On the eve of the release of the new Hobbit film, entertainment lawyer and author of the New Zealand Hobbit Crisis, Jonathan Handel talks to Brent about the five epic battles that have been fought by director Peter Jackson and others in the effort to adapt J. R. R. Tolkein's stories to the big screen.
Battle number one: divide and conquer
After 1978, producer Saul Zaentz got locked into a dispute with United Artists over the profits from the animated version of The Lord of the Rings which set in motion a sequence of events that would dictate the order in which Peter Jackson could eventually adapt the Tolkien stories for the big screen. "The rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings got split as part of the settlement. And that complexity is why we ultimately saw The Lord of the Rings films get made first, before The Hobbit even though The Hobbit is the earlier book."
Battle number two: Jackson wants more money
In 2005, Peter Jackson sued New Line Studios over profits from The Lord of the Rings films that had already been made. "That really did not make New Line very happy and the result was that he got ejected, the next year, from The Hobbit project. He was out. No Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson had done a job that the fan boys loved, that fans loved on The Lord of the Rings but no Peter Jackson on The Hobbit was the prospect there. Now what happened? The Internet erupted in an uproar and said this is not acceptable. And MGM which was involved because of that rights split...put pressure on New Line and said Jackson really needs to get restored to this project." The suit was eventually settled and Jackson was brought back on board as producer, not director. Selected to direct The Hobbit films was Guillermo del Toro. But when MGM went into bankruptcy the film was delayed and del Toro bailed, prompting Jackson to return to his director position.
Battle number three: The Tolkien estate wants more money
In 2008, the Tolkien estate decided to launch a suit to get a bigger share of The Lord of the Rings profits which had made an enormous amount of money. Despite making a reported $2.9 billion at the box office globally, the Tolkien Estate claimed to have been stiffed. In an interview with Le Monde, Tolkien estate lawyer Cathleen Blackburn claimed "These hugely popular films apparently did not make any profit! We were receiving statements saying that the producers did not owe the Tolkien Estate a dime."
Jonathan Handel told Day 6, "In Hollywood the concept of profit runs to dozens and dozens and dozens of pages. It's that complex. So the studio was saying we've given what we've given you and we've given you all that you get ... that dispute, again, got ultimately settled."
Battle number four: smash the unions
During the production of The Hobbit films, many of the big name actors were represented by British or American unions. But the local New Zealand actors were not unionized. So when they tried to start a union, Warner Brothers reacted harshly. "Warner Brothers, the New Zealand government, and Peter Jackson all resisted unionization. Warner threatened to pull the project. The New Zealand currency actually dropped briefly on that threat. This was a $500 million project in a country that only has four million people. And ultimately what happened is that Warner flew down and said to New Zealand, 'we want an extra $25 million in concessions from you, above and beyond the tax incentives and tax breaks that you've already given us and we want you to pass legislation in 24 hours that will make it impossible to unionize the film industry in this country." A party line vote in parliament passed the legislation.
Battle number five: Weinstein vs Warner
The Weinsteins were briefly involved and attached to the project a number of years ago. They weren't able to get the movie made and it went over to New Line ... New Line got absorbed into Warner Brothers. It was a division of Warner's. And the Weinsteins sued for profit share on the second and third Hobbit films. But what the studio said was 'no the contract that you had only gave you profit participation on the first picture that got made. We took The Hobbit book, which was a short book, and turned it into three films. Sorry guys you're only entitled to profit share on the first one." Just weeks ago an arbitrator sided with Warner.