Peter_Jackson_and_Guillermo_del_ToroGuillermo del Toro announced today on the — the official Middle Earth sounding board — that he’s stepped out of the directing assignment on the two film versions of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, though he will continue to collaborate as a writer. I would have bet that Peter Jackson would be the one to step back into the director’s chair because there have been rumblings about this lately. But his manager, Ken Kamins, tells me this is absolutely not a possibility. It seems a sad ending to the dream job that prompted del Toro to suspend his whopping overall deal at Universal — and a slate full of epic-sized projects — to take on The Hobbit after he got the offer instead of Sam Raimi (who wanted it badly). And after the imagination del Toro displayed onscreen in Pan’s Labyrinth, who better to join Jackson and his original Lord of the Rings creative team?

Jackson, who is coming off the disappointing Oscar season entry The Lovely Bones, would seem the perfect person to retake the directing reins after del Toro’s exit. They’ve worked closely on the script, so there would be no interruption in creative continuity. Whether they bring back Raimi (who is working on World of Warcraft but hasn’t committed to his next film) or give the job to a filmmaker like Jackson’s District 9 protege Neill Blomkamp (he’s committed to do his next project for Media Rights Capital) there would be a steep learning curve to bring Middle Earth to life. Jackson translated Tolkien’s creation masterfully in the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. According to Kamins, it’s not going to happen.

“Peter has and has had obligations and commitments to other films that would make it impossible for him to direct The Hobbit at this time, even if it was offered, which it hasn’t been,” Kamins told me. “I’ve been quietly working on setting up a film for him to direct while Guillermo would have been directing The Hobbit. What you saw in their respective statements must be taken at face value. All of that said, Peter and Fran’s commitment to The Hobbit is total and they will do everything necessary to protect the franchise and the investment made by New Line, Warners and MGM.”

Here is what del Toro announced:

“In light of ongoing delays in the setting of a start date for filming The Hobbit, I am faced with the hardest decision of my life. After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures. I remain grateful to Peter, Fran and Philippa Boyens, New Line and Warner Brothers and to all my crew in New Zealand. I’ve been privileged to work in one of the greatest countries on earth with some of the best people ever in our craft and my life will be forever changed. The blessings have been plenty, but the mounting pressures of conflicting schedules have overwhelmed the time slot originally allocated for the project. Both as a cowriter and as a director, I wish the production nothing but the very best of luck and I will be first in line to see the finished product. I remain an ally to it and its makers, present and future, and fully support a smooth transition to a new director.”

Said Jackson:

“We feel very sad to see Guillermo leave The Hobbit, but he has kept us fully in the loop and we understand how the protracted development time on these two films, due to reasons beyond anyone’s control, has compromised his commitment to other long term projects. The bottom line is that Guillermo just didn’t feel he could commit six years to living in New Zealand, exclusively making these films, when his original commitment was for three years… New Line and Warner Bros will sit down with us this week, to ensure a smooth and uneventful transition, as we secure a new director for The Hobbit. We do not anticipate any delay or disruption to ongoing pre-production work.”

It seems particularly unfortunate that after putting years into writing scripts and making endless trips to New Zealand, del Toro would depart solely because of the MGM situation. That rationale only came up recently, after del Toro completed two scripts with the original Lord of the Rings writing team of Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh. They’d just begun talking about shooting in 3D. If MGM is really the sole reason, that’s too bad because there are signs that things are going to happen soon to decide the ultimate ownership of The Hobbit and other assets. Clearly the fact that the studio — and a talented production and marketing team — has been frozen in suspended animation has been as much an albatross around The Hobbit as it has been for the James Bond series. But everybody is happy with the two Hobbit scripts and all involved still expect production to start late this year or early next year–it will have to, if New Line and MGM are to get the pictures in theaters December, 2012 and December, 2013. This franchise is too valuable to let languish much longer and the debt holders of MGM won’t be happy when they realize that the director has walked because they’ve allowed things to fester so long and handcuffed the executives brought in under Harry Sloan to turn things around.

Though under financial duress, MGM has continued to meet its rights payment obligations on The Hobbit, but hasn’t been able to do any more than that. Warner Bros is the lead studio on the project, and has ultimate say on green light, but perhaps the films are too large an investment to front alone, or that prospect doesn’t benefit the leverage Warner Bros has in a potential  buyout of MGM’s assets. Rumblings are that there may well be a new player entering the fray shortly, bringing equity and new experienced management. Summit Entertainment and Spyglass are the names most often mentioned, though we also hear Terry Semel and Peter Chernin, the latter of whom reportedly doesn’t want it.

The development is good news for Universal, whose executives were initially fuming after they made a deal to establish del Toro as a major supplier of tent poles, only to watch him commit five years to The Hobbit. Del Toro can return to such projects as Frankenstein, HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the Dan Simmons novel Drood. In addition, del Toro is working on the second and third installments of The Strain, a terrific series of vampire novels he’s writing with Chuck Hogan, which absolutely begs for a movie transfer.