Chapter 22: Hobbit-alized
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 huge profit without having to finance and produce a feature film at all. 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 hundred-thousand-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!
The Tolkien estate had now been offered a fabulous sum for the rights, and Snyder's rights would expire in one month. They were already rubbing their hands together. But Snyder played his ace: to fulfill just the letter of the contract - to deliver a "full-color film" of The Hobbit by June 30th. All he had to do was to order me to destroy my own screenplay - all my previous year's work - hoke up a super-condensed scenario on the order of a movie preview, (but still tell the entire basic story from beginning to end), and all within 12 minutes running time - one 35mm reel of film. Cheap. I had to get the artwork done, record voice and music, shoot it, edit it, and get it to a New York projection room on or before June 30th, 1966!
I should have told him to shove it, but I was basically his slave at the time... and it suddenly became a sort of insane challenge.
I knew my screen story line by heart, so I just had to put it through a mind-shredder, and write a sort of synopsis, with a few key lines of dialog scattered throughout. I called on close friend, brilliant Czech illustrator, Adolf Born, well known even then, and now the premier book illustrator of the Czech Republic. We managed to work out a simple storyboard. Adolf came up with a paper cutout scheme, and I worked out some multiple-exposure visual effects and scene continuity. We worked directly under the camera to shoot it. I got an American friend here, Herb Lass, who worked as a broadcaster for the Czechoslovak Radio's foreign cultural transmissions, to come up to our apartment and record the narration on my own recording machine.
I borrowed a tape of dramatic movie music from a composer friend, Václav Lidl, which I quickly extracted and cut together, also at home. It was no problem with music rights, as I could assure him that the film would never actually be distributed, but would be - sadly - a mere decoy.
I love to see my name as director on the screen credits of my films, but I modestly refrained this time. I did not want my name on such a chopped down version of my script, even though, thanks to Born, the film looked amazingly good.
We actually managed to get it shot and out of the lab in time, (without bribes, but with Zdenka's usual brand of irresistable-object techniques), and I arranged for my New York air ticket. I arrived with the rough answer print on June 29th. Snyder had already booked a small projection room in midtown Manhattan. After a quick test screening - and Snyder was duly impressed - I ran downstairs and stopped people on the sidewalk, asking them if they would like to see a preview of a new animated film, for only 10¢ admission. I handed each willing customer a dime, which they handed back. After the screening, the few, puzzled audience members were asked to sign a paper stating that on this day of June 31, 1966, they had paid admission to see the full-color animated film, "The Hobbit."
Thus Snyder's film rights to the entire J.R.R. Tolkien library were legally extended, and he was immediately able to sell them back for nearly $100,000. (Remember, this was 1966). My share of this weazled boodle was - you guessed it - zip.