After years of delays and behind-the-scenes battles, the long-awaited, two-part "Lord of the Rings" prequel is searching for a new director after Guillermo del Toro dropped out of the project over the weekend.

One thing seems sure, "LOTR" director and mastermind Peter Jackson, who is producing "The Hobbit" films, doesn't appear to be in the running to step back into the director's chair for the project.

Jackson's manager, Ken Kamins, told Entertainment Weekly over the holiday weekend that he spoke to his client about taking over the project. "As for Peter directing, that's not something he can consider at this time as he has other commitments to other projects," Kamins said. "But make no mistake, Peter and [producing partner Fran Walsh's] commitment to the franchise is total and they will do everything necessary to protect the films and the investment made by New Line, [parent company] Warner Bros. and MGM."

Plans called for representatives of the studios to meet this week with Jackson and Walsh to discuss who might step into Del Toro's shoes. The production of "The Hobbit" has been a long and winding road, and given the huge time commitment to filming two "Hobbit" films back-to-back, Del Toro said in a press release posted on on Sunday that he could not wait any longer for filming to start.

"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," he said. "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. I remain grateful to Peter, Fran and Philippa Boyens, New Line and Warner Brothers and to all my crew in New Zealand. I've been privileged to work in one of the greatest countries on Earth with some of the best people ever in our craft and my life will be forever changed. The blessings have been plenty, but the mounting pressures of conflicting schedules have overwhelmed the time slot originally allocated for the project. 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."

Pre-production on the two "Hobbit" movies, currently slated for release in December 2012 and 2013, has been going on for several years. Just last week, Del Toro, 45, told EW that he's been toiling for two years in New Zealand with Jackson's team designing the creatures, the sets, the wardrobes and action sequences.

Jackson weighed in on the news as well, telling, "We feel very sad to see Guillermo leave 'The Hobbit,' but he has kept us fully in the loop, and 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. Guillermo is one of the most remarkable creative spirits I've ever encountered and it has been a complete joy working with him. Guillermo's strong vision is engrained into the scripts and designs of these two films, which are extremely fortunate to be blessed with his creative DNA. Guillermo is co-writing 'The Hobbit' screenplays with Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and myself, and happily our writing partnership will continue for several more months, until the scripts are fine tuned and polished. 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 pre-production work."

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