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Once more on New Line, Peter Jackson, and The Hobbit

Sunday | June 10, 2007   open printable version open printable version

hague_beorn.jpg

Gandalf introduces Bilbo to Beorn. Illustration by Michael Hague

Kristin here–

After several months of raised and dashed hopes, the question of who will direct the film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit remains open. I first weighed in on the question back on October 2 of last year, when this blog was in its infancy. MGM had just announced that they would be making The Hobbit and hoped that Peter Jackson would direct. At that point I was trying to sort out Peter Jackson’s large number of film projects and to explain how his schedule might include time to direct The Hobbit.

Subsequently there was a clarification. MGM, which owns the distribution rights to any film version of the novel, would co-produce with New Line, which produced The Lord of the Rings and owns the filmmaking rights for The Hobbit.

Then, early this year, New Line founder and co-president Bob Shaye declared in an interview that Jackson would never direct The Hobbit while he is in charge of the company. The obstacle was a lawsuit that Jackson had filed against New Line; he wanted an accounting of earnings on the DVDs of The Fellowship of the Ring and various licensed products. See my January 13 attempt to explain all that.

As before, no doubt negotiations are going on behind the scenes. To reiterate my disclaimer from the earlier entries, I have no inside information, given that my contact with Jackson and the other filmmakers was back in 2003 and 2004, during the research for The Frodo Franchise. As someone who has followed the situation very closely since undertaking my book back in 2002, however, I can make what I hope are some enlightening comments on the scraps of news that have appeared since January.

A faint hint that Shaye might possibly be backing away from his absolute rejection of Jackson as director for The Hobbit came in a brief interview in the April issue of Wired (also online). As far as I could tell, this went largely unremarked at the time. The first two questions related to The Last Mimzy, the children’s fantasy directed by Shaye, which was then being released to what proved to be disappointing box-office results. Inevitably, though, the interviewer switched to the Hobbit situation:

You recently said Peter Jackson would never touch The Hobbit while you were at New Line.

You know, we’re being sued right now, so I can’t comment on ongoing litigation. But I said some things publicly, and I’m sorry that I’ve lost a colleague and a friend.

Is The Hobbit still a viable project?

I can only say we’re going to do the best we can with it. I respect the fans a lot.

Shaye’s statements might be seen by some as implying that he regretted his rejection of Jackson as a director. Given that the vast majority of fans want Jackson to direct, the last sentence seems to offer hope that Shaye might relent and bow to their wishes.

A greater stir was caused by Entertainment Weekly’s April 16 announcement that Sam Raimi had expressed interest in directing The Hobbit—a possibility that had been circulating widely as a rumor since shortly after Shaye’s January pronouncement. As I suggested in my previous entry, however, most directors would shrink from upsetting Jackson and his fans by simply taking the job. Raimi made it clear what circumstances would be necessary: “First and foremost, those are Peter Jackson and Bob Shaye’s films. If Peter didn’t want to do it and Bob wanted me to do it—and they were both okay with me picking up the reins—that would be great. I love the book.” (Raimi presumably refers to films in the plural because MGM had suggested in September that it was considering a two-part adaptation.)

Raimi risked riling not only Rings fans but Spider-Man afficionados, who were upset at the idea that he might bow out of a presumed fourth entry in his own franchise. In the nearly two months since Raimi’s statement, there has been no public indication that he is being seriously courted to accept the job directing The Hobbit.

Jackson, however, has been busy. The projects on his plate have changed considerably since early October. Only a few weeks after my summary, Universal and Twentieth Century Fox, which had been on board to finance the video-game-to-film adaptation of Halo for co-production by Jackson and Microsoft, bowed out. The project is now on hold, with the assumption that the release of the Halo 3 game, announced for September 27, will regenerate studios’ interest.

The remake of The Dam Busters is moving forward, but it is being directed by Christian Rivers rather than Jackson, who serves as producer. The acquisition of Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series by Jackson and partner Fran Walsh, announced September 12, apparently has not resulted in a specific project. The pair presumably have the option of making it into a film at some future date or letting their option lapse.

The project that has made great progress is Jackson and Walsh’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestseller The Lovely Bones. Their script was up for bids this spring, and on May 4, Variety announced its sale to Dreamworks. Reportedly the film will be delivered by the fourth quarter of 2008. It might be possible to commence pre-production work on a Hobbit film while The Lovely Bones is in progress.

Less than two weeks later, Variety revealed that Steven Spielberg is teaming with Jackson to produce three feature films based on the classic Belgian comic books starring Tintin. Each plans to direct one of the features, with a third director undertaking the other.

In October I suggested that most of Jackson’s projects were flexible in their timing, and that left the possibility that he could shift them around to fit in The Hobbit. Given that no timing has been announced for the Tintin films, Jackson’s only apparent project with a deadline is The Lovely Bones.

Finally, at the Cannes Film Festival, Shaye and co-president of New Line Michael Lynne spoke to Variety’s editor-in-chief, Peter Bart, about the Hobbit project. Their remarks might give Rings fans cause for hope.

Shaye maintained his stance, declaring that New Line had paid Jackson and Walsh $250 million in profit participation. “The clash happened because ‘one of us has gotten poor counsel,’ Shaye said, without elaborating.”

The story continues: “Co-chief Michael Lynne struck a more upbeat note. ‘We do want to settle our dispute and I think we will.’” Neither would comment on the rumors that Raimi was being wooed for the Hobbit adaptation. When asked about Raimi, Lynne replied, “There’s never been any announcement.” Shaye added, “Like a lot of people, he might.”

I think there are two major factors underlying this feud between Jackson and Shaye that haven’t been pointed out and need to be. First, lawsuits of the type Jackson brought are pretty common in Hollywood. Second, Shaye is perhaps forgetting the amount of personal investment and financial risk Jackson took to get Rings made—investments that cost New Line nothing but which brought in a hugely successful film on a surprisingly low budget. (I explain how in the first chapter of The Frodo Franchise.)

Jackson’s isn’t even the first suit against New Line by someone central to the film’s making. Independent producer Saul Zaentz sold the adaptation rights to Miramax back in 1997, and that company in turn sold them to New Line in 1998. As part of these deals, Zaentz was to receive 5% of gross international receipts. He sued, claiming that the $168 million paid to him was calculated on net receipts, leaving a balance of $20 million owed him. The suit was to come to court on July 19, 2005, but New Line settled for an undisclosed amount shortly before that. The same thing could happen in Jackson’s case, and the settlement could come at any time.

Zaentz isn’t the only other person claiming to have been shortchanged by New Line. On May 30 of this year, a group of fifteen Kiwi actors filed a suit claiming that they had not been paid the 5% of net merchandising revenues for products bearing their likenesses. (The group includes Sarah McLeod, who played Rosie Cotton, Craig Parker, who played Haldir, and Bruce Hopkins, who played Gamling.) The suit isn’t likely to reach court soon, if ever, but Jackson isn’t alone in his doubts about New Line’s accounting practices.

Moreover, Jackson and Walsh spent an enormous amount of their own money upgrading the filmmaking firms in Wellington to make them sophisticated enough to handle all phases of Rings’s production. Weta’s two halves, Digital and Workshop, of which the couple owns a third, were vastly enlarged. Jackson and Walsh bought the country’s only post-production facility, The Film Unit, when it was for sale and under threat to be moved out of New Zealand. They went into debt to do that, and it, too, was enlarged and moved into a huge facility full of highly sophisticated equipment. Much of this expansion was paid for with the money Jackson received for making Rings.

The result was a trio of films that grossed nearly $3 billion internationally, as well as untold additional revenues for the DVDs, video games, and other ancillaries. New Line went from a small subsidiary of Time Warner known mainly for its Nightmare on Elm Street series to a well-respected company making prestige films like Terence Malick’s The New World and the upcoming The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first novel of Phillip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy. Oh, and there’s the matter of the seventeen Oscars Rings won. Previously New Line, founded in 1967, had won two.

In the wake of Rings, Jackson was faced with having to keep Weta, The Film Unit (now renamed Park Road Post), the Stone Street Studios, and his WingNut production firm going. Beyond the physical facilities, which no doubt involve enormous overhead costs, there are the many hundreds of employees to be paid. New Line did not invest in these facilities. Jackson and Walsh, along with their partners Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk, did.

When I first visited Wellington, there was a question as to whether there would be enough business to keep the facilities going and the employees in work. King Kong helped in the short run, but would other big films follow? Since then, Weta Workshop has diversified and is thriving. Weta Digital gets regular work doing the CGI for large numbers of shots in such films as X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Eragon. James Cameron’s decision to make Avatar in Jackson’s facilities seems the final seal of approval. Weta Digital is now widely considered one of the top digital effects houses in the world, alongside such firms as ILM, Sony’s Imageworks, and Rhythm & Hues.

Now the Wellington facilities all seem to be doing well. Nevertheless, in the era before Rings’s release and huge success, Jackson took as big a risk as Shaye did. Maybe bigger. Shaye might ponder that as he decides what to do about the Hobbit project. He owes the Kiwi filmmaker gratitude for more than simply directing a runaway hit.

Beyond that, unless New Line has short-changed Jackson very badly through its accounting procedures (and all that would presumably come out eventually when the suit finishes up), the added value provided by the director’s name on a Hobbit film would surely be at least as great as the money owed. Unless there is some major unknown factor influencing Shaye’s decision, he would do well to tamp his resentment, make peace, and initiate a project that is as close to a guaranteed mega-hit as anything can be these days. He could settle out of court, as he did with Zaentz, and just get on with it.

[Added July 21: For my update on the Hobbit film, go here.]

[Added August 6: For my earlier comments on the Hobbit film, go here and here.]

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David Bordwell
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