Speculation about the fate of The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien's first Middle Earth novel and prequel to The Lord of the Rings, has become something of a sport since the huge success of its huge, three-headed successor. It's been on again and off again more often than Lindsay Lohan's stint in rehab, with directors and stars rumoured to be attached and just as quickly scotched.
But despite it all, New Line chief Robert Shaye remains optimistic. In fact, he's positively bullish. He told the New York Times that although there is no workable script as yet, he expects the film to be released in 2009 - which would suggest that pre-production should get going in the very near future.
With the lawsuit between Peter Jackson's Wingnut films and New Line still rumbling on, don't hold your breath for Jackson to come back onboard: Shaye said that his comments last year, calling Jackson "arrogant", were made "in a moment of emotion" but that he doesn't regret them. That said, Shaye offered no comment on the rumours that Sam Raimi could step in (schlock horror history - check; box-office credentials - check; Oscar-winning past - well, not yet) so consider that particular story alive and kicking - although whether Raimi will want to go straight from a mega-budget Spider-Man franchise to another huge film is more open to debate.
One thing at least is clear - talking about The Hobbit is becoming a habit, but the film itself isn't really getting any closer. And the stakes are high - if New Line get a director who isn't Peter Jackson and he or she doesn't hit it out of the park, the whole world will be waiting with knives (possibly called Sting) drawn. Let's hope that whoever gets the gig is wearing a mithril shirt.