So what has happened?
In brief, the Tolkien Estate and Trust - the family and company which handles J.R.R. Tolkien's affairs after his death in 1973 - has joined forces with Warner Brothers and its subsidiary New Line (who produced the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, and co-produced the Hobbit film trilogy) to create a new television series based on the Middle-earth works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Amazon Television have greenlit a multi-season commitment to the project, so will be developing the series immediately with a view to it airing within a few years.
What is this TV show about? Is it a remake of the Lord of the Rings movies?
Contrary to early reports, no. The new TV series will apparently be set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and will use material from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings to flesh out this time period. Possible subjects for the TV show are the adventures of young Aragorn, the gradual corruption of Saruman, the dwarves led by Balin trying to retake Moria, Gollum's hunt for the One Ring, Faramir and Boromir as young solders in the Gondorian army and the childhood adventures of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.
If it's not Lord of the Rings, why is it using the Lord of the Rings name?
For legal reasons. Warner Brothers/New Line only have the television rights to The Lord of the Rings, not any of the other Middle-earth books, so will need to use the Lord of the Rings name to signify that. Also, as brand-awareness goes, it's the most attention-grabbing name to use.
Wait, don't they also have the rights to The Hobbit?
The Hobbit's rights are a complex mess (see the "brief history" of the rights below). They were originally owned by United Artists and then picked up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) when they took over UA. Warner Brothers and New Line allied with MGM to make the Hobbit trilogy, but by all accounts it was a nightmarish legal process lasting the better part of a decade to get there (which is why there was such as huge gap between The Return of the King and An Unexpected Journey). For this new TV series, Warner Brothers and New Line appear to have taken the view that it is not worth the trouble of aligning with MGM again, so are proceeding solely with material derived from The Lord of the Rings.
What about The Silmarillion?
The Tolkien Estate does not appear to have sold the rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin or Beren and Luthien (the other four of the six canonical Middle-earth books, alongside The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) so these stories remain off-limits for now.
If the Tolkien Estate hasn't sold the rights to The Silmarillion, why are they involved?
This is a more speculative area, because the Tolkien Estate has not made a direct statement (their only comment so far has been through a Hollywood lawyer). Of the Tolkien Estate's members, Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien's eldest surviving son and literary executor) was by far the most vocal in his opposition to adaptations based on J.R.R. Tolkien's work. However, Christopher resigned in August this year and it appears that the other board members are far less vociferous in their objections: Priscilla Tolkien (Christopher's younger sister), for example, advised Ralph Bakshi on his animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 and Simon Tolkien (Christopher's eldest son) supported Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.
In addition, the Tolkien Estate had to go to court several times to defend its rights in different matters relating to both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, matters which may not have arisen had the Estate been more closely involved from the start. The rest of the Estate may have also taken the view that if this adaptation is proceeding anyway, they might as well take a role to try to exercise a positive influence on the process.
How long will the series be?
The commitment by Amazon is apparently for five seasons and a potential spin-off show.
What is the deal costing?
Amazon had to pay between $200 million and $250 million for the rights up-front, along with certain guarantees for how much money they would put into the series budget. Apparently the per-season budget is guaranteed at between $100 million and $150 million, although the number of episodes per season has not yet been decided. Assuming the $250 million and $150 million figures are accurate, this deal will cost Amazon approximately $1 billion, or almost twice the total cost of Game of Thrones on HBO. This would make the series comfortably the most expensive TV show ever made.
Is anyone from the Jackson movie series involved?
At the moment, no. Apparently Amazon has not spoken to or approached director Peter Jackson, writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, artists John Howe and Alan Lee, Weta Workshop or any actors or crew involved in the making of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings at all.
Will the series use the movie art design, sets, effects, actors or other elements?
Given Warner Brother/New Line's involvement, that certainly is possible. However, you'd assume they would be trying to get on board the talent from the films if that is the case. In addition, it's now eighteen years since the movie trilogy entered production. For a TV series set before the original trilogy, it would be difficult to "de-age" actors for recurring roles on a regular, ongoing basis.
It's more likely that the series will focus on new castmembers playing younger versions of the film characters and will re-cast roles where necessary.
Will the new series be filmed in New Zealand or elsewhere?
That has yet to be decided. New Zealand would remain the most logical place to shoot the series, but it might be that an argument could also be made for Canada, especially since the production would have the budget to move out of the "within two hours' drive of Vancouver or Toronto" range that a lot of Canadian-shot shows are restricted to. Another possibility would be Eastern Europe, particularly places like Hungary and Romania which have emerged with major tax and cost incentives to shoot there.
When will the new TV series air?
Amazon clearly want to deploy this series as their flagship show in the battle with Netflix and the looming threat of Disney's new streaming service, which will launch with a live-action Star Wars TV series in late 2019. Amazon may try to match that launch date, although this would be tight with no creative talent attached to the project yet. 2020 may be more realistic.
Wait, what do you mean no creative talent is attached yet?
In a fairly unprecedented move, Amazon have bought the project without a writer, showrunner, producer, director or any actors attached. Apparently Warner Brothers and the Tolkien Estate are happy for the network to assemble a creative team themselves. When talks were in progress with HBO, HBO proposed using Jane Tranter's Bad Wolf Productions (which HBO has a stake in) company to handle the series, but when discussions stalled that option appears to have disappeared.
What was HBO's involvement?
This TV deal was proposed to HBO, Netflix and Amazon, since it was (correctly) assumed that they would be the only three companies with deep enough pockets to entertain the deal. HBO turned the project down for cost and because of their commitment to their ongoing Game of Thrones franchise (although GoT is due to end in late 2018/early 2019, HBO has multiple spin-off shows in development). Netflix also appears to have balked at the cost, offering $100 million instead for the rights and being outbid by Amazon. Netflix also have their own epic fantasy TV show in development, based on the Witcher novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.
A Brief(ish) History of the Middle-earth Movie and TV Rights
J.R.R. Tolkien (b. 1892) created Middle-earth in or around 1916, when he began writing a book eventually entitled The Silmarillion, a collection of fictional legends and stories set in a fantasy land called Middle-earth. Tolkien spent the rest of his life developing The Silmarillion and died in 1973 with the book still incomplete. However, he used the incomplete "Legendarium" as a source for two novels published in his lifetime: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit between around 1930 and 1936, and it was published in 1937. He then wrote the much longer Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1947, spent two years editing it and a further five years trying to get it published; it finally appeared in three volumes in 1954 and 1955 and was a modest initial success. However, a very public and famous copyright battle erupted in 1965 when an American publisher, Ace, released an unauthorised paperback edition of the book. Tolkien and his publishers won the battle and many curious readers, particularly in the United States, picked up the novel. Thanks to strong word-of-mouth and an adoption by the 1960s counter-culture, the novel's sales exploded worldwide between 1965 and 1969.
In 1969 Tolkien, keen to ensure the financial security of his grandchildren, sold the screen rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists for a significant sum and these rights were then further acquired by producer Saul Zaentz in 1976. However, United Artists believed that anyone wanting to adapt the books would need to start with The Hobbit and saw it as the more valuable asset. Accordingly, United Artists sold only the full screen and production rights to The Lord of the Rings to Zaentz and held onto distribution rights to The Hobbit. These rights were acquired by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1981 when they bought United Artists (who were in danger of going bust after the massive failure of the movie Heaven's Gate).
Zaentz and UA collaborated to allow the production of a cartoon version of The Hobbit with animation studio Rankin/Bass in 1977 and an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 with Ralph Bakshi. When the producers could not agree on terms to make a second part of The Lord of the Rings, they parted ways and Zaentz, US and Rankin/Bass reconvened to make an animated sequel called The Return of the King in 1980. However, by the mid-1980s the rights to The Lord of the Rings had reverted to Zaentz whilst UA/MGM retained some rights to The Hobbit.
In 1995 New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson began considering plans for a Tolkien trilogy. He proposed a one-film adaptation of The Hobbit and a two-movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Several studios expressed an interest, but most notably Miramax, the studio owned by the Weinstein Brothers. Miramax spoke to Zaentz and found him willing to sell the rights, but quickly became aware of the MGM stake in The Hobbit rights. Miramax was unable to meet MGM's price for The Hobbit rights and suggested that Jackson proceed with The Lord of the Rings alone. Later Miramax, suffering financial problems, reduced the scope of the proposed film from two movies to one. Jackson was unable to comply, but found a new partner in the shape of New Line Cinema, who not only embraced the project but gave Jackson three movies to adapt The Lord of the Rings. The three movies were released between 2001 and 2003 and grossed just under $3 billion at the box office, becoming a cultural phenomenon. New Line licensed the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and also production rights to The Hobbit from Zaentz for an unclear period of time, but it seems to have extended into the early-to-mid 2010s.
In 2008 Warner Brothers bought out New Line and inherited their licensed rights. With considerably deeper pockets, they moved to ally with MGM and secured the rights to make The Hobbit. Originally Jackson and director Guillermo Del Toro planned a two-film version of The Hobbit and a third "bridging movie" linking The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, drawing on the appendices in the latter. However, Warner Brothers got cold feet on this idea, eventually insisting on three movies based on the very short Hobbit (which is only one-fifth the length of The Lord of the Rings). Del Toro quit the project and Peter Jackson was persuaded to take over at short notice, resulting in the Hobbit trilogy of movies released between 2012 and 2014. The trilogy took slightly more money than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but on a much higher budget and the critical reception was lukewarm in comparison.
Meanwhile, when J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 his literary rights were inherited by his third son and literary executor, Christopher. Christopher, working alongside several assistants (most notably Guy Gavriel Kay, a future, highly accomplished fantasy author in his own right), assembled his father's incomplete manuscripts to publish The Silmarillion in 1977. A further collection of short stories, essays, maps and background information on Middle-earth was published as Unfinished Tales in 1980. Along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these two books would be considered part of the Tolkien "canon" (although debate would continue to surround the later two books due to Christopher's editorial choices, some of which he himself would later regret). Christopher Tolkien also published the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series, which collects every early draft, abandoned fragment and partial manuscript ever written by Tolkien on the subject of Middle-earth. Later on, drawing from the same material, Christopher Tolkien would produce The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017), fleshing out episodes from The Silmarillion into longer stories.
Christopher, as J.R.R. Tolkien's literary executor, was 100% adamant that he would never sell the film or TV rights to The Silmarillion or the other posthumous material and this remained constant, right up to Christopher resigning as head of the Tolkien Estate in August 2017. At present the film and television rights to those books have still not been sold, but with Christopher's departure it might be that this changes at some point in the future.
One thing that is clear is that Christopher's departure and Amazon's entry to the TV market are both gamechangers for the fields of fantasy and television.
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