In the latest of a series of legal battles involving J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved trilogy The Lord of the Rings and film adaptations made of the books, several of Tolkien’s heirs join a group of publishers in filing a $150 million lawsuit against New Line Cinema on February 11, 2008, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
New Line, an independent movie studio owned by Time Warner since 1996, earned critical acclaim (and struck box-office gold) with three Lord of the Rings films directed by Peter Jackson: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003). According to the lawsuit, the three films together grossed more than $6 billion internationally. They were also nominated for a total of 30 Academy Awards. At the 2004 Oscars, The Return of the King won in all 11 categories it was nominated in, tying Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most Academy Awards ever.
Behind the film trilogy’s phenomenal success, however, was a tangled web of legal conflict, as recounted in a February 2008 New York Times article on the most recent lawsuit. Film rights to Tolkien’s books were acquired in 1969 by United Artists, who in turn sold them to the Saul Zaentz Company in 1976. Miramax, then owned by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, licensed the rights in 1997 and sold them to New Line the following year. The Saul Zaentz Company had already filed charges against New Line for preventing it from auditing the accounting for the movies. For its part, Miramax had also sued New Line, alleging that the other studio defrauded it of $20 million in foreign revenue from the Lord of the Rings films. (That lawsuit was settled after a counter-suit from New Line.) Finally, in the Tolkien lawsuit, the holders of a trust for J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973, stated that they had failed to receive any money from the films. According to the literary-rights agreement signed in 1969, they said, the trust was entitled to 7.5 percent of the gross revenue from any film adaptation of Tolkien’s novels.
New Line’s troubles didn’t stop there: A group of supporting actors native to New Zealand (where the films were shot) had previously filed a lawsuit accusing the company of failing to pay them a share of an estimated $100 million profit made from film-related merchandise. Finally, Jackson himself settled a bitter and lengthy lawsuit against New Line in December 2007. The director, who also co-wrote and co-produced the Lord of the Rings films, had accused New Line of cheating him out of tens of millions of dollar after they sold subsidiary rights for books, DVDs and merchandise to other Time Warner companies for less than market value.
For Tolkien fans, the settlement of Jackson’s suit was good news, as it meant he could move ahead with his involvement in New Line’s long-anticipated film version of Tolkien’s other classic novel, The Hobbit. It was announced that Jackson would co-write and co-produce the film, but that Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director of the acclaimed fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), would direct. Meanwhile, New Line’s other legal troubles wore on, a complicated legacy of Tolkien’s novels, Jackson’s films and the passion they inspired.