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Warner Bros. and New Line are going back to Middle-earth, with the studio making a deal that will allow it to develop more Lord of the Rings movies.
The multiyear pact with rights holders Embracer Group AB allows Warners to develop features based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books and The Hobbit. Embracer Group, the Swedish gaming company, acquired the rights to produce LOTR films, games, merchandise, theme park attractions and live productions when it purchased rights holder Middle-earth Enterprises last year from The Saul Zaentz Company.
The move, announced during Warner Bros. Discovery’s investor call Thursday, comes as CEO David Zaslav seeks to assure Wall Street that Warners is very much in the franchise game, here harking back to the 2000s glory days when the studio was minting money with Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In November, Zaslav said he would like to make a deal with author J.K. Rowling for more Harry Potter, and initially floated the notion of a Lord of the Rings return.
Peter Jackson directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy, released from 2001-03. The series earned a combined $2.9 billion at the box office, with 2003’s Return of the King winning the Oscar for best picture. Jackson returned to direct The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14). New Line already had the animated feature The War of the Rohirrim on the calendar for 2024.
In a statement, Jackson and his Lord of the Rings partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens noted they were aware of the latest development. Said the trio: “Warner Bros. and Embracer have kept us in the loop every step of the way. We look forward to speaking with them further to hear their vision for the franchise moving forward.” (Jackson previously noted that Amazon asked him to be involved on its Lord of the Rings TV show but then did not follow up.)
Rights to the Tolkien works have always been a little dicey, and a legal dispute between Warners and the Tolkien estate went on for years before being settled in 2017. A newer complicating matter from a consumer standpoint: Amazon holds the TV rights to Lord of the Rings, with its megabudget Rings of Power debuting last year. One question the new series of films will face is how to convince audiences to go to the theater if they can get their fix at home. One big difference here is Amazon focuses on the Second Age, thousands of years before the events of the films. The movie rights have focused on the Third Age, when the best-known events happened and most beloved characters lived. It’s possible that Warners now could focus on new stories centering Tolkien’s big guns such as Gandalf, Bilbo and Aragorn.
And, of course, as much as new movies present opportunities for big franchise swings, they will come under fan scrutiny, just as much as the current Warners franchise plays, such as DC and Fantastic Beasts, do.
In a statement, those working on the projects acknowledge the task ahead.
“We understand how cherished these works are and working together with our partners at New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. Pictures, we plan to honor the past, look to the future, and adhere to the strongest level of quality and production values,” said Lee Guinchard, CEO of Freemode, which is part of Embracer.
And Warner Bros. film bosses Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy signaled that they are not interested in a retread of what Jackson has already done, saying in their own statement: “Twenty years ago, New Line took an unprecedented leap of faith to realize the incredible stories, characters and world of The Lord of the Rings on the big screen. The result was a landmark series of films that have been embraced by generations of fans. But for all the scope and detail lovingly packed into the two trilogies, the vast, complex and dazzling universe dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkien remains largely unexplored on film. The opportunity to invite fans deeper into the cinematic world of Middle-earth is an honor, and we are excited to partner with Middle-earth Enterprises and Embracer on this adventure.”
The deal is not only a coming home for LOTR but also a reunion for De Luca. The executive was president of production for New Line when the first film in the earlier trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, began production, but he was famously let go before the movie was released.
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