It isn’t easy to make a successful big-budget fantasy movie franchise, but Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy beat the odds and has inspired a flurry of similar efforts in the decade-plus since its release. But despite the widespread acclaim for the trilogy, Warner Bros. has a troubled relationship with the Tolkien Estate that grew particularly ugly in 2012, when the latter filed an $80 million lawsuit alleging breach of contract. The Hobbit trilogy was already underway by that point, but the legal troubles stymied fans’ hopes of future film adaptations of Tolkien’s work – in particular, the posthumous collection of Middle-earth history called The Silmarillion.
The lawsuit was finally settled “amicably” earlier this month, so does that mean that we can expect to see more adventures in Middle-earth on the big screen any time soon? Unfortunately, the chances are very slim for a multitude of reasons – though it’s certainly not impossible. Read on for the details.
The Ballad of Tolkien and Jackson
J.R.R. Tolkien himself sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in 1969, reportedly for a rather small amount he urgently needed to pay his taxes. Today, those rights have been passed down to a company called Middle-Earth Enterprises, which is a division of the Saul Zaentz Company.
Despite selling the rights so long ago — and a pair of ill-advised animated adaptations in the 70s — it took four long decades to bring The Lord of the Rings to life on the big screen. Mostly this was due to waiting for technology to make the epic scale of Tolkien’s tale possible in live-action. Peter Jackson’s celebrated film trilogy was a massive box office success, and scored accolades from moviegoers and critics alike.
Naturally, Hollywood wanted more. After some unrelated legal wrangling over the filming and distribution rights, eventually Jackson was hired by Warner Bros. (who licensed the rights from Zaentz) to adapt The Hobbit into a prequel trilogy. While The Hobbit films fell short of the Rings trilogy in the eyes of viewers, they were still a major commercial success, collectively grossing almost $3 billion worldwide.
The question on fans’ minds now is whether there’s any chance Peter Jackson (or someone else) could keep the franchise going. Might there be more of Tolkien’s stories headed to the cinema? Well…
Ready, Set, Sue
Remember the “bad blood” mentioned above? Buckle up, this is where it gets complicated.
In short, when Tolkien died in 1973, his son Christopher succeeded him in overseeing the Tolkien Estate, a position he still holds today. Christopher Tolkien went on to finish several of his father’s uncompleted works, most notably The Silmarillion – a passion project of the elder Tolkien which was essentially the entire history of Middle-earth in 350 or so pages.
Christopher was less than pleased with the Lord of the Rings films, to put it mildly, stating that Jackson had “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie.” It didn’t help that according to the Tolkien Estate, Warner Bros. had failed to deliver the 7.5% royalties Tolkien was owed from any and all adaptations, stipulated in his original sale of the rights. So they, along with HarperCollins Publishers, sued WB in 2008 for $220 million; the case was settled outside the court system in 2009 for a reported $38 million.
Then, in late 2012, the Tolkien Estate decided it didn’t like the video games and gambling machines that Warner Bros. had licensed based on the films, and filed a lawsuit claiming that WB had stepped over the line with these products. A few months later, in early 2013, both the Saul Zaentz Company and Warner Bros. fired back with a pair of counter-suits, alleging that the Tolkien Estate’s lawsuit violated “the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing” between them.
These various cases were finally settled five long years after the initial “gambling machine case” was filed, in July 2017. Neither party seems interested in revealing what the terms of the settlement were, but legal documents related to the matter state that it ended “amicably.” That may be true, but keep in mind that these sorts of legal resolutions always put the best possible PR spin on things for appearances’ sake.
Now, with that ugly business out of the way… Does this mean Warner Bros. and the Tolkien Estate are ready to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” while raking in piles of cash from further big screen adventures in Middle-earth?
Don’t hold your breath.
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