Middle-earth real estate

The rights holder for J.R.R. Tolkien films and other projects is changing hands

Middle-earth real estate
Image: New Line Cinemas 

The last couple of years have primed us for what's likely going to be a big expansion of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. We've got the upcoming Amazon Prime series, Rings of Power coming up in September (and is planned to run for at least five seasons), while 2024 will see a new animated movie, War of the Rohirrim come to theaters.

Tolkien's epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings has endured a complicated and convoluted path to theaters. Tolkien was wary but pragmatic about the prospects for a film adaptation, telling his publisher, Rayner Unwin, in 1957 that "I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization."

There were various pitches that Tolkien considered over the years: the Beatles had at one point been in the mix, but it wasn't until 1967 that Tolkien signed over the film rights to United Artists. According to film journalist Ian Nathan in his book about Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson & The Making of Middle-earth, Tolkien "agreed to part with the filmmaking rights in perpetuity to both books for what now looks like a parsimonious £104,000."

Along the way, producer Saul Zaentz acquired some of those rights for Middle-earth from UA, and that further complicated what could and couldn't be made: Zaentz didn't hold the rights to The Sillmarillion, for example, or any of Tolkien's other writings, and the split in ownership between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit meant that Jackson couldn't license both at the same time; instead, he opted to adapt Lord of the Rings.

On top of all that, the world of Tolkien adaptations was constrained in no small part by the Tolkien estate itself – Christopher Tolkien (the late author's son), wasn't a huge fan of what Jackson had put together.

Earlier this year, it seemed like there were some significant changes on the horizon: Zaentz's company that held the rights to Middle-earth was reportedly interested in selling them off. This is where those rights going up for auction is pretty interesting to me. According to Variety at the time, the company was looking for around $2 billion, and they'd apparently been eying Amazon as a buyer. That made a lot of sense given that Amazon is launching its big show.

Now, those rights have been sold to a Swedish company called Embracer Group, which already had some connection to adapting Tolkien's works as video games. In its press release, it explained that it could acquire Middle-earth Enterprises, and would thus own the rights for "motion pictures, video games, board games, merchandising, theme parks and stage productions relating to the iconic fantasy literary works The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien," as well as the matching rights for any other literary works that Tolkien's estate might license out. The company didn't disclose how much it was paying for those rights.

This isn't a huge change in the greater scheme of things: the mix of rights that Zaentz isn't shifting at all in that the umbrella company that oversaw everything concerned with Middle-earth is simply getting a new owner. The complications that stymied the development of various adaptations over the years are all still in place. But, it does seem as though it's going to lead to a new expansion of Tolkien's world in the coming years and decades.

The company trumpeted the possibilities that lie ahead of it, including "exploring 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, and continue to provide new opportunities for fans to explore this fictive world through merchandising and other experiences."

It'll be interesting to see what this actually turns out to mean: I don't know that we're about to see an explosion of origin stories for all of the principle characters in Lord of the Rings, but it does seem like we could see some more mining of Tolkien's works for new projects. After all, War of the Rohirrim comes out just a couple of pages from one of LOTR's appendices, and there are plenty of stories that involve those various characters from the trilogy that I imagine they could use.

This all rests on a couple of assumptions: that Amazon's Rings of Power will be an enormous powerhouse series that'll have the same cultural impact as Jackson's trilogy. I don't know if it'll have quite the same impact: streaming TV has had a rough couple of months and it seems like the industry might have hit a peak. And, there's more competition for eyeballs these days. Lord of the Rings stood out in 2000 because it was doing things that hadn't been done before. Now, genre entertainment is completely mainstream, and this fall alone, we've got Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, a sequel to Willow on Disney+, a second season of Amazon's other big epic fantasy Wheel of Time, and a third season of Netflix's The Witcher. Of course Tolkien will do well in that pack: it's Tolkien. But it's still a crowded field.

Either way it goes, it seems likely that we'll see a lot more Tolkien cropping up outside of the books in the coming years.