Lords of the rings and masters of the courts
They're preciousss, those nasty little hobbitses. We loves them, we does; oh yes. But not quite as much, perhaps, as the lawyers do.
The three Lord of the Rings films have taken just under $3 billion at the box office since 2001, and who knows how much more via home-entertainment platforms. Part one of Peter Jackson's second trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, has taken a shade more than $1 billion. The various merchandising spinoffs - a veritable storming horde of products including action figures, Lego sets, costumes and role-playing games - has generated untold millions more.
Little wonder this precious bounty has given birth to a whole other sub-industry - hotly contested court cases to determine the ownership and right to profit from all things hobbit-related. For those involved, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien has become the one ring that binds them all ... in endless litigation.
In the latest chapter, the Weinsteins - brothers Bob and Harvey, who founded indie producer-distributor Miramax in 1979 and sold it to Disney in 1993 - this week sued Warner Bros for $75 million, a sum that it estimates to be the share of the gross receipts it is due from the latest two instalments in Jackson's hobbit trilogy (part two, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, opens in Australia on Boxing Day; the third instalment, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is due to open next December). Or would be due, they say, had they not been thoroughly stiffed.
Through its subisidiary New Line, Warners, the Weinsteins claim, is guilty of "an improper attempt to deprive the people originally responsible for hugely successful films ... of their right to share in revenue from two out of the three filmed instalments of Tolkien's The Hobbit". The studio had done this by "unilaterally" deciding to split the film of The Hobbit into three parts, and by claiming that parts two and three were, in effect, "remakes".
"This case," the suit claims, "is about greed and ingratitude."
For its part, Warners claims the Weinsteins simply failed to read the fine print.
Whatever the merits of the case, it is unlikely to be the last. The sheer scale of Tolkien's books and the world they contain has, arguably, given rise to this and other disputes.
Over the years, many filmmakers have tried to tackle Tolkien. Most have failed. In the process, who has the right to try has sometimes become a little blurry.
Tolkien was first approached about a filmed version of Lord of the Rings in 1957 by a team that proposed a mix of animation and live action, but he objected to the script and the scant financial return he was likely to see, and turned them down.
In 1968, the Beatles reportedly made overtures about a version that might have seen John Lennon play Gollum; Richard Lester, who directed the Fab Four in A Hard Day's Night, was their first choice of director, Stanley Kubrick their second. But by the time Michelangelo Antonioni had been suggested, the rights had been sold to United Artists and a swinging London take on the tale was off the table.
In the 1970s, John Boorman worked on plans for telling the LOTR trilogy in a single film; it ultimately proved too expensive, but the prep work did not go to waste, with Boorman utilising the locations he had scouted and special effects techniques he had developed for his 1980 Arthurian epic Excalibur.
In 1976, United Artists sold the development rights to producer Saul Zaentz. UA retained the distribution rights.
In 1977, Warner Bros released an animated version of The Hobbit, made by the Rankin-Bass production team (and largely drawn by animation house Topcraft), while the following year, the Zaentz-backed animated Lord of the Rings, directed by Ralph Bakshi, was released. In 1985, a Russian-language live-action version of The Hobbit was released; in 1993, a live-action Finnish mini-series was shown.
The main game, though, was Peter Jackson's attempt to bring the stories to full-blown epic life. In 1997, the New Zealander - whose cumulative box office across the five films he had then made (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Braindead, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners) was, according to The Hollywood Reporter, just $30 million - convinced Zaentz to let him film Lord of the Rings as two films. Miramax - still, at the time, headed by the Weinsteins - came on board as chief financial backer. But Miramax's owner Disney baulked at the price and demanded the story be condensed into a single film. Jackson and Zaentz in turn baulked at this, and looked for another backer.
In August 1998, Miramax sold the rights to develop Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to independent New Line Cinema for about $12 million. Miramax retained a 5 per cent stake in the gross - half of which it transferred to the Weinsteins.
The issue at stake now is whether that stake applies only to the first Hobbit film, or to all of them.
It sometimes seems that over the years, everyone involved in the Tolkien films has sued everyone else.
In 2004, Zaentz sued New Line, claiming he was owed $20 million in unpaid royalties. In 2007, he sued again, claiming New Line had refused to release information to enable verification he had received his fair share. Spare your tears: documents released in 2005 showed his cut of the three films was already $168 million.
In 2005, Peter Jackson sued New Line over claims it had withheld a portion of his share of the profits from the first Lord of the Rings film. This, like most of the cases, was settled confidentially.
In 2008, the Tolkien estate sued New Line over claims it had failed to pay "even one penny" from the trilogy profits. In its suit, the Tolkien Trust said its only receipt had been a $62,500 signing fee. It accused the company of "unabashed and insatiable greed" and demanded at least $150 million in damages (equivalent to 7.5 per cent of the gross). Crucially, it also refused to endorse any Hobbit film adaptations until settlement was reached (which it was, in September 2009).
Still playing out is legal action brought by the Tolkien estate over the claim that Zaentz and Warner Bros overstepped their licensing rights in approving gambling slot machines and computer games. Those companies have, in turn, countersued the Tolkien estate.
Oh, and a pub in Southampton called The Hobbit was threatened in March 2012 with legal action by the Saul Zaentz Co. It is still trading under that name, and its "Save the Hobbit" Facebook page has attracted more than 56,000 likes.
What are we to conclude from all this? Nothing more, perhaps, than that which Bilbo concludes as he confronts Smaug atop his pile of gold and jewels: "Surely, o Smaug the unassessably wealthy, you must realise that your success has made you some bitter enemies?"
If Middle-earth had had lawyers, you can bet their ears would have pricked up at that.
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