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‘The Hobbit’ has lost its director

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Guillermo del Toro has left “The Hobbit.”

Variety reports that the “Hellboy” director has quit the two-part prequel to Peter Jackson’s celebrated “Lord of the Rings” adaptation over delays he attributes to corporate backers MGM and New Line Cinema.

Where does this leave the project? It was already off to a late start after a dispute between New Line and the Tolkien estate, which was prepared to derail “The Hobbit” over money it was owed from the previous Middle-earth productions. Along with publisher HarperCollins, the author’s heirs sued New Line Cinema for profits from the 2001-03 movies, pledging to do whatever necessary to protects its rights, up to and including the revocation of the studio’s licensing rights. They settled out of court, reaching an agreement that cleared the way for the new movies and secured a vast amount for the Tolkien Trust charity in the U.K.

Casting is still under way (or under wraps): Sir Ian McKellen, the Shakespearean actor who played the wizard Gandalf in the previous film trilogy, will be reprising his role, but further casting has not been announced.

It’s likely that producer Jackson, who directed all three of the “Rings” films, will step back into the director’s chair to see things through — and protect the studios’ investment.

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