Del Toro doubles up for 'Hobbit'

4:00 AM PST 01/28/2008 by Borys Kit, AP

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Guillermo del Toro is in talks to direct back-to-back installments of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," which is being co-financed by New Line and MGM.

Del Toro's name was on a short list of directors who could tackle the project, one of the most anticipated literary adaptations of the past decade. An ill-chosen director for "Hobbit" could put billions of dollars at stake for New Line and MGM and could turn off an audience that encompasses millions of passionate readers, Tolkien fans and obsessive geeks.

Few filmmakers have the cachet that del Toro has, as well as a deep love for the source material, an assured grasp of fantasy filmmaking and an understanding and command of geek culture as well as its respect. Del Toro has built that goodwill through such films as the Oscar-nominated "Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy," "Blade 2" (which was made by New Line) and "The Devil's Backbone."

For New Line, making "Hobbit" had become a priority in the wake of its billion-dollar success of the Oscar-winning "The Lord of the Rings" movies, which were co-written and directed by Peter Jackson. Jackson wanted to adapt "Hobbit," but when he got into a dispute with the studio over profit participation, the project went into limbo; neither New Line nor MGM, both rights-holders to the film, wanted to risk alienating fans of the trilogy by making an adaptation that didn't have Jackson's involvement.

The December resolution of the Jackson suit, facilitated by MGM CEO Harry Sloan, paved the way for "Hobbit" to get back on the road to the screen. However, because of other commitments that included "The Lovely Bones" and "Tintin," Jackson could not take on writing and directing roles, opting instead to become an executive producer with approval over creative elements of the pair of films.

Because of the strike, no writer has been hired to adapt Tolkien's children's classic, though that process will be fast-tracked once it's resolved. Del Toro and Jackson will oversee "Hobbit's" writing.

Principal photography for the films, which will be shot simultaneously, is tentatively set for 2009. The production budget is estimated at $150 million per film. The release of the first film is slated for 2010 and the second in 2011.

"Hobbit," which Tolkien initially wrote for his children, was published in the U.K. in 1937 to wide acclaim. It centered on Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who joins a group of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf on a quest to find the treasure of a dragon named Smaug. Tolkien went on to write "The Lord of the Rings" 17 years later.

Del Toro is putting the finishing touches on Universal's summer release "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army" and recently produced the critically acclaimed ghost story "The Orphanage." He is repped by Endeavor and Exile Entertainment.
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