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'Hobbit' could start shooting as soon as February

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Hobbit” will likely start shooting in February, if it can overcome one key hurdle. 

Warner Bros. and MGM, which is acting as co-financing partner, have reached a deal that will see the adaptation, which is being planned as two movies, finally go before cameras after months of wrangling over how financially beleaguered MGM would cover its half of the 3D production, estimated to cost around $500 million in total.

Neither New Line nor MGM would comment, but sources said MGM is coming up with its half by talking to other money wells, with one option being getting another studio to handle foreign distribution for MGM. If that doesn’t work, Warners will loan MGM the money, but that would mean ceding some distribution rights to the Burbank studio. 

The one thing holding things up now is the labor dispute between Jackson and an array of English-speaking actors unions, including New Zealand Actors' Equity and the Screen Actors Guild. A "do not work" order is in place against the production, which has refused to recognize union jurisdiction for local actors. Discussions in New Zealand are being facilitated by that country's government, with little progress reported to date. SAG would not comment on whether it too is involved in negotiations.

This hurdle, “a big, big deal,” according to “Hobbit” insiders, could move it out of New Zealand, which would mean another delay. Jackson has reportedly said Warners is looking into five other locations around the world.

Despite all the turmoil, preproduction on the movie has been going on for months, even before Jackson took over the directing reigns from Guillermo del Toro in June and has been meeting with actors since July. Martin Freeman is expected to play lead Hobbit Bilbo Baggins with Ian McKellen reprising his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy role as Gandalf.

New Line had no comment