New Line, Warner Brothers and Zaentz hobble ‘Age of the Hobbits’

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

Just what is a hobbit? A David vs. Goliath legal battle has been taking place that has taken that question to court in a fight over the title of a low-budget action-comedy.

The Asylum is a cheerfully shameless production company specializing in low budget genre fare often hooked into outrageous titles and premises (“2 Headed Shark Attack”) or gimmick casting (for “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid,” they had the vision to feature both Debbie Gibson and Tiffany in the same movie). They’re also the only studio that will allow you to pitch a new project to them directly through their website (note to prospective screenwriters: they’re mainly looking for ethnic comedies or martial arts stories at the moment).

But the Asylum is arguably best known for their self-described “mockbusters,” movies whose titles and themes bear a certain resemblance to recent big-budget major studio product; their catalog includes gems such as “Transmorphers,” “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies,” “Snakes On A Train,” “Almighty Thor,” “Titanic II,” and “Sunday School Musical.”

While most studios have seemingly shrugged off the Asylum’s cut-rate knockoffs (especially since they’re most commonly seen on late-night cable broadcasts or found in sell-through racks at discount stores), Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, and producer Saul Zaentz weren’t laughing about one of their most recent projects, an prehistoric action comedy starring Bai Ling in which a peace-loving primitive tribe goes to war against Java men who ride huge Komodo dragons. The proposed title? “Age Of The Hobbits.”

“Age Of The Hobbits” was announced by the Asylum last summer, while the promotional campaign for Peter Jackson’s somewhat pricier “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was gearing up, and Warner Brothers wasted no time issuing a cease and desist order, demanding they take the word “hobbit” out of the title. Producer Zaentz bought the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth books in 1970, and having partnered with New Line and Warner Brothers, they claim exclusive rights to the name of the furry-footed little people.

But the Asylum initially refused to change the name of the movie, claiming that a book published in 1895, “The Denham Tracts,” described mythical creatures called hobbits, while Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit” was published in 1936, proving the name wasn’t original with him.

Also, the Asylum insists that the hobbits in their movie aren’t intended to copy Tolkien’s creations; instead, they’re examples of Homo Floresiensis, an extinct human subspecies nicknamed “hobbits” by archeologists.

As expected, Warner Brothers and New Line didn’t buy that argument, and neither did U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez agreed, who issued a retraining order against the Asylum in December and blocked the film’s release with a preliminary injunction. Throwing caution to the wind, the Asylum released the film on DVD anyway, and the Hollywood Reporter reported that “Age of the Hobbits” was available for sale at Wal-Mart stores in Texas (and for just $9.96). However, as Warner Brothers, New Line, and Zaentz have continued their legal battle against the movie, the Asylum has seemingly thrown in the towel, and it’s now been reissued in America under the less-litigious title “Clash Of The Empires.” In Cambodia, the film is available as “The History of Mankind.”