LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who was directing two movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" has stepped down after two years on the project amid studio delays and schedule conflicts.
"In light of ongoing delays in the setting of a start date for filming "The Hobbit," I am faced with the hardest decision of my life," del Toro wrote in a statement on "Lord of the Rings" fansite TheOneRing.net.
"After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien's Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures."
He said he would continue to co-write the screenplays with "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens.
The walls started to crumble for del Toro in recent weeks as the uncertain financial future of movie studio MGM put a question mark over the two-movie project. The producers had hoped to be in production this summer but did not get a greenlight.
MGM, or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc, is struggling with about $3.7 billion of debt and said last November that it was exploring a potential sale of the company but has yet to find a buyer and is said to be considering various options for its future.
MGM is co-producing "The Hobbit" movies with New Line Cinema.
Del Toro, who has a laundry list of projects outlined for the next 10 years, was faced with having to decide whether to cut loose or stay on for more uncertainty.
The director, whose filmmaking credits include "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy," moved his wife and children to New Zealand for the shoot and the first movie was aiming for a December 2012 release. The second was due out a year later. "The blessings have been plenty, but the mounting pressures of conflicting schedules have overwhelmed the time slot originally allocated for the project," said del Toro.
"Both as a co-writer and as a director, I wish the production nothing but the very best of luck and I will be first in line to see the finished product. I remain an ally to it and its makers, present and future, and fully support a smooth transition to a new director."
Jackson said he understood del Toro's position.
"We understand how the protracted development time on these two films, due to reasons beyond anyone's control ... has compromised his commitment to other long term projects. The bottom line is that Guillermo just didn't feel he could commit six years to living in New Zealand, exclusively making these films, when his original commitment was for three years." Jackson said development on "The Hobbit" would continue although his statement did not specifically address any possible postponement of the release date. "New Line and Warner Bros. will sit down with us this week, to ensure a smooth and uneventful transition, as we secure a new director for the Hobbit. We do not anticipate any delay or disruption to ongoing production works," he said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith