MGM, New Line finally greenlight ‘Hobbit’ films

Peter Jackson set to direct pics

New Line and MGM have officially greenlit “The Hobbit,” with shooting to start in 3D in February and Peter Jackson directing.

The studios, which are co-financing the two-pic project, have not yet determined whether they’ll shoot “The Hobbit” in Jackson’s home country of New Zealand as planned. That will depend on whether the producers can sort out a thorny dispute with actors unions in.

Decision to greenlight the film came nearly three years after New Line, MGM and Warner Bros. (parent of New Line) agreed to join up on a bigscreen version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, who obtains the ring that was the centerpiece of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy of books and films. The three films earned $1.8 billion worldwide.

Jackson will direct both segments in addition to writing and exec producing. Jackson’s been widely expected to direct since Guillermo Del Toro’s departed the director gig in May.

Friday’s announcement — made jointly by New Line topper Toby Emmerich; Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros.; and Steve Cooper, co-CEO of MGM — made no mention of where “The Hobbit” will be lensed.

SAG and half a dozen actors unions had advised its members on Sept. 24 to boycott “The Hobbit” due to a dispute between producers and the New Zealand actors union, which is alleging that local performers are treated unfairlyand deserve a union contract.

The Screen Actors Guild had no comment Friday.

Jackson’s responded to the unions’ boycott by threatening to move the production from New Zealand to Europe. He and the studios have alleged that it would be illegal to sign a deal with the New Zealand union because it operates as a branch of the Australia-based Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance — a stance disputed by the unions.

According to a source close to the situation, the studios have explored moving “The Hobbit” to several other countries including Australia, Canada and Scotland.

Jackson issued an enthusiastic endorsement of the greenlight Friday.

“Exploring Tolkien’s Middle-earth goes way beyond a normal filmmaking experience,” Jackson said in the statement. “It’s an all-immersive journey into a very special place of imagination, beauty and drama. We’re looking forward to re-entering this wondrous world with Gandalf and Bilbo.”

Pre-production on the films has been under way for many months in New Zealand, where Jackson shot the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for New Line. Del Toro, who committed to direct “The Hobbit” pics in 2008, said in May that sets, wardrobe, animatics and planned battles sequences had all been fully prepared.

Financial difficulties faced by MGM, which owns half of the project, have also added to the uncertainty over “The Hobbit.”

More than 100 of MGM’s debtholders were asked last week to approve a pre-packaged bankruptcy plan that would wipe out the equity and leave Spyglass Entertainment execs in charge with a 5% stake, but Lionsgate Entertainment has proposed a merger that would give debtholders a 55% stake.

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