Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican film-maker with a cult following for his fantasy horror movies, is to direct the two prequel films to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Del Toro was announced yesterday as the director of The Hobbit following weeks of speculation as to which film-maker could match the brilliance of Peter Jackson's award-winning adaptations of J R R Tolkien's books.
He described the chance to contribute to the Lord of the Rings legacy as "an absolute dream come true". The Los Angeles-based director will move to New Zealand for four years to work with Jackson, who will be executive producer for both films.
He is expected to direct the two films, which have a reported budget of $150m (£76m), back to back. The prequel deals with the 60-year period between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, which forms the first instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
New Line studios have not yet got a start date but industry insiders believe shooting will begin by next year, with the films set to be released in late 2011 and 2012. It had been rumoured that Sam Raimi, who directed the cult horror The Evil Dead, was to take on the director's seat but it was Del Toro who emerged as the more likely candidate in recent months. It is thought that Del Toro, 43, was sent part of the script some weeks ago and appeared to approve.
Before turning to directing, Del Toro spent 10 years as a make-up designer, but it was his film Pan's Labyrinth, about the horrors of Franco's regime in Spain which propelled him to stardom, becoming an international hit and earning three Oscars in 2006.
The Orphanage, a Spanish-language horror film which he helped produce,is currently taking audiences by storm.
Nick James, editor of the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine, welcomed Del Toro's appointment and hoped his penchant for dark and surprising twists in his movies would satisfy Lord of the Rings fans. "He is a perfect choice in many ways and is liable to give it a kind of twist and a darker approach," he said. Very few of Del Toro's potential rivals for the job had the same knack of making CGI special effects material "feel real", Mr James added.
Archie Thomson, of Variety newspaper, said the choice may reveal a growing trend towards international directors for blockbusters. "Perhaps there is an increased appetite for non-Hollywood directors given that in recent years, there's a willingness to employ foreign helmers to take on big projects.
"When there's a megapicture such as this one, it's obviously going to attract big name directors but I would not be surprised if Del Toro was first choice," he said.