I confess that I am a true J. R. R. Tolkien fan. While he was not the greatest writer of his age, the magic he sprinkled across the pages of his tales forged his novels into the standard by which all other fantasy novelists are measured. My respect and appreciation for what he created, makes it all the more frustrating to see his creations tainted.
No, I am not going to start bashing the latest Hobbit film. I actually enjoyed it, despite the production twisting and turning the plot and characters in a fashion to which no innocent Hobbit should ever be subjected. Likewise I’m a fan of the HBO series A Game of Thrones, though it too is different than the novels masterfully written by George R. R. Martin.
I have an understanding that the film industry must put their stamp on everything they do no matter how perfect they perceive the original work. Some things in a novel just won’t play on the screen. Fortunately for Martin, he surrendered his rights to a trustworthy duo who treat him fairly and make great efforts to include him in the creative process. Perhaps his previous experience as a writer in Hollywood served him well in his dealings. Once you’ve swam with the sharks you learn how to avoid becoming shark bait.
Unfortunately for Tolkien, he was not so lucky. When he sold his rights back in 1968 to United Artists, the inner workings of Hollywood were not quite so apparent. Conflicting reports place the sales price between 10,000 and 250,000 pounds. The film studio squatted on the rights until 1976 when Saul Zaentz and company sweet-talked the rights away from them. Shortly afterwards the world was treated to the animated film The Lord of the Rings.
Zaentz quickly followed the first venture with his new property by licensing his rights to Iron Crown Enterprises for what was the biggest payout in role-playing game history at the time. It is unclear how much, if anything, the Tolkien Estate received for this deal.
You see, even today, Saul Zaentz still owns the worldwide film, stage, and merchandising rights to Tolkien’s greatest creations. Being a shrewd businessman and filmmaker Zaentz through his company, Middle-earth Enterprises, only licenses his property to film studios and merchandising companies. He would never be so foolish as to sell away his rights completely.
In fact, each of Zaentz’s licensing agreements comes complete with a clock, counting down the seconds until it expires. For Tolkien’s heirs and estate, there is no such clause. None of it will ever revert to them. They are locked into a deal forged in 1968, before the Hollywood machine had been fully assembled.
Many great authors have sold away their rights only to discover they had made a deal with the devil. In some cases they were promised creative input, only to find the door slammed shut and the phone disconnected. How frustrating it must be for an author to be forced to the sidelines while their baby, their masterpiece, is horribly butchered and they are rudely ignored. Many authors have suffered this fate. Great, intelligent, and resourceful writers like Ursula Le Guin and David Brin.
What goes through your mind, when your film rights sit unused, collecting dust in the backroom of some producers study? When another opportunity appears, the author is left toothless while the squatter negotiates a deal.
Not all Hollywood romances have ended tragically. Some have met with great success, leaving the author grinning from ear to ear. Just ask George Martin how he feels about his deal. I’m sure you will get nothing but high praise. Do we honestly think J. K. Rowling didn’t come out smelling like a rose after her Harry Potter series hit the silver screen?
Unfortunately the success stories are but a twinkling against the broad star filled sky of horror tales. Let’s return our attention back to the Tolkien Estate and the grand property of Middle-earth. Tolkien has not suffered through bad film making like many of his peers—quite the contrary. The Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson received many Oscars and grossed upwards of $6 billion. His property is the very definition of success.
So begins the deeper tragedy of the Tolkien Hollywood experience. If you’ve read The Hobbit, you may remember the Battle of Five Armies at the end of the book. [Spoiler Alert] When the dwarves get their hands on all the treasure of their ancestors, they are overwhelmed with gold fever. They refuse to share. Promises made are discarded. Those poor trusting souls that made deals with the dwarves came back to collect their cut—so started the Battle of Five Armies.
Sadly the events of the book played out in reality. When the bank suddenly burst at the seams, gold fever swept across the greedy dwarves—or in this case, New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers. The studio didn’t want to share in the spoils.
The first army to march on the studio was poor old Saul Zaentz. He filed a lawsuit against New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers claiming they failed to share the treasure. Not to be out done, Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings, also filed suit. He too had not received his fair share of the treasure.
Taking their turn in line, the Tolkien Estate shuffled in behind to file their suit. They claimed that the studio had failed to pay them a single penny for the tired contract they had signed in 1968. The contract, as archaic as it is, showed that they were owed 7.5 percent of the gross profits.
It took a multitude of lawyers filling their pockets with the longed for treasure before all three suits were finally settled. Regarding the refusal to pay the Tolkien Estate and the subsequent settlement, Warner Brothers president and COO, Alan Horn said, “We deeply value the contributions of the Tolkien novels to the success of our films and are pleased to have put this litigation behind us.” Did I mention that one of the only reasons they settled the case was a pending court injunction against the release of the Hobbit films?
Perhaps Mr. Horn might one day come to understand that there would be no success and no films without the Tolkien novels.
But wait, there are only four armies in this battle—New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers, Zaentz, Jackson, and the Tolkien Estate. For dramatic effect, the fifth army waited until the dust began to settle before marching into combat. Apparently Miramax held the license for the Hobbit films and sold them to Warner Brothers. Only they didn’t word their agreement cleverly enough. Warner Brothers had agreed to share the wealth on the first Hobbit film but not all three. Miramax argues that all three films are part of the same whole. The courts will decide how much of the dragon’s hoard Warner Brothers must share.
To further tangle this mess, the Tolkien Estate has filed a lawsuit against Zaentz and friends for selling rights that they don’t own. It seems that Zaentz in his pursuit of a few dollars more has begun licensing the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit for poker machines and online gambling. Tolkien’s heirs insist this was never part of the agreement signed in 1968. In response, Zaentz and the studio are countersuing the Tolkien Estate. It seems the battle of five armies is a long way from its conclusion.
Just for good measure Zaentz has taken legal action against a pub near Tolkien’s birthplace that used the Hobbit in its name. He has filed suit against a knock-off film, and if I’m not careful will be sending me a court summons for naming my pet weasel Bilbo.
So do you still want to sell your film rights? If you do, will you be as fortunate as George Martin? Will you be pushed aside as some filmmaker slaps your title and characters on a horribly crafted facsimile? Perhaps you will win the fate of the Tolkien Estate and find your dreams of success stained by the division of treasure.
The second Hobbit film is in theaters now. The third will soon follow in the spring. Once the films have all released I’m sure the studio head will sit down at the table with his pile of treasure and work out a fair split. Jackson, Zaentz, and the Tolkiens will gather about the table. Warner Brothers will layout three cards each marked with the face of a Hobbit. With a strait and humble face, he will ask them if they are ready to play a game of Three-Hobbit Monte. I wonder who will walk away satisfied.
Forget about the obscene amounts of money. Forget about our desire to see the movie. Authors should always be treated fairly in regards to their creations. Sometimes people need to look beyond the gold and just do the right thing. Caveat venditor.