What’s going on with the Hobbit film?
While David is in Vancouver enjoying seeing films and meeting filmmakers, I am at home preparing to make the final changes in my latest book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (to be published by the University of California Press next summer). The copyedited manuscript lands on my desk mid-week, and I need to do some polishing and updating. I’m not used to writing about ongoing events, and the Lord of the Rings franchise has been rolling merrily along since I sent in the manuscript earlier this year.
And there’s suddenly a LOT of updating that needs to be done. In July, Electronic Arts announced another in their series of licensed videogames, “The Lord of the Rings: The White Council,” to be released late next year. (Into my chapter on videogames that goes!) On August 29, New Line released a third round of DVDs of the trilogy, including the long-awaited candid, behind-the-scenes documentaries by Costa Botes. (My DVDs chapter needs to include that!) September 18 saw a press release from Houghton Mifflin that it will be publishing a “new” Tolkien novel next April (edited from drafts by J. R. R.’s indefatigable son, Christopher). OK, that’s the book franchise, not the film one, but it should feed a general enthusiasm for things Tolkien next year.
For film fans, though, the biggest news came buried in a front-page story in Variety’s September 11-17 issue. The story’s focus was on the revival of the venerable MGM studio and how it will now start producing big-budget films again. The bombshell came in this passage: “Studio is ready to unveil such high-profile projects as ‘Terminator 4’; one or two installments of ‘The Hobbit,’ which Sloan hopes will be directed by Jackson Jackson; and a sequel to ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ with Pierce Brosnan.”
Well, fans have only been waiting for that announcement for nearly five years, ever since the release of The Fellowship of the Ring (December, 2001) allayed their fears that Jackson would ruin Tolkien’s classic in adapting it for the screen. Yet MGM’s announcement has caused relatively little stir—mainly, I suspect, because most people can’t quite figure out what’s really happening. Why did it take so long? Why is MGM making this announcement and not New Line, the company that produced Jackson’s trilogy? Is Jackson going to direct it or not? Hasn’t he already got enough on his plate with all those big projects he keeps taking on?
Now, I had the cooperation of the filmmakers in writing my book, and I had the privilege of interviewing Jackson back in July of 2004, when King Kong was still in pre-production. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m privy to any of the negotiations that are presumably now going on behind the scenes. Still, I’ve been following the Hobbit situation pretty closely, and I think I know enough about the background of all this to sort out at least part of just what the heck is going on here.
Flashback to 1969. Tolkien sells the rights to LOTR and The Hobbit to United Artists. U.A. doesn’t end up making a film, so in 1976 the company sells the rights to Saul Zaentz (newly into film producing with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975’s Best Picture Academy Award-winner). Zaentz makes the Ralph Bakshi animated version of the first half of LOTR in 1978, but it’s a flop, and Zaentz doesn’t follow up but just sits on the rights.
In 1995, Jackson, looking to follow up The Frighteners with a big, special-effects-heavy, thinks of LOTR. Harvey Weinstein, then head of Miramax, manages after a long negotiation to buy the LOTR and Hobbit rights from Zaentz. In fact, the thought at the time was that Jackson would begin with The Hobbit—until it turned out that Miramax had only the production rights for it, while the distribution rights remained with UA, which had subsequently been absorbed by MGM. Negotiations over those rights weren’t an option, since MGM was up for sale, and it wasn’t about to dispose of any valuable assets.
Jackson launched into pre-production on a two-part LOTR instead, moving to New Line in 1998 when Miramax announced they would only fund a single, two-hour version. New Line made three parts, and the rest is history. But just as LOTR fever was winding down in 2004, MGM finally was acquired by Sony. Once it settled down in its new home, MGM presumably started negotiating with New Line, which now owned the production rights for The Hobbit. The result is that New Line and MGM will pool their rights and co-produce the film.
What about Jackson? Even while finishing LOTR, he and partner Fran Walsh personally acquired the rights to bestseller The Lovely Bones and announced it as their post-Kong project, with Jackson directing. In late 2005 Jackson announced that he and Walsh would co-executive produce a film adaptation of the videogame “Halo,” to be directed by Neill Bomkamp. In early September of this year, Jackson broke the news that he would produce a World War II film, The Dam Busters, to be directed by Christian Rivers (of LOTR storyboard and special-effects fame), and on September 12 he revealed that he had acquired the rights to Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” fantasy series (three books done and more on the way). To top it all off, on September 27 Jackson announced that in conjunction with Microsoft he is forming a videogames subsidiary of his production company Wingnut Films, to be called Wingnut Interactive.
Whew! Could someone that busy take on The Hobbit as well? Jackson’s talking as if he could. In a long interview  posted on Ain’t It Cool News September 16, he said that no one had contacted him about making the film, but he was already tossing out ideas about bringing back some of the characters from LOTR to fill out the plot. A week later, Jackson chatted with EW.com, sounding even more enthusiastic and brushing aside the idea that his current lawsuit against New Line (over DVD payments) would be a factor: “I’d love to make another film for New Line. And certainly The Hobbit isn’t involved in the lawsuit.” He also pointed out, “We’ve still kept the miniatures of Rivendell in storage, and the set of Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’ house, has also been saved” (“Action Jackson ”).
So how could he do it? Whether with an eye to a possible Hobbit project or not, Jackson has organized his projects in a remarkably flexible way. Halo (to be distributed by Universal in North America and Twentieth Century Fox abroad) and The Dam Busters (co-financed by Universal and StudioCanal) are being directed by others, and an executive producer doesn’t necessarily have to do a whole lot of hands-on work. As Jackson pointed out to his EW interviewer, Steve Daly, “That’s one of the reasons we’re producing a number of things now rather than directing. Producing is fun and it’s not as all-consuming.”
As to the “Temeraire” series, that is a long-range project that Jackson speaks of putting into pre-production when Halo and The Lovely Bones are substantially finished. He’s not sure yet whether he’ll direct the resulting film or films. The Lovely Bones is not all that far advanced, either, with Jackson, Walsh, and co-writer Philippa Boyens having only recently finished a first draft of the script. The rights for both of these projects are owned entirely by Jackson and Walsh, with no studio yet attached—which means they have no deadline. In another remark that sounds calculated to encourage MGM and New Line, in the same interview Jackson remarks, “We’re not imposing any deadline on ourselves with all these projects. They’ll take as long as they need to until we’re happy with them.” It sounds a lot like he’s hinting that they could also be put off if another attractive project comes along.
In a print article based on his interview (“Shire Circumstances,” in the September 29 issue of Entertainment Weekly), Daly remarks, “Make no mistake: In the wake of MGM’s unilateral announcement, Jackson has indeed started thinking about what he might do with The Hobbit.”
Whether New Line and MGM will follow up (or maybe are doing so already) is anybody’s guess right now, but Jackson’s participation would obviously enhance the value of the film property immensely. (A new poll over on TheOneRing.net  shows nearly 60 percent of respondents consider it definite or likely that they would not go see The Hobbit if Jackson is not involved in its making.) Whatever gets decided, I hope it happens before my manuscript goes to the typesetters and beyond the possibility of revisions. If so, it would be the ultimate update for the book!