In a surprising and unexpected move, the Tolkien Estate and Warner Brothers are teaming up to to produce a television series based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings.
The news comes fourteen years after Peter Jackson completed his epic movie trilogy for New Line Cinema (now owned by Warner Brothers) and just three years after he completed a prequel trilogy, based on The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy grossed just under $3 billion at the box office (and considerably more in merchandising sales) and considerable critical acclaim, including seventeen Oscars. The Hobbit trilogy, despite a much more mixed critical reception, actually made slightly more money at the box office but off the back of twice the budget, so was less profitable (although this is relative; WB were very happy with $2.3 billion in profit).
However, the Tolkien Estate was unhappy with the movies, with Christopher Tolkien feeling they were special-effects-focused and lacking the soul of the books (although this was before he'd watched them). The Estate was also unhappy with how their legal rights were respected. They ended up fighting at least three legal battles against the studio, the first to secure the correct share of the profits, the second to clear up the rights to The Hobbit and the third to resolve whether the original deal in the 1960s granted the movie producers the rights to make gambling tie-ins, when this was not part of the original deal.
The new deal is said to be enormous, with an up-front rights fee of $250 million and a guaranteed per-season budget of between $100 and $150 million, which would exceed the record-setting $100 million budget of Game of Thrones in its last three seasons. For this reason only three studios are in the running: HBO, Netflix and Amazon. HBO apparently took a brief look, but turned down the deal, feeling it would conflict with their plans to expand their Game of Thrones franchise (although the idea of a fresh Lord of the Rings adaptation, possibly with noted Tolkien fan George R.R. Martin in an advisory role for HBO, is intriguing). Netflix are still in the running but they are currently looking to strip back some of their excess spending in the face of a mounting debt bill, which would not be compatible with this project.
Instead, Amazon seem to be the most likely studio to pick up the deal. Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, is personally involved in negotiations and they come just after he mandated the need for a massive, high-profile show to directly compete with Game of Thrones. Bezos, a fan of science fiction and fantasy, is believed to have been eyeing the Wheel of Time TV series in development at Sony, of which he is also reportedly a major fan, but obviously a Middle-earth TV show would have a far higher profile. Amazon TV also have the money to afford to pay the enormous rights and not be too badly damaged if the show tanks.
The reported involvement of the Tolkien Estate is surprising, although it has been suggested that it might be Saul Zaentz's Middle-earth Enterprises (who have held the TV and film rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings since the late 1960s) that's involved rather than the Estate directly. This would explain why apparently only The Lord of the Rings is currently in play, possibly with an expansion to include The Hobbit. The rights to the other Middle-earth books, namely The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin and Beren and Luthien, firmly remain with the Tolkien Estate and are apparently not up for discussion in the current deal.
Given the immense popularity of the Tolkien books and the boost it would give Amazon, it's likely that this deal will go through. The only stumbling block will be the perception that this is far too soon after Peter Jackson movie universe was completed and a TV series launched in ten years might be a better proposition. It's also likely that a TV project of this magnitude will require a heavy-hitting showrunner and creative force to be involved, and unless there is it may founder for a lack of creative talent.
More damaging is the possible impact on Sony's Wheel of Time project, which seemed a natural fit at Amazon and would require the resources that only really Amazon can offer. If Amazon can take up this Middle-earth deal, it may dramatically reduce the likelihood of the Wheel of Time adaptation continuing, at least in the short term.