Lord of the Rings fans rejoiced when they learned that their beloved director Peter Jackson was in early negotiations to direct The Hobbit. (The LOTR two-part prequel was orphaned when Guillermo del Toro exited the project last month.) Jackson is the obvious choice for the job — beyond being the resident expert on all things hobbit, he’s been writing the scripts for the last two years with del Toro and his screenwriting partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. But it’s still not a sure thing that Jackson will return to Middle-earth and the Tolkien world that made him a superstar: Sources close to Warner Bros./New Line, which are co-producing and cofinancing the films along with MGM, say a deal with the director is still far off. While Jackson has remained intimately involved with the franchise for years, signing him on as director is likely to be very expensive, considering he’s already lined up for a piece of the back-end business (along with producers Harvey Weinstein, Saul Zaentz, and others). Plus there is the issue of MGM’s financial woes, which have already sidelined the next James Bond movie. The studio has a tremendous debt load on its shoulders that must be dealt with by mid-July, or all of its assets — which include a 50 percent rights ownership of The Hobbit — could be headed to bankruptcy court. Insiders insist that Warner Bros. and New Line are too motivated to let these movies be waylaid by MGM’s issues, but it’s unclear if they can control that. While Jackson’s manager isn’t commenting, one source has said casting is already under way in London. Ian McKellen, for one, is optimistic: ”The films will get made,” the man also known as Gandalf tweeted in early June. ”I suspect we’ll start shooting at the end of the year.” Given that the Lord of the Rings movies have each made about $1 billion, we’re prepared to believe him.