“Lord of the Rings” didn’t create Hollywood’s insatiable thirst for recognizable intellectual property, particularly of the genre (or you know, “nerd-friendly”) designation that has defined popular culture in the 21st century. You can point to all kinds of things for that, from the success of the “Superman” and “Star Wars” films in '70s, or the premiere of the ‘X-Men” film in 2000.
But the record breaking success of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which started in 2001 and was based on the fantasy novels written by J. R. R. Tolkien, paved the way for blockbusters centered around material with a built-in audience that would be the main driver for the film (and later television) audience.
You can argue that this has been a cultural net negative, if you like, and it’s certainly true that original visions and smaller-scale, humanistic storytelling now struggle to find both audiences and funding.
But these thing are never either/or, and the reason the “Lord of the Ring” films hit like they did was because Jackson proved that if you treat the material (and its fans) with respect, you can then elevate it to the level of grand, cinematic myth.
In the year 2000, the idea that a film about a bunch of Hobbits travelings from Middle Earth so they could go hang out at a volcano would win an Oscar seemed absurd. By the time “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” came out in 2003, that Oscar seemed all but preordained.
There was a time when after that after the trilogy concluded, that would be it. Maybe some video games or cartoons, but no need to go any further into the well. The story had been told.
But instead “The Lord of the Rings” property may have become the victim of its own success, and as witness by the latest sale of the now franchise’s licensing rights, that won’t be abating anytime soon.
Was The Hunger For More ‘Lord of the Rings’ A Good Thing?
The success of “Lord of the Rings” kicked off the IP arms race, and it’s very likely the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) wouldn’t have ended up buying Marvel if not for Gollum and company.
On one hand, it seemed to be tempting fate and looking a bit greedy for Jackson and the then Warner Bros. (WBD) imprint New Line Cinema to take another stab at Middle Earth glory, but “The Hobbit” was the book that kicked off the “Lord of the Rings” world, and it was only right that Jackson direct an adaption. (Which reportedly took years to reach fruition due to all manner of legal red tape.)
But the fact that “The Hobbit” somehow sprawled into a bloated, three-film trilogy that failed to live up to the original trilogy left a bad taste in fans' mouths, and Jackson had to basically reunite the Beatles to get people to love him again.
So OK, the main books have been filmed, and while the second trilogy wasn’t fondly remembered, nothing can harm the classic first one. Best to leave well enough alone, right? There’s always other stories to tell, you know? No need to keep diluting this thing?
Except that in a pop culture climate where IP rules us all, studios, and now streaming companies, can’t just let anything rest anymore, even if something should perhaps be left as fond memories rather than as “inspiration” for disappointing further films. (Nods in the direction of “Star Wars.”)
In 2017, Amazon made headlines by paying $250 million to Middle-earth Enterprises, aka the The Saul Zaentz Co., which owns the rights to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” (Tolkien sold the rights in 1968 to United Artists, which later sold it to Saul Zaentz in 1976.)
That’s just for the rights, mind you. The entire for season of the upcoming “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which will premiere Sept. 2 on Amazon Video Prime (AMZN) , will be $465 million. So that a $1 billion that Jeff Bezos has invested in Middle Earth. (Peter Jackson won’t be involved, apparently.)
But if that seemed to be the logical endpoint, well, once again there’s always more content to be mined from famous IP.
So Who Owns The Rights To ‘Lord of the Rings’ Now?
The Swedish video game and media company Embracer Group has purchased the rights to “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” and other properties from the Saul Zaentz Co.
The terms of the details were not disclosed, but CNBC reports that “the purchase was a part of six acquisitions,” totaling $572.8 million.
The company owns a variety of video game studios, including Saber Interactive and DECA Games, as well as Dark Horse comics.
While television rights weren’t part of the deal, the company plans to make more films, as well as video games, board games, merchandising, theme parks and stage productions. (This is in addition to the animated movie from Warner Brothers, which is expected in 2024.)
The company said it will explore “additional movies based on iconic characters such as Gandalf, Aragorn, Gollum, Galadriel, Eowyn and other characters from the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien." (Gollum already had an origin story film, but OK.)
“I am truly excited to have The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, one of the world’s most epic fantasy franchises join the Embracer family,” said Lars Wingefors, the company’s founder and CEO, in a release. “Going forward, we also look forward to collaborating with both existing and new external licensees of our increasingly stronger IP portfolio.”
Some fans might be psyched to get to spend more time in their favorite fictional realm, others might be worried. Execution is everything, so perhaps future films and whatnot will be great, and will feel like genuine extensions of the world and not flimsy cash grabs. Time will tell.
But one thing we can say for certain is that at this point, a Middle Earth theme park is inevitable, isn’t it?