The hottest ticket in town at this year's Cannes film festival wasn't in competition, wasn't finished and wasn't even a film.
But such is the excitement surrounding the Hollywood adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy that even 23 minutes of footage was enough to cast a spell over this French Riviera resort.
Costing $270-million to make and billed as the most expensive production in movie history, the first of the three instalments - "The Fellowship of the Ring" - is due to open around the world on December 19.
The film's producers used the glitzy Cannes festival to unleash their publicity campaign, giving a select group of buyers and reporters a sneak preview of their prized project.
Most of the stars also flew in for a whirlwind round of media interviews and parties at which they waxed lyrical about the hugely ambitious fantasy adventure, which is based on JRR Tolkien's landmark novel, "Lord of the Rings".
"This is the pinnacle of my career. I've never been involved in a film like this before. It is superb and unforgettable," said the gaunt, veteran British actor Christopher Lee, who plays the baddie of the piece, Dark Lord Sauron.
Also starring Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Sean Bean and Liv Tyler, the trilogy was filmed back-to-back in New Zealand during 15 months of high-intensity activity.
The shoot finished last Christmas and director Peter Jackson is now busy adding the thousands of special effects needed to bring to life Tolkien's magical world of Hobbits, trolls, orcs, elves, dwarves, monsters and wizards.
A SEVEN YEAR PASSION
"I've spent the last seven years of my life on this project pouring my heart into every single aspect of it," Jackson said.
He faces another two year's post production, with the final two parts of the saga - "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" - due for release at the Christmases of 2002 and 2003 respectively.
The story is set 7,000 years ago in a world not yet dominated by humans, and chronicles the struggle between the forces of good and evil for the possession of a magical ring which can change the future of the world.
The brief clip shown at Cannes showed part of the heroes' terrifying journey through the mines of Moria, where they have to fight off ferocious orcs, a troll and a monster called Balrog in a scene which wowed its audience.
"It was wonderful for us to see all the digital enhancements because we hadn't seen any of that. It was unbelievable to see the cave troll. I was genuinely scared by it," said actress Liv Tyler, of "Armageddon" fame, who plays the elf Arwen.
Hollywood studio New Line Cinema produced the trilogy and is keeping its fingers crossed that the films will spark the same sort of frenzy as George Lucas's "Star Wars" series.
Earlier this year, the company had to reduce its staff by some 20 percent in the wake of the merger of its parent company Time Warner and AOL.
"It is not too dramatic to say that the future of New Line may depend on the success of "The Lord of the Rings"," movie trade magazine Screen International said in a recent edition.
AN OMINOUS PRECEDENT
The studio decided to film the books one after the other in an effort to keep costs down, but this was a huge risk. If "The Fellowship of the Ring" flops, the next two episodes will be stymied before they have even seen the light of day.
Ominously, the only other attempt to film Tolkien's masterpiece failed to set the world alight.
The 1978 Disney version melded the first two books together and promised to release the third as a separate picture. A lukewarm response meant the sequel was never made.
However, the industry has changed dramatically over the past 23 years. Disney used a mixture of live action tracings and drawn animation to recreate the Middle Earth; New Line Cinema is using the latest computer special effects.
"The idea of a $270 million budget seems an awful lot of money, but when you see what we put on the screen and all the excitement it will generate, then you will realise it was money well spent," said executive producer Mark Ordesky.
If word on the Internet is anything to go by, then the world cannot wait to buy its popcorn and watch the diminutive Hobbits swing into action.
When the film's official web site (www.lordoftherings.net) was launched at the start of the year some 350 million hits were recorded in the first three months alone.
SUPER STARDOM BECKONS
"Anyone who likes a bet should put their money on this film having the biggest opening weekend in terms of box office takings in cinema history," said McKellen, who plays the key role of the good wizard Gandalf the Gray.
If he is right, then life will never be the same for him again, propelling him into the ranks of super stardom in the same way that "Star Wars" transformed McKellen's compatriot Alec Guinness into a youth cult figure.
And as "Star Wars" turned Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher into household names, so the relatively unknown actors playing the Ring's quartet of Hobbits, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd might soon find it difficult to leave home without being mobbed.
Jackson is already worried about all the attention that will be coming his way.
"I'm a shy, retiring type. I'm a Hobbit and I hope that I can find a little Hobbit hole nearby and go away and hide," he said, blinking under the lights of the Cannes television cameras.