The world of Middle-earth and its adaptive iterations has had a long history of strange and peculiar owners, even before Peter Jackson’s iconic movie trilogies came along and made that even more complicated. Now, a huge sea-change in the rights to Tolkien’s work has made things even more complex... thanks to a video game publisher that is intent on buying up as much of the industry, and more, as possible.
Late last night the Embracer Group—which has spent the past few years hoovering up game studios like Gearbox and THQ Nordic, rights to games like Deus Ex and Tomb Raider, and even non-gaming entertainment media like comics and collectibles publisher Dark Horse and boardgame creator Asmodee—announced that it had acquired Middle-Earth Enterprises, alongside a host of acquisitions that included physical video game publisher Limited Run Games, game developer Tripwire Games (the studio behind Killing Floor), and more.
Middle-Earth Enterprises was formerly a division of the Saul Zaentz Company, which, since the 1970s, has been the de facto license holder for everything related to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit except releases of the books themselves. Middle-Earth Enterprises has spent the past five decades licensing out the rights to make Lord of the Rings-affiliated projects, including video and board games, stage adaptations and physical experiences, merchandising, and film and TV adaptations. This is now what Embracer Group owns, and what was considered to go up for sale earlier this year when Saul Zaentz floated the idea of selling off Middle-Earth Enterprises for at least $2 billion. Embracer Group’s total acquisitions last night amounted to around $770 million in total, so suffice to say they did not go for anywhere near that much.
But they’re not the only Lord of the Rings rights out there. Warner Bros., of course, still has some film rights pertaining to the world and visual language established in New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbits trilogies—which it is using to continue to do projects like the upcoming War of the Rohirrim, a 2024 anime movie set hundreds of years before the events of the films, as well as video games based on the Peter Jackson movies like EA’s mobile game Heroes of Middle-Earth. There is also Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power streaming series, just weeks away from premiering. Amazon purchased the rights to develop what would become The Rings of Power in 2017 for $250 million, using a loophole surrounding the rights owned by Middle-Earth Enterprises. Middle-Earth Enterprise’s TV rights only include TV series shown serially in four or less episodes, while Amazon’s rights allow it to make a series longer than that (Rings of Power’s first season is eight episodes long).
Essentially, both a little and a lot has changed for the future of Lord of the Rings’ licensing. Middle-Earth Enterprise changing hands for the first time in half a century is a big deal, and Embracer Group has already made clear that it has plans to capitalize on its acquisition, with a press release last night stating potential plans include “exploring additional movies based on iconic characters such as Gandalf, Aragorn, Gollum, Galadriel, Eowyn and other characters from the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and continue to provide new opportunities for fans to explore this fictive world through merchandising and other experiences.” But it’s also essentially the same situation that the franchise’s rights have been in for that half century—Warner Bros. owns some, Amazon owns some, and now it’s Embracer rather than Saul Zaentz that owns a significant chunk. Even beyond Rings of Power and War of the Rohirrim, just expect to be going there and back again a lot more in the future.
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