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This past weekend Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug absolutely destroyed at the domestic box office, earning an impressive $73 million in its opening. The great success continues a long-established trend of Middle-earth movies doing well in theaters, and it has caused many to begin thinking about the future. Next year will bring The Hobbit: There And Back Again to cinemas everywhere and seemingly end J.R.R. Tolkien’s time on the big screen, but is there any way we could see more after that? The sad reality is that chances are slim.
Ever since the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a conflict has brewed between the author’s estate and Warner Bros., New Line, and Jackson, both over the creative content of the movie and the financial distribution. Years and years of dispute suggest that the future of Middle-earth movies is bleak.
Like many quarrels in Hollywood, the Tolkien/Warner Bros. spat can be narrowed down to an argument about money. Part of the author’s estate’s contract with the film studio said that a percentage of the profits from any adaptation of Tolkien’s work would go back to them, and it became a bit of a controversy following the release of The Lord of The Rings trilogy. The three movies made a reported $2.9 billion at the global box office, but when those box office totals were combined with project’s expenses, the studio claimed that the movie didn’t make a profit – thus reportedly shortchanging the Tolkien estate. In an interview with Le Monde back in 2012, Tolkien Estate lawyer Cathleen Blackburn recounted, "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."
This isn’t an entirely rare thing in Hollywood. In 2010, a net profit statement for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (another Warner Bros. film) was leaked and reported that despite the movie’s $934 million box office take, the studio actually lost $167 million when the final calculations were made.
In early 2008, the Tolkiens took Warner Bros. to court over the 7.5% that they believed that they were due, but the two sides settled out of court in September 2009.
The feud between the estate and the studio grew hotter in July 2012, and the future of the Middle-earth franchise beyond The Hobbit trilogy received what could easily be conceived as a death blow. Christopher Tolkien, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien and the editor his father’s posthumously published work The Silmarillion, did an interview with Le Monde and had nothing nice to say about Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Asked about meeting with the director, Tolkien told the interviewer:
"They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-25 year olds. And it seems that The Hobbit will be of the same ilk. Tolkien became...devoured by his popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of the time. The gap widened between the beauty, the seriousness of the work, and what it has become is beyond me. This level of marketing reduces to nothing the aesthetic and philosophical significance of this work."
As you might imagine, that quote got back to the filmmaker. Later that month, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was part of the Warner Bros. panel at San Diego Comic-Con and Jackson and many members of the cast were in attendance. During the question and answer portion of the presentation, Jackson was asked by a fan if there was any chance he would direct an adaptation of The Silmarillion after the end of the Hobbit movies, and the director quickly shut the idea down. He explained:
"I don’t think the Tolkien estate liked those films. I don’t think The Silmarillion will go anywhere for quite a long time."
The Silmarillion is a book that was published after Tolkien’s death and is a collection of all the author’s works and narratives that tie together to create the history of Middle-earth and the world found in both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike those books, however, the rights to The Silmarillion still belong to the Tolkien estate. If the estate and the studio were to ever make peace, the movie could happen, but it doesn’t look like that’s really a possibility.
Despite the fact that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters now, the most recent cause for dispute between the Tolkiens and Warner Bros. hasn’t actually been about movies. Instead it’s been about that other great Hollywood profit avenue: merchandising. In November 2012 the estate filed an $80 million lawsuit against Warner Bros., its New Line subsidiary and Lord of the Rings/Hobbit rights holder Saul Zaentz Co. claiming that the studio’s creation of an online slot machine violated their agreement to create only tangible – not digital – merchandise based on the books.
The case took an odd turn in March 2013 when Warner Bros. actually countersued the Tolkien estate, claiming that the previous lawsuit caused them to "miss out on millions of dollars of licensing opportunities." The Tolkien estate tried to get a judge to dismiss the claims, saying that it was just a distraction technique to hide the original lawsuit, but then in July the complaint was thrown out and the case has been allowed to continue.
The Tolkien estate and Warner Bros. have been fighting for so long now that it’s hard to imagine that they could reconcile their differences to allow future Middle-earth movies. Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy the ones we’ve gotten.