bring this preview to the Internet in the highest digital quality through their QuickTime streaming software." The wording of that press release indicated an enthusiasm for delivering the preview exclusively in highest quality QuickTime format. It seems, however, that New Line Cinema does not exactly understand the technology they so proudly distributed the preview in.

QuickTime is not just "streaming software," as indicated in their press release. In fact, the preview that was made available was not even a streaming file. It was a downloadable QuickTime movie (in various sizes). At the time it seemed that such a statement was just an oversight, and didnit really matter in the long run. Now, eight months later, it appears that such a statement indicated a lack of understanding that may have been there from the very beginning of Appleis relationship with New Line and The Lord of the Rings.

So why did New Line go with QuickTime for the initial preview? One might find the answer to that question by looking back to March of 1999. It was then that Apple and LucasFilm created the "biggest online download event in history." LucasFilm approached Apple in order to deliver the best experience for the fans as possible with the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. They understood QuickTime and what it could do for them, and it showed. In the first 24 hours of availability over one million downloads of the trailer took place. By the end of March over 6.4 million people had downloaded the trailer from Appleis web site.

"George Lucas wanted to create the highest quality Internet viewing experience for our new trailer, so we turned to QuickTime because it sets the standard for Internet video quality," said Jim Ward, LucasFilmis director of marketing, in a press release announcing the trailer. Judging from the response it would seem they accomplished their goal. Other trailers released in QuickTime have also proven to be very popular.

Fast forward to around April of 2000. New Line has an Internet preview they want to put online, and they have to decide which format to use. With such successful precedents before them, QuickTime may well have seemed the natural choice for the release of the companyis own mega-project. Whatever the case, on April 7th, New Line did indeed go with QuickTime, and with staggering success. In the first 24 hours of availability, 1,671,000 people worldwide downloaded the Internet preview exclusively in QuickTime. Thatis approximately 671,000 more downloads than the Star Wars trailer had in its first 24 hours. The response was incredible, but New Line didnit get it.

To be sure, Real Networks was frothing at the mouth to get their hands on something as hot as The Lord of the Rings material. Real wanted the popularity of the trilogy to spur downloads of RealPlayer, Real Networkis media player. More specifically, they wanted more people to purchase RealPlayer Plus, the feature complete version of their software. Take a visit to Realis Web site and see if you can find the link to their free player. Having trouble? Thatis because it is hidden at the bottom of a huge page for RealPlayer Plus.

Someone claiming to be an industry insider, calling himself "Value Ape," wrote to TheOneRing.Net about the Realis typical actions when obtaining partnerships for streaming content:

"The number of downloads garnered by the teaser at Apple had Real drooling. Real agreed to pay New Line in cash, services and bandwidth to host the new trailer. Apple, who has been very cautious about spending money lately, has always been reluctant to pay companies to use QuickTime when they felt that companies would naturally choose to use the better technology. Real hopes to spread its player and its channels around by having the new trailer - and New Line gets a little coin. Your typical day in the media industry."

A truly shocking realization, to be sure, yet it should make sense. Real was paying New Line money to distribute LOTR content and was showing New Line the market share numbers, in which Appleis QuickTime was trailing Real. Apple, on the other hand, was seemingly showing its usual low key effort to combat the tactics of Real. For instance, Appleis mention of the number of downloads of the trailer seemed incidental at best, despite the fact that is exceeded 12 million such downloads in little more than a month. In any event, the numbers of the original preview and of the Star Wars content could not alone keep New Line with QuickTime. Thus QuickTime excited the Tolkien universe indefinitely

On January 19th, 2001: "RealNetworks®, Inc...and New Line Cinema today announced a major four-year partnership to jointly promote the much anticipated on-screen release of New Lineis epic adventure trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkienis The Lord of the Rings." This press release suddenly announce the end of the line for QuickTime and the beginning of four years of Real Networks streaming. The deal created a new Lord of the Rings RealChannel that would provide "exclusive online video" for all trailers, promotional footage, and behind-the-scenes material up through the release of the third and final movie in December of 2003. Real Networks had won a major deal for a major movie trilogy, but the backlash was horrible. Tehanu, of TheOneRing.Net, put it simply when she wrote: "Most people disliked the small video clip interviews in Realplayer which we were treated to when the official site revamped, but thatis nothing compared to the venom thatis been reserved for the decision to put the trailer onto Realplayer."

It seems many people found that "RealPlayer format looks bad for most people -- a jerky, low-resolution image and horrible sound." Definitely not the experience desired by most. The first 24 hours found many in search of the trailer in different formats, and many attempting to accomplish just that. The long arm of the law was firing cease and desist orders left and right, and thus the trailer remained exclusively in Real Media.

Now the journey has brought us to this time and place. Just one week ago, New Line Cinema released, by surprise, the new The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring trailer in QuickTime exclusively. There was no heralding press release. No big announcement from Apple, once again the content partner. No hint of Real Media anywhere on the official site for The Lord of the Rings. Everything was back to QuickTime, and the fans breathed a sigh of relief as they downloaded the full screen, high quality, interactive version of the trailer in QuickTime 5 format.

No one knows why, and not many outside of Apple, Real, New Line, and The Lord of the Rings team will probably ever know the reasons. None of the companies have responded to inquiries as of press time. Perhaps New Line learned from experience? Perhaps they listened to what the fans wanted? Perhaps they saw the quality that could be achieved with QuickTime? Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings is back in QuickTime.

What a journey it has been.