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More on Disney, Universal, and the latest play for Lord of the Rings

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Published: October 22, 2013 at 8:50 PM

A report claims that a theme park deal for The Lord of the Rings franchise is imminent, and that it's Disney, not Universal, about to do the deal.
Walt Disney World News Today has claimed that "Disney and Warner Brothers have either signed or are very close to signing an agreement that will bring 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' movie-inspired areas to the Disney Parks." [Please note that, despite the website's name, the publication is not affiliated with the Walt Disney Company.]

Middle Earth

Earlier this year, another site reported that Universal had the deal in hand, only to back off soon after. The Lord of the Rings franchise is the eighth-highest-grossing film franchise of all time, according to Box Office Mojo, testifying to its commercial appeal. If you're curious, Harry Potter is the number-one film franchise of all time, followed by Marvel.

Universal's been thought to have the inside track on negotiations, given its wildly successful partnership with Warner Bros. on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Warner Bros. also owns the film rights to Lord of the Rings, and would need to sign off on a theme park deal. Universal's also worked with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson on the King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.

But Warner Bros. isn't the only party to any potential deal. The estate of author J.R.R. Tolkien also would need to give its blessing, and that's been thought to be another strike against Disney's involvement. Tolkien was well known for his contempt of Walt Disney and his work, once ordering his partners to "veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)."

And yet… the Tolkien heirs have been said to be less than happy with Jackson's films [scroll down for link], and a disgust with Walt Disney didn't keep P.L. Travers from signing over Mary Poppins, did it?

At this point we at Theme Park Insider have no information that we're confident about that suggests either Universal or Disney have a deal in hand. But perhaps it might be of interest what Disney Legend and former Imagineering Senior VP Tony Baxter had to say about Lord of the Rings in an interview with Theme Park Insider earlier this month. (That interview will appear on the site within a few weeks.)

Baxter compared Lord of the Rings unfavorably to Harry Potter as a theme park-friendly property. "Things like Remembralls and Howlers," he said, citing two examples from the Potter universe, "they were so classic in the ways that the words were constructed, that they stick in your brain. Whereas I look at the world of Lord of the Rings, and I can't tell you — other than the Orcs — I can't tell you the names of the people. They were too confusing."

Would a Disney Legend dissing the viability of Lord of the Rings as a theme park-friendly environment be enough to suggest that Disney's theme park designers aren't sold on the Lord of the Rings franchise? Or does it say nothing more than one man's opinion about a potential challenge facing anyone trying to being that franchise to life in a theme park?

Would you like to see Lord of the Rings in a Disney theme park, a Universal theme park, or a theme park anywhere else in the world?

Readers' Opinions

From James Trexen on October 22, 2013 at 9:53 PM
The whole Tolkien-Disney thing makes me seriously doubt this. If it's true that his will had a no-Disney clause, then there's no Disney. Not to mention that Christopher Tolkien has been trying to keep the texts of his father safe from others. I could ramble on, but I'll let our chief Tolkien expert Tim Odom take over if there's anything left to add.
From N B on October 22, 2013 at 9:57 PM
Please let Disney have it.....
From 211.114.49.233 on October 22, 2013 at 10:52 PM
I think Disney should focus bringing in quality lands/attractions for Marvel and Star Wars first before going in for LOTR.

They really need to develop a quality ride system for thrill seeking audiences. I know Disney is more for the family and magic. But kids grow up (like me) and crave something like Transformers/Harry Potter. These are the properties to do that with.

From Annette Forrest on October 22, 2013 at 11:47 PM
First of all, Excellent column. Robert you have such a great way of presenting a topic and showing the different sides and letting people make up their own minds. I love that.

Now, as for the Lord of the Rings characters having names that are hard to remember...well, so does Avatar. And that did not stop Disney. The visuals of Avatar were what inspired Disney...and the visuals of Lord of the Rings are stunning too. It would be a great way to have a boy-centric fantasy and medieval kind of "land"...while Fantasyland in the MK is more for girls in that fantasy realm.

I also think Christopher Tolkien is quite elderly. He is 88 I think. He is not going to be around much longer.

His grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be the ones making the theme park deal. And they will follow the green. They don't agree with their grandfather.

From David Brown on October 23, 2013 at 12:17 AM
Would I like to see a Lord of the Rings franchise in a theme park? Hell yes! It's crying out for the theme park treatment and the 'lack of memorable names' is not a hindrance. It doesn't seem to have stopped a whole raft of other attractions existing, (I can't name a single transformer and frankly dinosaur names apart from T-Rex are a nightmare), but really are 'Frodo', 'Bilbo', 'Gandalf', 'Smaug' that difficult?

But would I like to see Disney get it rather than Universal? You know what, I think I would. For all its credentials I found the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to be a strangely soulless place. Everything was in the right place but it felt like a film set. And the main attraction (Forbidden Journey) was technically brilliant but narratively incoherent. Universal aren't good at telling stories - they are good at the flash-bang-wallop and have enough money to create impressive attractions, but Tolkien was all about the story and story-telling and that instinctively fits better with Disney. Disney are also better at immersive landscaping in my opinion and I can see a Lord of the Rings addition to a theme park being, like Avatar, much more about immersion in the landscape than simply riding an attraction, (although LOTR has plenty of potential for great attractions).

But as has been pointed out - the Tolkien estate is so po-faced about their precious legacy that they are reluctant to sell the rights to anyone. So this may all be entirely pie-in-the-sky speculation....

From Emily Jones on October 23, 2013 at 2:58 AM
When would Disney have the time to build this? Also I am not really a fan of Disney picking up different IPs. That is originally why I liked the Disney parks so much because they had their own identity. Now Disney just keeps buying up different properties that have no connection to their parks. However I do see the similarities between LOTR (the movies, at least LOTR has great literature to back it up) and Avatar. I found both movies to be long, dry and they actually gave me nightmares.
From 208.125.225.18 on October 23, 2013 at 6:10 AM
NO-NO-NO. We do not need to keep getting all these movie franchises to keep up with what a totally different company is doing. What happened to the days of pure imagineer genius, where there minds could come up with anything. Think of the original Epcot rides.... Figment and Horizens were amazing and stood alone without a movie serious to make sure the money is flowing from super fans. I want old school Disney doing what they do best, creating amazing theming and attractions straight from their creative brains. I want no more movies taking their place! Sure a franchise is good, but how many do you really need to theme a whole land around.
From Tim Odom on October 23, 2013 at 6:13 AM
The only way I could see Disney getting this license is if the movie contract would allow for them to make theme park attractions off of the movies (and not the books.) And, even then, I think it would be held up in litigation for a while, the Tolkien estate is notorious for defending their rights to the material. It is pretty doubtful that they would get the estate's approval, they fight against everyone. They fought against Peter Jackson making movies based on the Hobbit, since apparently he did an awful job with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If, by some miracle, Disney (or anyone else) gets this license and approval from the Tolkien estate, expect it to be as exact to the books as humanly possible, without a single deviation.

And, to be quite honest, although I am a huge fan of Tolkien's works, I just don't see how this content could translate to theme park attractions. Maybe the movies could, because Jackson REALLY expanded on some things, and made other parts a lot more Hollywood than Tolkien did, but to me it just does not fit. While I thing Tolkien's works are FAR superior to the Harry Potter stuff, Harry Potter lends itself to this medium a lot better.

To me, this is as pie in the sky as thinking Universal will sell the Marvel rights back to Disney. When you get stubborn people who have no desire to deal, then there will be no deal.

From tom cunningham on October 23, 2013 at 7:23 AM
This would be perfect for Disney it would give them a chance to re-use some ride systems that they have not already recycled

So get ready for .....

The Hall of Kings
Saurons Tower of Terror
The Giant Eagle Ride (Dumbo)

Glow with the Show Hobbit Feet

And Hobbit Ale an apple flavour frozen drink that tastes quite like Le Fous Brew/Reds apple freeze

Seriously Disney have made a joke of the Star Wars universe and the last thing I ever want to see is a Hobbit versus Orc dance off so please Hands off Lord of the Rings Disney !!!!

From Anon Mouse on October 23, 2013 at 7:45 AM
I'm surprised that you didn't connect the dots a little more. Other web sites said when development of "Avatar" stalled, Disney sought out the executives of "The Lord of The Rings" to provide some impetus for James Cameron to act. Did it work? They did make the Avatar announcement in Japan.

As for "The Lord of The Rings", I wonder how Disney will approach the property. It can't possibly go into Animal Kingdom or DHS. The theming doesn't fit. Nor can it go into the Magic Kingdom or Epcot. It will have to be the anchor of a new 5th park called Tolkien-Land.

From Dave De La Rosa on October 23, 2013 at 9:12 AM
Long ball guess from nothing more than the recesses of my boredom- Disney wins the LOTR rights, leverages them against Uni/Comcast to get Marvel back east of the Miss. Rapes Tomorrowland with Marvel instead of Star Wars. Space Mountain becomes an IronMan ride. I'm sad now. Thanks TDO.
From 173.66.184.216 on October 23, 2013 at 9:19 AM
Well, if you assume this rumor is true, don't expect to see anything until about 2040. Except cheap merchandise, of course. Disney will get that out right away. But I wouldn't expect to see any rides or LotR-land, or such in my lifetime.
From O T on October 23, 2013 at 10:14 AM
@Anon Mouse
Yeh I read that about Disney pressing Cameron with LOTR and it's the stupidest thing I ever heard.
We can be sure the relationship between Cameron and Disney is problematic because why would they feel the need to debunk that rumour several times? They have a contract and I'm sure (like Rowling) that Cameron build in enough freedom in the contract to cop out when Disney wants to cut corners or do silly stuff to hurt his franchise.

@article
I don't get why the estate is against the movies. After the (very successful) LOTR movies they could have stopped the Hobbit movies from being made. If they where so protective of their franchise I'm sure they wouldn't sell the movie rights of all the books. They surely don't get rich from the books sold (although great they are) but the movies and the endless stream of (awesome) merchandise do and will continue with the Hobbit movies. I'm sure one day the rights will end up at a theme park and I hope it won't be Six Flags. With Universal now at the top in ride innovation I hope they get the right but on the other hand Disney has got the space to do it justice if they wanted but after all the duds Disney presented the last 10 years (with 2 exceptions) I'd rather have some awesome rides then more rock work, miniatures and waterfalls.

From Russell Meyer on October 23, 2013 at 10:31 AM
To the question of time and resources for Disney to adapt LOTR into theme parks, that's pretty mute. Disney has billions of dollars at their disposal to turn the IP into reality. The real question would be if Disney did get the rights, how long would it take for them to develop something. Avatar has 3 planned sequels that will still be current when Pandora opens at DAK, and the same goes with Star Wars and the rumored DHS expansion. Even if Disney gave LOTR a fast track, the current "Hobbit" movies will finish next winter (2014), with no other adaptations planned beyond Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy. That means any theme park or land would be opening without a concurrent mass-media release unless Disney were also given the rights to develop such material. Some may argue that Diagon Alley is opening without concurrent mass-media, but WWoHP did, and provided proof of concept, which eventually led to the expansion.

I do think Disney has a lot on their plate right now considering the Avatar development, Star Wars development, and any West Coast Marvel developments, but Disney is big enough to make pretty much anything they want a reality. However, I don't think it would be a good match right now, unless this purchse would be to develop a new gate somewhere else in the world. I've always envisioned Middle Earth as its own park, and not just an add-on to an existing park. I certainly wouldn't want to see this franchise reduced to the in-park treatment that they gave to Narnia or the POTC sequels.

From James Rao on October 23, 2013 at 11:15 AM
LOTR would be an outstanding coup for either Universal or Disney.

Tolkien's opus has been wildly successful (both critically and commercially) in both literature and in film. I doubt we would even have Star Wars or Harry Potter if it wasn't for Tolkien's masterpieces. He made fantasy a viable genre. Specifically, the LOTR has sold 150M copies making it #2 of all time (behind A Tale of Two Cities), and The Hobbit has sold 100M copies (6th of all time). The films have grossed almost $4B worldwide and the total will probably grow to over $6B once the final two Hobbit movies complete their theatrical run. Additionally, the films have won 17 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Return of the King in 2003. In short, these works are VERY popular, and have been and will continue to be beloved from generation to generation. Anyone who thinks the characters and adventures of the Hobbit / LOTR are not well known is just flat out wrong. The pilgrimages to see a fully realized LOTR land or theme park would be tremendous, likely bigger than anything we have seen so far in the theme park industry.

From Tim Odom on October 23, 2013 at 11:43 AM
Why does the Tolkien estate deplore Jackson's movies? I think it is as simple as they want a direct translation of the books, and Jackson changed things. For instance, Fellowship of the Rings had no Tom Bombadil, and they REALLY expanded Arwen's role. And each movie changed more, like there were no elves at Helm's Deep, no Mouth of Sauron, etc. And don't even get me started on The Hobbit, where a 300 page children's book is now 3 3-hour movies. How happy do you think the Tolkien estate is that Legolas is going to be in there, when he never appeared in The Hobbit?

Were the movies good? Yup, I loved em. Were they successful? Sure were, both financially and critically. But were they J.R.R. Tolkien's exact vision? Nope. And that, right there, is the main issue. And that is why they are so reluctant on selling those rights to anyone.

From James Rao on October 23, 2013 at 12:03 PM
^I know it is blasphemy to say, but even as a LONG time LOTR fan (been reading and rereading the books since I was nine years old) I think Jackson's movies are an improvement over the books. Seldom does a movie transcend its source material, but in this case I really think Peter Jackson just nailed it. The only thing I miss from the books (so far) is the Scouring of the Shire, but I understand and agree with the reasons why it was not included in the movie.

Yep, blasphemy, that's my middle name.

From Russell Meyer on October 23, 2013 at 1:13 PM
I would also agree that the LOTR movies are a dramatic improvement. Even if you don't like the changes, you have to admit, they are farmore true to the book than any movie adapted from literature (aside from perhaps Shakespere). Do they take liberty with the characters, sure, but the movies play out sychronously with the book. "The Hobbit" on the other hand, is a bit of a diversion. I don't know if Jackson felt that he had the poetic liscense to take liberties with the work because of the success from LOTR, or felt that he had to diverge from the story in order to meet WB's demand for 3 movies (instead of the 2 that he originally envisioned). Obviously, no one knows what the next 2 will be like, but the first (along with the ridiculous 48 fps and 3-D upsell gimmicks) was good, but certainly not great. After seeing the first "Hobbit", I still think I prefer the old Rankin-Bass animated version of the story. Perhaps Jackson will change my mind after the next 2 films.

Tim, did you watch the Extended Edition versions of the LOTR films? While Tom Bambadil is still not there (just a completely ridiculous and unnecessary chacter to the narrative), many other critical scenes that fans of the novel felt were lacking are found in those versions of the films. It brings the total runtime to nearly 12 hours, but it does capture much of what's in the book, and if you watch them with the commentary, you will understand Jackson's decisions to cut or de-emphasize certain scenes.

From 65.87.190.248 on October 23, 2013 at 1:14 PM
Would Love to hear another major franchise from the sci-fi universe. Can we all please hear the Star Trek warp speed back into the america. Soon.
From James Rao on October 23, 2013 at 3:15 PM
@Russell I completely agree about Tom Bombadil, but completely disagree about Rankin/Bass. Ugh, what those hacks did to Tolkien's works was an abomination.

@Anon Poster As much as I have enjoyed the last two Trek movies, and as much as I think the IP is worthy of a theme park attraction, recent box office receipts don't justify its inclusion at a Disney or Universal park. $430m worldwide is mediocre these days. The franchise, while beloved by its fans, just does not seem to capture the attention of the average Joe.

From 94.171.231.81 on October 23, 2013 at 4:04 PM
In terms of theming, the possibilities for a LOTR land are endless. Plenty of iconic, instantly recognisable villages/cities/forts they could use.

Not sure what they could do in terms of rides though, really struggling to think of anything that wouldn't just feel tacked on.

From 187.65.181.208 on October 23, 2013 at 8:47 PM
I don't know how they could do it also. Although LotR has a great universe to be explored, I think is not so easy to make rides or even interesting theming for lands and shops. And also as stated above, the franchise is not going get anything new after 2014. Disney would be great because they have more parks and if they got and could do, I bet they would do it at DHS, making the attractions based on the movies, instead of the books. There is the option of making just one ride like they did for Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Also, Disney have Star Wars, Avatar and Marvel, that are as great franchises as LotR, and that are going to be in theaters for a longer time.

The Tolkien Estate vs Peter Jackson thing I believe it is because of money, not the the quality of the movies, I think that some years ago the sued the producers because they haven't received a penny of the profit. And I was looking at Wikipedia and New Line Cinema that was sued, not Peter Jackson.

Universal already has Harry Potter that has something of magical, fantasy and medieval, so it would be like repeating the same theme at another land, I don't know if this would be good. I also think that would be nice if Universal did something for Star Trek.

Actually, I would love to see Disney with the rights for Marvel at Disney World, since they could make great rides and a wonderful land, specially now that these movies are making lots of money and are popular among general audiences. So I hope that they make a deal with Universal soon or at least announce something for Disneyland.

From David Ackerman on October 24, 2013 at 7:12 AM
I don't see Disney coming up with the money for a LOR park. However, they probably could sell it as a third gate for Disney Japan where Oriental Land Co supplies the money.

I suspect that Universal would likely make a Tolkien project the centerpiece of a third gate. Not enough room at either Orlando park to do a major effort. And, they now own the land under Wet 'n Wild as well as the surrounding area.

From Tim Odom on October 25, 2013 at 10:15 AM
Sorry about the late reply, but yes, I have watched the Extended Editions of all the LOTR films (I have not seen the extended cut of The Hobbit yet.) Hell, I watched the first 2 extended editions in the theater as a marathon leading into a midnight showing of Return of the King. Yeah, I love those movies.

And I absolutely agree, they did improve the source material in most places. I fully understood why the cuts were made, and why Arwen's role was increased, and all of that. It would be similar to a reader of the Song of Ice and Fire series being upset that the show does not have extravagant feast scenes, some things are just better on the page. Hell, I loved the book's version of the Entmoot, but that was unfilmable. Changes had to be made.

Though, I have to say, I have an issue with The Hobbit. It's a 300 page children's book, it does not need to be 3 3 hour movies. That's just a wee bit of overkill.

That said, you and I are not the issue. We love the movies, we love the books, we are cool with what Peter Jackson did. The Tolkien estate is the issue, and they are NOT cool with what he did. I could have cared less about Bombadil (actually, I was glad they omitted him), but the Tolkien's wanted him. I was slightly miffed that there was no Mouth of Sauron in the theatrical release (I know, he was in the 4 hour long Extended cut), but they wanted him there as he was in the book. They wanted the movies to be the books, which would have made those long movies to be much longer.

Maybe, when Christopher Tolkien dies, they will lighten up, but I doubt it. They are exceedingly protective of those books, and something like a theme park land/set of attractions would be something that they would probably fight as hard as they could. Depending on the contract, they might lose, but the fight would take a while.

From 71.204.249.76 on October 25, 2013 at 4:34 PM
I would be so exited if this was to come to fruition. Please help Disney to get the rights because Universal doesn't have enough room to do it justice. Plus they'll probably do an outside steel coaster that ruins the effect like in potter.
From Jaiden Cohen on October 26, 2013 at 7:35 AM
I would love to see LOTR at IOA. There are three lands at that park that could go soon. 1. Lost Continent. This there aren't any good rides in this area anymore. Just shows and restaurants. 2. Toon Lagoon. Universal is going to lose the characters in a couple of years. None will have broken hearts if this land goes. 3. Marvel super hero island. Many don't want to see this land go, but it will some day. Also the LOTR land could go in the World Expo section of USF. Just demolish MIB and fear Fear Factor Live. I think Disney would mess up LOTR.

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