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To Arms! To Arms! The Battle for Middle-Earth Rages Anew!

Hollywood never had much hope for The Lord of the Rings.  It was “the book which could not be filmed.”  But then in 1995 an unknown director named Peter Jackson went to Hollywood to try to convince Universal to do a remake of King Kong.  Universal said no, but they were impressed by his ambition and asked, “What else you got?”  Jackson suggested shooting Lord of the Rings on location in New Zealand, using no big-name actors and his own nascent effects company.  Trouble was, the rights to the trilogy were owned by Saul Zaentz, who was negotiating to sell them to Miramax.  After months of discussions the project was obtained by New Line – a division of Miramax – with the profits (if any) to be shared among Zaentz, Universal, New Line/Miramax, the estate of author J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s company, which is called, quite appropriately for this insane venture, Wingnut Films.

What happened next was about as shocking as Frodo Baggins destroying the Dark Lord.  Three epic successes, almost $3B in receipts, 31 Academy Award nominations and 17 wins, including a perfect 11-for-11 for the final installment, Return of the King, tying it with Ben Hur and Titanic for most awards given to a single film.  And, in true Hollywood style, everyone started fighting over the spoils.  The various parties owned different shares of the domestic gross, the international gross, and DVD sales, resulting in an accounting nightmare.  16 cast members sued for profits from merchandise bearing their likeness.  Saul Zaentz sued, so did the Tolkien Trust.  The final act of the saga was Peter Jackson suing Miramax, the company that had bankrolled the film.

So now everybody hated everybody.  But hold on, there was more money to be made!  Before he’d even left the Oscar ceremony, Jackson was being asked about filming The Hobbit, the prequel to Rings. But he had finally gotten the green light from Universal to shoot King Kong, and it kept him busy for several years.  Meanwhile, the rights to the Hobbit were owned by yet another entity, Warner Brothers, and it took those several years to work that issue out.  At last, this July, it was announced that the rights had been negotiated, Jackson was back as director, all of the relevant cast members from Rings had agreed to participate, and The Hobbit had been given a two-film treatment.  Rings fans rejoiced.

So now Peter Jackson is the toast of New Zealand, right?  Well…um…due to the success of the Rings and the growth of the New Zealand film industry, the Screen Actors Guild has been lobbying for better pay and benefits for Kiwi film workers.  Last week, the leaders of 7 film workers’ unions issued a “do not work” order against The Hobbit and took to the streets of Wellington in protest.  Jackson had to awkwardly announce that he may have to move the filming….to Europe!  Rings fans freaked (New Zealand IS Middle-Earth, after all).  The Prime Minister of New Zealand jumped in.  Finally, just a few days ago, the Parliament of New Zealand passed “the Hobbit Law” (seriously!) which classifies most of the workers on the film as contractors (receiving pay, but no benefits), instead of as full employees of Wingnut.  So now production can finally proceed in New Zealand.

Yes, it’s just like the Battle of 5 Armies: complete pandemonium with a hoard of gold to be won.  The Hobbit hits the big screen Christmas 2012 and 2013.

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