The Asylum, the studio behind such cheery fare as Titanic II and Moby Dick, is facing a lawsuit from Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, MGM and film producer Saul Zaentz over the release of its low-budget fantasy film Age of the Hobbits.
You might not have heard, but Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is currently finishing a trilogy of mega-budget films based on JRR Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit for those aforementioned litigants, and the first of his Hobbit films, An Unexpected Journey, will be released in cinemas this December.
It’s not just the films which have cost a fortune - the marketing campaign around them hasn’t been cheap either, and lawyers representing the interests of The Hobbit’s copyright owners have been mercilessly pursuing anyone they deem to be piggy-backing on the resurgence of interest in all things Tolkien.
(Remember when they threatened to sue a Southampton pub called The Hobbit earlier this year?)
News of the new suit was made public by The Hollywood Reporter, who obtained a copy of the studios’ complaint against The Asylum. The aggrieved parties are demanding that The Asylum cease using the word "Hobbits" in their film and seeking a court order to have all infringing packaging and advertising materials destroyed.
The complaint said: "The Asylum has been and is promoting and advertising its low-budget film using the confusingly similar and misleading title Age of the Hobbits, in an intentional and wilful attempt (i) to trade on the popularity and goodwill associated with the Tolkien novels, the extraordinarily successful Lord of The Rings film trilogy, and the famous HOBBIT mark, (ii) to free-ride on the worldwide advertising campaign in connection with the forthcoming Hobbit films, and (iii) to divert customers and potential customers away from the Hobbit films."
The Asylum denies this, however, and claims that the word "Hobbits" in its movie's title doesn’t refer to Tolkien’s creations.
In a statement, the studio said: "Age of the Hobbits is about the real-life human subspecies, Homo Floresiensis, discovered in 2003 in Indonesia, which have been uniformly referred to as 'Hobbits' in the scientific community.
"As such, the use of the term 'Hobbits' is protected under the legal doctrines of nominal and traditional fair use. Indeed, a simple Google search of Hobbits and archaeology reveals dozens of articles containing the term "Hobbit(s)" in the title."
There’s certainly not much in the way of overlap between the plots of An Unexpected Journey and Age of the Hobbits either. As described on The Asylum’s site, the plot of its film is as follows:
“In an ancient age, the small, peace-loving Hobbits are enslaved by the Java Men, a race of flesh-eating dragon-riders. The young Hobbit Goben must join forces with their neighbor giants, the humans, to free his people and vanquish their enemies.”
It'll be interesting to see what the outcome of this case will be when and if it goes to court. In the meantime, have a look at the Age of the Hobbits trailer and see what you make of the film:
For those who’ve never heard of the studio, The Asylum is famed for its “mockbusters,” low-budget movies released with similar titles and advertising imagery to mainstream Hollywood films.
The Asylum started life making horror pictures, but noticed a spike in sales whenever they themed, timed and named their films to tie in with big, mass-appeal blockbusters.
In a 2009 interview with Total Sci-Fi Online, The Asylum’s co-founder David Michael Latt explained the studio’s thinking.
He said: “Listen, we are not the first people to do this kind of stuff - we are just the most obnoxious about it and our content is driven very aggressively.
“But it is not as if we do a film every three years - we do one every few months and, through that, we make a lot of noise. What we do is a lot more obvious than other studios."
Asked whether he worried about consumers confusing Asylum releases with their mainstream counterparts, Latt said: “I think the film audience is a little more sophisticated than that. It might catch their eye but they will turn the DVD box over and say, “Oh, OK, I get it, this is C Thomas Howell and not Tom Cruise.”
“But, with that being said, I cannot necessarily control that aspect of it and I hope that no one feels we are going out there and deliberately ripping people off.”
In reality, there should be little danger of confusion. But see if you can guess which smash-hit films these Asylum ‘classics’ might have taken a smidgen of inspiration from...