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'Rings' films: chick flicks?

The movie trilogy and its wizards, kings and warriors are not just guy things. Females young and old are some of the most ardent fans.

February 01, 2004|Patrick Day | Special to The Times

A funny thing happened on Frodo's journey to destroy the evil ring of Sauron in Mount Doom: He picked up a horde of adoring women -- of all ages.

Despite its predominance of warriors, kings and bearded wizards, the fantasy fan realm of "Lord of the Rings" is not just a man's world. Females young and old are crowding multiplexes and the online communities in surprisingly large numbers.

The long journey of the hobbit and his eight companions in "Lord of the Rings" has always had a large audience, beginning with J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, ranked as the "Book of the Millennium" by an poll and a bestseller since its first publication in the U.S. in 1963.

When 100,000 fans packed the streets of Wellington, New Zealand, for the December premiere of "Return of the King" -- the third installment of Peter Jackson's film adaptation -- it wasn't so hard to believe the first two films had already grossed $1.8 billion worldwide. "Return of the King" (which received 11 Oscar nominations last week), took in more than $840 million in its first six weeks of release.

What surprises many, including New Line Cinema, the studio behind the films, is that many ardent "Rings" fans are women.

Females "have definitely been the growth business of the movie," says Russell Schwartz, New Line's president of domestic marketing. "The audience for each movie has grown, and a large portion of that has been female, both younger and older."

Schwartz says the percentage of the audience that is female has gone from 42% for "Fellowship of the Ring" to 50% for "King." Fantasy movies have traditionally had a male-dominated audience. Their emphasis on warfare, monsters, muscle-bound heroes and scantily clad damsels in distress have left female viewers largely ignoring movies like "Conan the Barbarian," "Willow" and even "Star Wars" and looking elsewhere for stories to capture their imagination.

"Rings' " mostly male cast and its world on the brink of war make it seem, at first glance, to be another movie better left to the boys. But females of all ages are joining the males in returning to theaters to watch the movies multiple times.

"We've found on "Return of the King" that females are bigger repeaters than males," Schwartz says. Exit polls conducted by New Line three weeks after "Kings' " release showed that 56% of women under 25 had seen the movie at least once and 6% had seen it at least four times. By comparison, 54% of males under 25 had seen the it once and 4% had seen it four times or more.

Carlene Cordova, director of the coming documentary "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," has spoken to hundreds of "Rings" fans over the past few years and confidently estimates that fully half of the audience is female.

"People used to give me a hard time when I read the books as a kid," Cordova says. "They said, 'Those are guy books.' Then the movies came out and they're filled with all these hunky men with swords. Women fall in love with these men and the strength of the relationships between them."

The most famous template for science fiction or fantasy fandom is the "Star Trek" fan, or "Trekkie." Although the name conjures up images of socially awkward teenage males with hygiene problems and an obsessive nature, "Lord of the Rings" is showing women can be just as obsessed over a movie. Cordova remembers an American woman she encountered at the "Return of the King" premiere in Wellington, who had mortgaged her house in the U.S. to travel to New Zealand.

"There are some people who are a little unhinged," she says. "But there's something goofy and nice about it that I haven't encountered in other sci-fi fan cultures." "Rings" fans "aren't scary."

At "The Gathering," a three-day "Rings" convention held in Toronto in December, two-thirds of the 1,500 tickets were sold to women. Attendees were not as interested in the guy-themed merchandise such as action figures and war games as they were in making new friends and bonding.

Though it may seem that the burgeoning female fandom is based on sex appeal, many women deny their attraction is based solely on the good looks of stars Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood.

"Most female fans don't want to bed Aragorn [Mortensen's character], they want to be Aragorn," says Coralie Davies, who runs a fan fiction archive on the website Tolkien Online. Davies says that 85% of the stories submitted to the site are written by females.

"A lot of them are middle-aged women," she says. "A lot of housewives who have gone through some personal crisis or illness."

Gloria Atwater, 41, a former wilderness outfitter from outside Reno, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before "Fellowship" came out in 2001. After her mastectomy she retreated onto the Internet while recovering.

"I was housebound and my head was in complete chaos," she says. "I was hiding out from friends. I didn't want them feeling sorry for me."

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