1173850220_fullres (1)The big New Years rumor passing around the Interweb is that negotiations are underway to bring The Lord of the Rings franchise to a Universal theme park, possibly an entirely new park itself.  This rumor has hit the oft reputable site MiceAge, where Eric Davis writes:

We have recently learned that after a very long and protracted negotiation, Universal is  very close to acquiring the rights to develop and produce attractions based on the successful Lord of the Rings franchise of films.

Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t give his source.  However, another author, Andrew Sims, writes on hypable:

If rumors are to be believed, this is all happening thanks to the success of The Wizarding World. A reputable user in Orlando United’s forum, where mind-numbing talk of theme parks runs rampant, says Universal asked Warner Bros. to approach the Tolkien’s first. The park asked the studio to make first contact because of the existing relationship Tolkien and WB have built to create The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies.

Warner Bros. told the Tolkien’s about the success of The Wizarding World theme park and how the final product was loyal to J.K. Rowling’s story and very well received by fans. Reportedly, the Tolkien’s even spoke to Rowling herself. It was only after all this that Universal and the Tolkien’s began developing ideas.

At this point, I have to take all this talk as simply rumor.  Unlike with Universal’s Transformers or Harry Potter extension, there is no tangible evidence to lead me in any other direction.  Rumors surrounding theme parks and entertainment companies have been around for years.  They’re often started by avid fans and their wishful thinking or investors wanting to raise a stock’s value.  I’ve heard every single year since 1999 that the Walt Disney Company was planning to purchase IMAX.  A number of these rumors were published in or on  reputable publications and websites, citing unnamed sources with intimate knowledge of the deal.

My favorite rumor to hit the net was the one that started up in the 90’s, when Disney’s America and DisneySea (the Long Beach, CA version) were announced.  Someone started a rumor that Disney was in talks to build another park near Beaumont, TX, about ninety minutes from Houston.  The rumor went away and then came back in force in 2006, and still wanders around the net, resurfacing every once in a while.  The great thing about this rumor is where the park was to be located – just south of Beaumont in Orange County.  That’s right – Disney would have Magic Kingdoms in Orange County, CA, Orange County, FL, and Orange County, TX.

What spurred the 2006 resurgence of the rumor (although in some tellings, the location had moved closer to Houston and in others to Dallas), was the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision in 2005 to end an eight year ban on church members patronizing anything Disney.  And the Southern Baptist Convention is huge in Texas.  But alas, year after year, the rumors remain unfruitful.  And that’s the problem with the internet.  With blogs (like this one).  Anyone can write anything and it can be accepted by the masses as gospel.  “We have recently learned,” “a reputable user,” “unnamed sources,” “intimate knowledge.”  Who’s to say?

Now, I’m not debunking that all this might be happening.  When Universal was owned by General Electric, the Harry Potter deal was kept at upmost secrecy.  Comes from being a subsidiary of a Defense Department contractor, I guess.  Under Comcast, developments such as Transformers and the Harry Potter expansion in Orlando have been more difficult to hide.  A programming error on a facebook clock counting down the days to a special announcement listed it as a “Transformers clock” when one looked at code.  After the announcement, Universal Orlando’s PR department turned around and announced that this “error” had been intentional all along.  It was a “clue.”

Regardless of whether or not a deal is happening, it will not be happening anytime soon.  Everything’s tied up in a lawsuit over casino and online gambling.  I know such things because in addition to rumors, I also follow legitimate news.  As News Editor for InPark Magazine, my editors Martin Palicki and Judy Rubin once a day go into the basement and unchain me, allow me to mope in my dank corner and explore the world on a rusty laptop.  That’s how I know that in November of last year, the Tolkien family, trust, and Tolkien’s publisher sued Warner Bros. over downloadable games, casino slots, and online gambling, all themed to Lord of the Rings.  The plaintiffs assert that in addition to films, Warner Bros. only received license to market “tangible goods.”  That means physical goods.  Like toys and lunch pails.  Video games count, but Warner Bros. opted to include downloadable games to phones, tablets, and computers, something the Tolkins do not believe is “tangible.”  And then there are online and physical casino games, which the plaintiffs believe not only to violate their copyright, but to violate the spirit of Tolkien himself.

So what does this have to do with Universal?  Part of the lawsuit is over trademarks applied for by Warner Bros. and the previous licensee  the Saul Zaentz Company (the production company behind the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated version of The Lord of the Rings).  According to the plaintiffs, these lawsuits cover areas not considered “tangible goods” under the original agreement.  According to court documents filed by the plaintiffs, the “defendants have taken the position that their merchandising and trademark rights extend to intangible items such as downloadable games and to services licensing such as travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, theme parks, housing developments and casino gambling.”

Yes, theme parks.  So there you go, until a judge decides what Warner Bros. can license or until a settlement is reached.  Then there’s the other option.  In 2002, Vivendi/Universal licensed the Tolkien books for video games.  Not the movies, but the books.  So there could always be a deal between Universal and the Tolkien heirs that sees a theme park development based on the Middle Earth books that only has a faint resemblance to the films.  Kind of like North Carolina’s Land of Oz.  That was a good ten year run.

Read about the short lived OZ theme parks in this great article by Rebecca Bengal