After tumultuous development, an anticlimactic beginning

“The Hobbit” is officially beginning production with a quiet kickoff after its lengthy and turbulent development.

Producer-director Peter Jackson and co-financers MGM and New Line issued the announcement Sunday from Wellington, New Zealand.

Jackson will shoot the two films in New Zealand in 3D over the next 14 months at Stone Street Studios in Wellington and on location around the country.

Production had originally been scheduled to start in February, but Jackson had been hospitalized Jan. 26 with a perforated ulcer, leading to what was then termed a “slight delay” in the start of production. News had been sparse in recent weeks, though New Line registered “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” and “The Hobbit: An/The Unexpected Journey” as possible titles.

“The Hobbit” has survived a 2005 lawsuit against New Line by Jackson over “The Lord of the Rings” profits, settled two years later; a change of director, with Guillermo del Toro ankling last May and Jackson replacing him; the uncertainty over the fate of co-financer MGM, which went through a pre-packaged bankruptcy in November; and a dispute last fall with actors unions, leading to threats by Jackson to lense in Europe.

The New Zealand government agreed to change labor laws and sweeten production incentives in exchange for keeping “The Hobbit” shoot in that country.

“Hobbit” cast includes Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett reprising their roles from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Other cast members include Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Rob Kazinsky, Aidan Turner, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Jeffrey Thomas and Mike Mizrahi.

J.R.R. Tolkien novel’s set 60 years before “Lord of the Rings” with Bilbo the unassuming Hobbit who becomes a hero by obtaining a powerful ring in the face of challenges by the wicked Gollum and a dragon named Smaug.

New Line parent Warner Bros. reached a deal in January to handle worldwide distribution on “The Hobbit,” taking over international distribution and homevideo on the two films from MGM in exchange for funding MGM’s half of the production costs. Deal calls for MGM to continue handling international TV licensing for the films and to retain several territories including Scandinavia.

The “Hobbit” pics are aimed for release in late 2012 and late 2013.

The budget hasn’t been released but bankruptcy filings indicated that MGM was seeking a separate loan of $265 million-$275 million to finance its half-share in the two “Hobbit” films.

Jackson, Fran Walsh and Carolynne Cunningham are producing, with co-writer Philippa Boyens serving as co-producer and Ken Kamins and Zane Weiner as exec producers. Walsh, Boyens, del Toro and Jackson penned screenplays.

Announcement noted that many of the members from the “Lord of the Rings” team have returned including d.p. Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah, conceptual designers Alan Lee and John Howe, composer Howard Shore and makeup and hair designer Peter King.

Costumes are designed by Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor, who’s also overseeing the design and production of weaponry, armor and prosthetics made by the Weta Workshop. Weta Digital will supply visual effects, and post-production will take place at Park Road Post Production in Wellington.

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