December 2, 2006
The Internet Plays Rough: Fan Support in Peter Jackson's Directing The Hobbit

One thing is for sure--fans care about who creates the work they consume. And, when they attribute genius to a creator, they are likely to remain very loyal.

Just ask the folks over at New Line Cinema, who are probably pulling their hair out at the reaction among the fan community and their stand of solidarity behind director Peter Jackson, denouncing support for a Hobbit film based on the Tolkien book if it doesn't involve Jackson. Since he was largely credited as the "auteur" of the initial Lord of the Rings trilogy, fans have given him attribution as genius, it seems. And many people feel that's founded because of his co-scripting of the screenplay and his leadership directing and producing.

In fact, New Line itself benefited from the initial promotion of Jackson as a genius, as the previously little-known director (see his credits at IMDB) became an authoritative voice on all things Tolkien, and his quirky personality and dedication to the film helped drive critical acclaim and fan interest in the three films that snatched numerous awards and a large chuck of box office and DVD success.

Now New Line must be wondering if their empowering of Jackson has been a mistake, as the director has built up a significant following from online fan communities--and, unlike Frodo with the ring, he knows how to control its power. And, as Sharon Waxman points out in her New York Times article last Tuesday, "the Internet plays rough."

To recap: Jackson posted a letter on fan site TheOneRing on Nov. 19 who summarized that Jackson and New Line were involved in a lawsuit over the accounting practices for the first Lord of the Rings film, and Jackson said that he would not be involved with another film from them until this is resolved, including making the creation of a new film as part of the settlement from the lawsuit because "deciding to make a movie should come from the heart - it's not a matter of business convenience." In the letter, he contrasts that with "a call from the co-president of New Line Cinema, Michael Lynne, who in essence told Ken that the way to settle the lawsuit was to get a commitment from us to make the Hobbit, because 'that's how these things are done.'"

They then explain that, last week, they got a call that "New Line would no longer be requiring our services on the Hobbit and the LOTR 'prequel'" and would be seeking another director for the film since they only had a limited time option on the film rights and since the lawsuit was not yet resolved.

He and wife Fran Walsh end the letter with, "This outcome is not what we anticipated or wanted, but neither do we see any positive value in bitterness and rancor. We now have no choice but to let the idea of a film of The Hobbit go and move forward with other projects. We send our very best wishes to whomever has the privilege of making The Hobbit and look forward to seeing the film on the big screen."

Yesterday, Gary Borgeault wrote a savvy account of the ways in which the decision to post his letter on a fan site by Jackson indicates a variety of changes in the media industry. Borgeault feels that it's important that Jackson chose an extant niche fan site to send his communication out, giving it the grassroots support it needed to gain instant traction. He writes, "It shows the kind of growing power and respect that a dedicated community base can have upon the decisions that companies and people make."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the letter led to a petition among online fans that has now gained more than 54,000 signatures, in addition to various commentaries and message boards and letters written to the movie studios. Fans are discussing not only support of Jackson but a boycott of a Hobbit film directed by anyone else.

And then, although he did not refuse involvement, actor Ian McKellen voiced his support of a Jackson-led Hobbit.

According to the Times story, "New Line executives have complained that Mr. Jackson has become vastly wealthy from the Tolkien trilogy and is unjustifiably portraying himself as a victim."

And then, MGM, which owns distribution rights to The Hobbit attempted to be mediator between Jackson, fans, and New Line, saying that, "We expect to partner with New Line in financing The Hobbit. We support Peter Jackson as a filmmaker, and believe that when the dust settles, he'll be making the movie. We can't imagine any other result."

Then, on Thursday, a Boston Globe editorial said, "The production company, New Line Cinema, ought to settle its lawsuit and let him get to work," saying that "Jackson has art and commerce on his side."

Of course, some fans feel a little bit of disgust for both sides, such as Live Journal user hyper_boy, who said, "My friend was actually working on this case (Jackson vs. Newline) and was disgusted by the behavior on both sides." And Adrienne Hudson questions whether Sam Raimi would be a viable alternative, if he is able to work with the rest of the creative crew from the original trilogy. And, well, the folks at Solace in Cinema don't seem particularly attached to Jackson, in more polite terms. Be sure to see their commentary for an alternate reaction.

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for directing me toward a couple of these sources.