Hollywood and Tolkien

Robert X. Cringely has just finished his mini-series Silicon Valley conquers Hollywood 2013 (Setting the scene, There’s no business like show business, Think small, not big) with some great anecdotes on the highly irregular way Hollywood does business.

A friend of mine who is a securities lawyer in New York worked on the 1985 sale of 20th Century Fox by Marvin Davis to Rupert Murdoch. He led a group of New York attorneys to Los Angeles where they spent weeks going over contracts for many Fox films. What they found was that with few exceptions there were no contracts. There were signed letters of intent (agreements to agree) for pictures budgeted at $20-$50 million but almost no actual contracts. Effectively business was being done, movies were being made, and huge sums of money were being transferred on a handshake. That’s how Hollywood tends to do business and it doesn’t go down very well with outsiders, so they for the most part remain outside.

Nobody knows with certainty who owns what rights, or how much profit anyone makes. Production and distribution operations may or may not own anything worth buying, and incoming cash is quickly spent on professional fees for the creation of new content. But those cottage industries of professionals who perform the actual production tasks are also where outsiders could gain leverage. For example, Cringely’s sister wanted to sell copies of jewelry seen on TV but couldn’t even get the license holders to talk to her.

Undeterred, my sister took a different approach very similar to the one I am presenting here. She found that the jewelry used in TV shows typically came from a separate wardrobe budget and each such budget was controlled by a wardrobe mistress. If the wardrobe mistress could get jewelry for free then she wouldn’t have to buy it or rent it with that part of the budget falling to her bottom line. Unspent budget = profit. So my sister cut her deals not with the studios or networks but with the wardrobe mistresses — eventually more than 40 of them. Nearly every U.S. primetime TV show used her jewelry with not a penny going to the networks and it was all perfectly legal.

Another recent article nicely illustrates how profits mysteriously vanish from the production company when external rights holders want their share. The English translation of last year’s Le Monde story on Christopher Tolkien and his father’s legacy describes the struggle over Peter Jackson’s hugely successful Lord of the Rings adaptation:

The frenzy pushed the Tolkien family’s lawyers to take another look at their contract, which stipulated that the Tolkien Estate must receive a percentage of the profits if the films were profitable. With the incredible box office figures, the lawyers for the family shook the dust off the contract and demanded their share of the pie from New Line, the American producer of the films, who had bought the movie rights for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And surprise! Cathleen Blackburn, lawyer for the Tolkien Estate in Oxford, recounts ironically, “These hugely popular films apparently did not make any profit! We were receiving statements saying that the producers did not owe the Tolkien Estate a dime.”

The Tolkiens and their associates needed six years and a lawsuit to finally reach an agreement with New Line. For his part, Christopher Tolkien has always scorned Jackson’s adaptations as vastly inferior to his father’s books:

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

These are but facets of the long and excellent Le Monde story, which I urge you to read in its entirety if you have any interest in JRR Tolkien’s work and life.

Unfortunately, the English translation misprints the period when Tolkien began writing fiction as “World War II” instead of World War I. This error is small but annoying because it fuels the widespread misconception of Lord of the Rings as a WW2 allegory, when it was in fact inspired by the destruction of traditional Europe that began with industrialization and culminated in the Great War. Tolkien himself clarified this in his foreword to the second edition in 1966, and I’ll close with quoting the relevant passages:

The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

[…] it has been supposed by some that ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever. It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten [1902], in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important.

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