MADRID — Amid the carnage of Spanish distribution, one company appeared unbreakable: “Lord of the Rings” distributor Aurum. No longer.

CEO John Gibbons, has been elbowed out of Aurum by parent company Zeta. In early May, former Miramax London production VP Teresa Moneo was appointed Aurum co-managing director. Just five weeks later, she no longer works at the company.

The dual departure begs questions: Who now runs Aurum, will it be sold off after “The Return of the King,” and what happens to the plan for a pan-Euro presence in the U.K. and Germany which appears to have precipitated Gibbons’ exit.

If Aurum is a mystery, it is wrapped in the enigma of Zeta itself.

Founded in 1976 by entrepreneur Antonio Asensio, Zeta’s core business has been publishing, from upscale newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya to erotic news weekly Interviu. Asensio died in 2001, leaving Zeta ownership mainly to his family yet day-to-day management largely to his exec old-guard.

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That situation can make for a rudderless corporate ship or too many hands fighting for the tiller. Zeta is unlikely to clarify film strategy: It strenuously declines commenting on company affairs.

One thing seems clear: Like possession of the Ring of Sauron, ownership of “The Lord of the Rings” franchise has proved a mixed blessing.

The straight-shooting Gibbons was drafted to Aurum by Zeta in September 2000 to rein in the film biz expansion under his gung-ho predecessor Francisco Ramos.

In 2001, Aurum pared its New Line output deal down to the “Rings” franchise; it had already abandoned Ramos’ welter of inhouse productions.

A $36 million B.O. windfall from “The Fellowship of the Ring” allowed Aurum to ponder wider options to diminish the risk of film distribution.

With distribbers’ sales to TV collapsing in Spain, Gibbons hatched a plan to link to distribs in Germany and the U.K. in order to offset risk by spreading it across three territories. Exploratory talks were held with more than one possible U.K. partner.

Meanwhile, in March 2003, with Germany’s Ottfilm, Aurum agreed a deal to buy German theatrical and home video rights to a big package of films from Epsilon. Sourced from Spyglass, Franchise and Hyde Park and including “Down With Love,” “The In-Laws,” and “Confidence,” the titles were to be put through video by RTL and theatrical via Ott’s deal with UIP.

At this point, the story gets murky.

hen Gibbons took the agreement to the Zeta board, it squelched the agreement, triggering Gibbons’ resignation; Moneo, a Gibbons hire, was left without employment. One reading is that the risk-averse Zeta thought the Ott investment too iffy, leaving Aurum with significant P&A exposure. Bruised by a print ad slump, Zeta may also be more risk-cautious than ever, or needful of Aurum coin.

This year it sold its local TV investment company, made cost cuts and closed a regional newspaper. Anyway you look at it, Zeta doesn’t seem to have much current stomach for the film biz.