Here is the curious part of Amazon’s announcement on a multi-season commitment to turn the JRR Tolkien conceived The Lord of the Rings into an event TV series. Amazon has not tried to enlist the help of, or even reached out to Peter Jackson. With writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson visually realized the Middle Earth universe in three LOTR films, and the prequel The Hobbit trilogy. I’m told there has been no Kiwi contact at all, at least not yet.
Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ love of the LOTR movies and desire for Amazon to have a Game of Thrones-sized epic series made the giant most receptive when the Tolkien estate put the rights for sale. Word is that after Netflix offered around $100 million, Amazon substantially outbid them with the promise of rights fees and marketing commitment that puts the transaction past $200 million.
These sums are remarkable when one considers the struggles Jackson went through to find a home for the original LOTR. The rights were controlled by Disney-owned Miramax, and when Harvey Weinstein was denied permission by his boss Michael Eisner to fund Jackson’s plan to turn Tolkien’s three books into two movies, Weinstein allowed Jackson a short window to shop it. The offer sheet included a 5% first dollar gross stake for Miramax, with the understanding Jackson would exit in the high likelihood no else stepped up. Miramax would have hired another filmmaker to cram three books into a single film. The final stop on Jackson’s pitch tour was New Line, where Bob Shaye heard Jackson’s two movie pitch, and instead committed to make the trilogy in one shoot. The Tolkien estate rights portion of that deal? Around $3 million.
The escalation of value the Tolkien estate will derive from Amazon comes from the marriage of Tolkien’s imaginative storytelling and Jackson’s visual genius, in bringing to life a world filled with conflict that Tolkien brought back from his horrible experiences in WWI.
The estate has always been frosty New Line/Warner Bros and Jackson, and that might be a reason Amazon is keeping its distance. There is also the chance Jackson considers himself done with Middle Earth. If not, there might well be benefits in at least flying over to Wellington and seeing if all that R&D gleaned over nearly two decades has value, the way that the resuscitators of Star Wars picked the brain of George Lucas?
I spent a day once at WETA, trailing a barefoot Jackson as he practically tripped over the actual miniature models of Middle Earth landmarks that included Minas Tirith, Sauron’s Tower, Saruman’s Isengard fortress and all the incredible statues that were warehoused after being photographed and used in the three films. Those locations and VFX are done in computers, but Jackson built with his LOTR fees that studio and its production, VFX and post production facilities, where James Cameron is now shooting his four Avatar sequels. The Middle Earth exteriors are all over New Zealand. Jackson owns every stitch of costuming used in the movies, and every prop; he told me that he extracted that condition when he made extended version cuts of all six movies for DVD. It would seem Jackson could be a useful ally.
Amazon’s precedent-setting investment in Tolkien’s Middle Earth hints at the earth shaking impact Silicon Valley will likely continue to have on the traditional businesses of TV and movies. But it appears that what the retailing giant has gotten for all that money is entry into a world lushly realized by Jackson, without the clear storytelling blueprint that Jackson had from Tolkien’s LOTR and Hobbit books. After Jackson’s six movies that grossed nearly $6 billion, wouldn’t it be wise to put him on the call sheet?