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The Weekly Wrap for Saturday, 20 August 2022

The Question

What's worse than being stuck in IKEA on your day off?

Talking Points

  1. Salman Rushdie victimised by an out-of-date fatwa
  2. The Cheney political dynasty was set ablaze in Wyoming
  3. Trump Organisation CFO off to Rikers Island
  4. Citi sued Revlon over the bank's funniest mistake
  5. UK inflation hits 10.1% on food and fuel costs
  6. Barbaric Norwegian authorities killed Freya the Walrus
  7. At least 21 dead in Kabul after a mosque bombing
  8. Egypt's Coptic community grieved over a deadly church fire
  9. Australia uncovered a secret act of power consolidation
  10. A blistering heatwave shut down Chinese factories

Deep Dive

. PHOTO: Amazon Prime

Amazon is about to release its billion-dollar mouthful The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. It turns out that the fight for the rights to J.R.R. Tolkein's magnum opus has been a twisting journey of its own fantastical proportions.

Canon or Cinematic Universe

On September 2, Amazon releases the first instalment of a five-season television show based on Tolkein's work. It is being described as the most-expensive television show ever made, with a staggering price tag of $1 billion. For that kind of money, one can expect enough cast-down heroes, ghoulish villains, power-grabs, and convoluted meshes of shifting allegiances to win over even the staunchest critics. But there is another story here. One that is perhaps even more interesting. And it starts with Tolkein himself. Towards the end of his life, the prodigious author sold the film, stage, and merchandising rights for The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit to United Artists. Hollywood scuttlebutt holds that the arrangement was something of a fire-sale because Tolkein needed to settle an urgent tax debt. The irony of the assets ending up at the fantastically un-taxable Amazon is superb. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

UA muddled about for a few years, but could never quite get a The Lord of the Rings project off the ground. Finally, in 1976, it on-sold the rights to one Saul Zaentz*, a brilliant, Academy Award-winning producer (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The English Patient). He was also a real piece of work, having made his money in record labels by relieving Creedence Clearwater Revival of theirs. With the LOTR IP in hand, Zaentz established Tolkein Enterprises. And this is where the battle starts, because the move brought him into immediate conflict with the Tolkein Estate — the legal body which administers all the other rights to Tolkein's works, including The Silmarillion.

There were ample opportunities for the two to draw swords. We're talking role-playing games, playing cards, online gambling tools, video games, animated and live films, television series, figurines, costumes, theme park rides. Enough royalties to feather a Great Eagle's nest. Claims and counterclaims proliferated: a complete taxonomy requires its own tome. Zaentz hit it big with Peter Jackson's phenomenal The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The trilogy raked in a whisker less than $3 billion — an unbelievable sum for the early 00's. More than enough sloshing around the trough that everyone could wet their beak. Zaentz blazed a trail that Marvel would follow.

The reboot-prequel-spin-off

But the good times were not to last. The success of Jackson trilogy brought the old enemy out of hiding. The Tolkein Estate launched a quiver full at the man who held the rights that they believed were theirs. The family trust sued New Line Cinemas for £75m, alleging that they hadn't seen "even one penny". At the pointy end the Tolkein's lawyers were threatening to hold up any future development of The Hobbit. It settled in secret... but the promise of Smaug's own treasure continued fire the family spirits.

He may have been the litigious type but Zaentz was also a reader. Peter Jackson's trilogy weren't just money-spinners, they were honest to the source material. Gratuitous spinoffs weren't his thing. The less that is said about The Hobbit trilogy the better. He softened in his latter years and in 2010 changed the name of Tolkein Enterprises to Middle-Earth Enterprises. Zaentz passed away in 2014, but since then rumour grew of a shadow in the East (Oxford, to be precise). The Tolkein Estate has gone through its own generational cycle — the author's children have made way for the grandchildren. They didn't share Zaentz's views on gratuitous spinoffs.

In 2017 they pawned off the rights to a Lord of the Rings television series based on the folklore of The Silmarillion. Amazon emerged victorious over HBO and Netflix. On September 2 we'll get to see whether The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is half decent. The show will condense several thousand years of Middle-Earth folk-history into 50 episodes. Given the level of fragmentation in streaming audiences — everyone is chasing their own Game of Thrones (which, coincidentally... oh you already know).

Finally, in a display of divine timing, Middle-Earth Enterprises announced the sale of their Tolkein rights this week. The buyer? The Swedish gambling giant Embracer. More video games. More films. A spokesperson for the company elaborated — "Other opportunities include exploring additional movies based on iconic characters such as Gandalf, Aragorn, Gollum, Galadriel, Eowyn, and other charafters from the literary works for J.R.R. Tolkein, and continuing to provide new opportunities for fans to explore this fictive world through merchandising and other experiences." Talk about flogging a dead Shadowfax.

* Tolkein's views on adherents of Judaism are well known (somewhat typical of someone born in Bloemfontenin, South Africa in 1892). He regularly compared Jews to his Dwarfish creations in an openly disparaging manner. Knowing this, there is something deeply satisfying about the fact that the rights to his works ended up in the hands of a bearded, short-statured Jewish man.

Worldlywise

Adam Neumann: the paragon of persistence. PHOTO: Bloomberg

Time is a flat circle

The year is 2010. Adam Neumann is about to ride the hot-desking, freelancing wave as far as it will go. He's just founded a real estate start-up called WeWork that. The first office building he buys is in the centre of the universe (New York City). His ascent will be fuelled by cheap, easy money.

The year is 2016. Adam Neumann has made a name for himself. His aloofness and idiosyncrasies are the stuff of legend. But it's all gravy: WeWork is one of America's fastest-growing unicorns. It's raised $1.7bn on a $16bn valuation. It has four buildings in prime locations and has launched a sideline co-living space. The spigot is fully open.

The year is 2019. Adam Neumann is in control of a company valued at $47bn. He has just overseen a multi-billion dollar cash injection from Masayoshi Son's SoftBank. But the explosive growth has not completely masked the mess on WeWork's books. The cult of the founder is wearing thin. Everyone laughed about the bare feet and the weed in the early years. Nobody is laughing now.

The year is still 2019. Adam Neumann is making an unceremonious exit. WeWork's planned IPO has shown its true losses to the world. Governance was apparently not one of their principles. Neumann liquidates more than half a billion dollars worth of stocks and bolts for the doors. VCs pen blog pieces about the need for a more diligent, holistic approach to funding start-ups.

The year is 2022. Adam Neumann launches Flow, his solution to America's housing crisis. He has spent the last few years amassing a portfolio of 4,000 apartments . Flow receives $350m in funding from Andreesen Horowitz alone. The company is said to be worth over $1bn — another unicorn — but nobody is quite sure what it does.

Modi at the Red Fort on Independence Day. PHOTO: AP

Independence and its discontents

This week India marked 75 years of independence with typically vibrant, pulsing celebrations. There was much to rejoice about. India is by far the largest democracy on the planet and will soon be the most populous nation. A gargantuan effort has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty after two hundred years of ruthless colonial extraction. At the Red Fort in Delhi, Narendra Modi promised delegates from every state that within 25 years theirs would be a developed country. There can be no doubting the mettle behind such an ambitious plan.

But another story from the subcontinent this week spoke to a deep affliction in modern India . A wound that predates the East India Company and the Raj. One that was made all the more grievous by the events following independence. The Partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines left hundreds of thousands dead — possibly as many as two million. It remains the largest, and most violent, population transfer in modern history. It sewed discontent that still periodically boils over.

20 years ago, a spate of violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. At least 1,000 people were killed as mobs ransacked neighbourhoods. In one particularly heinous incident, 14 members of one Muslim family were slaughtered. A heavily-pregnant Bilkis Bano , then 19, was gang-raped and could only watch as her three-year-old daughter was bludgeoned to death. Bilkis survived by playing dead. Eventually, 11 of her attackers received life sentences for rape and murder. On Monday, Independence Day, they walked out from prison… to a cheering crowd.

Extraordinarily, the committee that oversaw the release included two legislators from the BJP, Prime Minister Modi’s own political party. Bano is distraught, asking “how can justice for any woman end like this?”. How indeed.

The Best Of Times

A journalist goes hunting on day one. PHOTO: The National

Some bloody good news

Scotland becomes the first country in the world to provide free period products through local councils and education providers to those who need them. There's even an app . Initiatives to reduce period poverty have positive knock-on effects on education, productivity, social inclusion, and, most importantly, human dignity.

The real winner

Australia may well be the first country to eliminate cervical cancer. Rwanda will be a close second . Kigali has led a nationwide vaccination campaign against human papillomavirus (HPV) in recent years with spectacular results. With a GDP one-130th the size of Australia's this is a mammoth public health campaign.


The Worst Of Times

A war crime. PHOTO: The Associated Press

Fragments and denials

After 10 days of denials, the Israeli military admitted to launching an airstrike that killed five children in Gaza. The obfuscation stopped only when authorities were shown evidence of the missile's serial number. It's truly unsettling that it is this fragment that counted. And not, say, the piece of shrapnel dug out of a four-year-old's skull. It was not a military target, but don't hold your breath waiting for accountability.

Never. Tweet. About. Saudi. Arabia.

You may have noticed a trend in the media that has materialised over the last five years or so. A tenured columnist from a respectable newspaper goes on a junket to Saudi Arabia and comes back full of praise for the progressive, modernising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Women are allowed to drive now. Gosh! Never mind that Riyadh still thinks it's ok to jail a woman for 34 years for tweeting mean things about the government. No amount of hand-waving is going to distract from the country's terrible, horrible, no good record on human rights.


Highlights

The Image

Wild boars have become an unwelcome fixture in some northern Spanish cities and towns. The porcine hordes descended on human settlements in search of grub and stayed on to harass the locals. Photo supplied by Reuters .

The Quote

"Houses are for living in, not speculation."

– Chinese President Xi Jinping has been trotting out this axiom for some years now as part of his Common Prosperity vibe shift. It's gotten a workout in 2022 as nationwide developers have teetered on the brink of total collapse and threatened to bring the entire sector down with them. Hundreds of major projects are facing mortgage boycotts and prices have fallen for an 11th straight month.

The Numbers

10-25% of crypto listings questioned

- In the pantheon of crypto scams, the story of former Coinbase product manager Ishan Wahi doesn't really rate a mention. He and two others were recently indicted for embezzling a lousy $1.5m in the first crypto insider trading scam. But now new research shows that up to a full quarter of all listings may have been traded before being elevated to the Coinbase homepage. The whole thing is a joke and if you're buying it, you're the punchline.

€12,300,000,0000 half-year loss

- Shareholders in Düsseldorf must've spat out their altbier upon receipt of the news that German utility Uniper posted one of the worst losses in European history. Long story short: when Russia throttled Nord Stream 1 Uniper was turned inside out. Last month Berlin chipped in €15bn to keep the lights on. One notable thing about combining the words unique and performance to create your company's name is that it doesn't imply uniquely positive performance .

The Headlines

"Japan's government launches competition to get people drinking" The Guardian

"You Have No Idea How Good Mosquitoes Are at Smelling Us'" The Atlantic

The Special Mention

There aren't many directors who had Wolfgang Petersen's range. The German pop-auteur gave us all claustrophobia on a U-boat in Das Boot. He delighted children everywhere with The Never Ending Story. He greased up Brad Pitt like a cake pan in the ludicrous Troy. And he gifted us yet another top-shelf Gary Oldman bad-guy performance in Air Force One . Vale, Wolfgang .

The Best Long Reads

  • Businessweek drives the EV that will beat Tesla
  • The Economist pokes Britain's would-be PMs
  • Financial Times surveys Brazil's depleted savannah

The Answer...

Being forcibly detained inside IKEA on your day off. An abnormal test result at one outlet in Shanghai prompted security to lock down the entire building. Those inside had other ideas: the mob swarmed past security and fled . We know the feeling.

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