Is yet another ''Lord of the Rings'' reissue really worth it? Steve Daly digs into the whys and wherefores behind New Line's latest DVD reissue of the Peter Jackson trilogy

Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, ...
Credit: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Pierre Vinet

Is yet another ”LOTR” reissue really worth it?

Fed-up DVD fans decry it as ”double dipping,” ”triple dipping,” and right on down the line to quintuple, sextuple and septuple dipping. What are they on about? The increasingly common habit movie companies have of releasing a bare-bones DVD of a film a few months after its theatrical debut, then revisiting it ad nauseam with special editions, extended editions, limited editions, alternate-version editions, and sometimes just plain re-released editions.

In recent months, the loudest shouting has been over the mid-September debut of George Lucas’s initial three Star Wars films on DVD, in their original theatrical cuts (but in crummy, two-channel-stereo, non-anamorphic transfers; click here to read Dalton Ross’s take on the topic). We’re soon due for high-profile rehashes of the James Bond and Superman franchises, too, among others.

But right now, the multiple-dip debate is raging around Peter Jackson’s Oscar-festooned Lord of the Rings trilogy, as New Line Home Entertainment reissues The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King in cool, transparent-window slip-covered cases (or you can get all three in one package) with nearly 6 hours of predominantly new behind-the-scenes footage. We’ve already had these films in two excellent DVD incarnations: The original theatrical cuts, then the marvelous ”extended” cuts, with mountains of supplemental material on each of those earlier versions. (And, it should be noted, New Line Home Entertainment announced right up front that there would be two separate initial versions — unlike, say, Universal, which put out Peter Jackson’s King Kong on DVD last spring with no mention of the extended version coming this fall.) Is there any reason on Middle-earth you’d want yet another iteration of Rings?

Well, yes and no. As it turns out, these disc sets represent both a certain degree of corporatized fan exploitation and a tribute to a principled individual filmmaker. That filmmaker isn’t writer-producer-director Peter Jackson. It’s documentarian Costa Botes, a New Zealand resident who hails from Greek descendants and pronounces his last name Bo-TESS. Botes and Jackson collaborated over a decade ago on Forgotten Silver, a wonderful mockumentary about a fictional, madly ambitious silent-movie auteur named Colin McKenzie, whose career was destroyed by the making of a huge epic. (How’s that for a nightmare-fantasy gloss on Jackson’s own triumphant career arc? If you haven’t seen it, go get the DVD immediately. We’ll wait here.) Back in 1998, according to Botes, he approached Jackson about creating a single, feature-length documentary about the making of the Rings movies. By the time roughly 14 months of principal photography wrapped, Botes had accumulated something close to 800 hours of footage. (He also went back and shot more material during months of additional photography.)

”At first I don’t think the studio realized what they had in these movies,” says Botes now. ”But that changed, and suddenly execs were paying a lot of attention. The sleeping giant woke up. It came to be my turn, and I think they basically said, Hang on a minute. This is like a billion-dollar enterprise, and what the hell are we doing about the DVD [behind-the-scenes] content? Oh my God. It’s one guy?”

In fact, there was another camera operator and an editor working with Botes, but they were soon supplanted by a much bigger team. According to Botes, the studio hired Michael Pellerin and Jeff Kurtti, veteran DVD-supplement producers, to oversee the shooting of additional new making-of interviews. Pellerin, the main mover behind the expanded coverage, also got to draw on Botes’ vast reserve of footage, which New Line owns lock, stock and barrel. (As a result, in the massive standard-edition and extended-edition DVD supplements, a few bits and pieces of Botes’ footage have already appeared.) But the vast majority of material from Botes’ own eventual 6-hour assembly of footage — split into three parts, one for each film — was initially pushed aside, and seemed fated to remain unseen. (With help from Jackson, Botes did manage to get the Fellowship documentary shown at a New Zealand film festival in 2004, though Botes says New Line then nixed any other theatrical release of his materials.) According to both Botes and New Line reps, New Line felt the Botes documentaries were too allusional, too free-flowing, and might confuse fans if they were released before more conventional material.

This past June, according to Botes, he got an e-mail from New Line suddenly announcing that, lo and behold, his quirky, loose, and highly irreverent fly-on-the-wall set-visit material — none of it buttressed with voiceover narration or later interviews — would at last find a home on new DVD editions. Why such short notice? According to Matt Lasorsa, exec VP of marketing for New Line Home Entertainment, the company had a hugely complex authoring task with these titles, and wanted to be sure they could hit an August 29 street date — the same successful back-to-school-shopping corridor they chose for the original theatrical editions — before they went public with preorder fanfare. While Botes can’t help feeling frustrated that he’s the last one to the party, he’s also happy his stuff is at least now available — even if New Line did have to snip a number of little bits due to music-rights and foul-language issues. (You won’t, for instance, see Orc extras standing around singing snatches of ”Stand By Me,” which, according to Botes, had to go because New Line didn’t want to pay for music rights. And they’ve made how many hundreds of millions with these films? Sheesh.)

Lots of fans have asked, Why couldn’t New Line just put out the new documentaries alone, so that folks who’ve already got the movies could get every supplement available without rebuying the films, too? Legally impossible, says New Line’s Lasorsa. ”Due to contractual arrangements,” he says, ”we weren’t allowed to generate separate revenue with these documentaries.” In other words, the actors only consented to all that vérité stuff on the condition that New Line not exploit such footage separately from the films themselves. No such agreement seems to have bound Jackson and Universal with the stand-alone King Kong video diaries, but… live and learn.

So, are the three new making-of programs any good? Depends on who you are and how deeply you love the LOTR franchise. If you think of the new stuff as an extended informal video photo album — and you like that sort of thing — you’ll enjoy it a lot. The off-camera shenanigans of the actors can be hilarious. I won’t soon forget the sight of Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, who play Hobbits Merry and Pippin, respectively, doing naughty things like comparing penis sizes and chest hairs and pretending to hate each other, as well as faux-dissing their costar Elijah Wood (Frodo). It’s also a huge kick to see Ian McKellen being outfitted with an outrageous, flower-bedecked version of his Gandalf wig, then pronouncing with mock solemnity that ”the age of the Queen” — as in the campy, gay-male kind of queen — has begun, rather than the age of the king, as his line should go. Then there’s Peter Jackson declaring, sweetly and with good humor, that if New Line expects him to edit any footage, they’d better get a couch into the editing room pronto. Priceless.

As far as the actual movies go, the new editions feature both the original and extended-for-DVD cuts on a single, flippable disc. (You choose which version you want at the start of each disc side.) Is that a good thing? Sure, if you don’t own the earlier copies already — it’s one-stop shopping. But you won’t get the best sound quality. Only the extended editions came encoded with DTS soundtracks, which sound noticeably better than the Dolby Digital tracks featured here.

In the end, it comes down to the usual conundrum: You can’t own all the cool supplements unless you buy three separate versions of the movies. Bummer. Is that exploitation, or just good healthy free-market choice at work? So long as you’re getting heaps of new material, do you think multiple editions are OK? What editions seem most sham-like to you, and what are the best? What movies are most overdue for better enshrinement on DVD? Would you buy the Rings films all over again in high-definition? Get typing and press send — we want to hear from you.