Mike Fleming

UPDATE: I’ve learned that Warner Bros will, in fact, pay the entire cost of the two installments of The Hobbit, a price-tag that is expected to exceed $500 million. Now, the question will be which cast members from The Lord of the Rings come back for encores. I’ve heard talk of conversations with Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis and possibly Elijah Wood. I’d heard Orlando Bloom was also in talks before the holidays. Returning actors will need to be locked in shortly.

BREAKING: MGM and Warner Bros have finalized a deal that gives Warner Bros worldwide theatrical distribution on  the Peter Jackson-directed The Hobbit. MGM will retain international television rights. This solves another problem on Jackson’s eagerly awaited followup to The Lord of the Rings, which has overcome an MGM freeze because of angry creditors, and the threat that the films would move away from New Zealand after local unions blacklisted the production.

Shooting begins next month, and Jackson is still in the process of locking in cast from the original movie, which is expected to include Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, Andy Serkis’ Gollum, and others. MGM, a half partner in The Hobbit, was expected to bow out of its international distribution role because the studio came out of prepackaged bankruptcy–headed by Spyglass partners Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber–with the intention of initially reviving the studio as a production company that contracts out distribution and marketing to others. Still trying to figure out how MGM is paying for its part of a production budget pegged at north of $500 million. Suspicions were that Warner Bros was cash-flowing the film.

LOS ANGELES, CA, January 6, 2011- Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber, MGM Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officers, Toby Emmerich, President and Chief Operating Officer, New Line Cinema and Alan Horn, President and Chief Operating Officer, Warner Bros. Pictures today announced that MGM and Warner Bros have concluded a deal for Warner Bros. Pictures to handle international theatrical and video distribution responsibilities on MGM’s behalf for Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. This arrangement results in Warner Bros. Pictures handling the bulk of worldwide distribution, while MGM will handle international television licensing for the films. MGM and WB will work collaboratively to coordinate marketing and release plans worldwide.

Jackson, who directed all three “The Lord of the Rings” films, will helm the two films back-to-back, telling the story of “The Hobbit” from screenplays written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro.

The two “Hobbit” films are set to begin production in February 2011, with release dates targeted for December 2012 and December 2013. Jackson will utilize groundbreaking visual effects and his incomparable storytelling to bring Tolkien’s novel to the big screen. Both “Hobbit” movies will be filmed in Digital 3-D, using the latest camera and stereo technology to create a high quality, comfortable viewing experience.

Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Carolynne Cunningham are producing the films for New Line, Warner Bros and MGM, with co-writer Philippa Boyens serving as co-producer and Ken Kamins and Zane Weiner as executive producers. The Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, also from the production team of Jackson, Walsh and Cunningham, grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide at the box office. In 2003, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” swept the Academy Awards, winning all of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture – the first ever Best Picture win for a fantasy film. The trilogy’s production was also unprecedented at the time.