The strange tale of how the man behind Tom & Jerry made a twelve-minute Hobbit movie in a month to exploit a Hollywood contract loophole.
Believe it not, there was once a time when no one knew what the hell a “hobbit” was. In fact, it wasn’t until thirty years after its publication that anyone paid much attention to J.R.R. Tolkien’s little children’s adventure book at all. And like anything’s transition from nearly unknown to major pop culture sensation, there was some lucky bastard who got involved at precisely the right moment to make a hefty little profit (and a beautiful, albeit odd, little film).
In 1964, William L. Snyder, an American filmmaker with Academy-Award-winning roots in animation, contacted his longtime collaborator Gene Deitch (the man who created the successful Tom & Jerry cartoons) with an idea for a film based on The Hobbit. Deitch, like most others of his time, hadn’t heard of it, but was immediately charmed by the captivating tale of Bilbo and his dwarven companions crossing Middle Earth in search of a big, nasty dragon. Snyder had picked up the film rights from the Tolkien estate for “peanuts,” and was interested in getting to work on a screenplay as soon as possible. It wasn’t much later that The Lord of the Rings was released in paperback, now 13 years after its publication, and started gaining serious traction. That success, of course, carried over to The Hobbit.
Deitch recalls the moment well:
We were well into the Hobbit screenplay when The Lord of The Rings came out in paperback editions. Having assumed there was only The Hobbit to contend with, and following Snyder’s wish, we had taken some liberties with the story that a few years later would be grounds for burning at the stake. For example, I had introduced a series of songs, changed some of the characters’ names, played loosely with the plot, and even created a girl character, a Princess no less, to go along on the quest, and to eventually overcome Bilbo Baggins’ bachelorhood! I could Hollywoodize as well as the next man …
When I did manage to get and read The Lord of the Rings, I realized I was dealing with something far more magnificent than what appeared in The Hobbit alone, and I then back-spaced elements from The Lord into my script so as to logically allow for a sequel.
With Tolkien’s popularity on the rise, Snyder began to realize that he held the rights to something much bigger than he’d purchased. So, hoping to match pace with the growing craze, he was quick to Hollywood, a finished Hobbit screenplay under his arm, hoping to find a studio willing to financially back his adaptation. According to Deitch, Snyder had asked for far too much money from those with whom he’d met, and was universally turned down.
With the project all but dead, Deitch heard nothing from Snyder regarding their Hobbit film for months. Then, a day came when Snyder called with an odd request: reduce the screenplay to twelve minutes, animate it, then voice and edit it within thirty days.
Deitch went on to explain Snyder’s reasoning for the strange phone call:
What had happened was that in the meantime, the Tolkien craze had exploded, and the value of the film rights reached outer space. Suddenly, Bill had the possibility of getting a hefty profit without having to finance or produce anything!
Why invest money, plus a year-and-a-half of work, when you can make money without all that sweat? Not only had the Tolkien estate lawyers given Snyder the rights for peanuts, but in their ignorance of film terminology, they had left a million-dollar-loop-hole in the contract: It merely stated that in order to hold his option for The Lord of the Rings, Snyder had to “produce a full-color motion picture version” of The Hobbit by June 30th, 1966. Please note: It did not say it had to be an animated movie, and it not say how long the film had to be!
Before Snyder could sell the rights for a large profit, he’d need to legally maintain those rights. And to legally maintain the rights, he’d need to actually make a film. Following Snyder’s instructions, Deitch scrambled to assemble the best talent he could on ultra-short notice, while somehow managing to adapt his feature-length screenplay into the twelve-minute adventure you can now watch above. If you’re at all familiar with the animation and/or filmmaking process (and even if you aren’t), the magnitude of Deitch’s accomplishment should be abundantly clear.
The film was produced just in time for the June 30th deadline, and one day later, Deitch and Snyder screened it. The audience for the premiere was plucked straight from the sidewalk at $0.10 admission. Afterward, Deitch handed each of the viewers a piece of paper to sign, stating: “On this day of June 31, 1966, [I] paid admission to see the full-color animated film, The Hobbit.“
With the contract fulfilled, Snyder was able to maintain the rights long enough to sell them for $100,000 (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $700,000 in 2012 money). After his two year run with the rights to what’s now about to become a $500 million epic, Snyder walked away with a cozy little middleman profit, while we, about 45 years later, get to see a long-lost twelve-minute (somewhat bizarre) re-imagining of The Hobbit by one of the most influential American artists to date. You can read the rest of Deitch’s story, including how he made the film in a mere thirty days, on his website.
Source: The Mary Sue