Inside the most expensive TV show ever: Amazon boss talks big ‘Rings of Power’ gamble
Six years ago, when TV viewers were captivated with White Walkers, dragons and the fate of Westeros in HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made it clear he wanted a blockbuster franchise for his streaming service.
Amazon Studios didn’t need to look too far. Television rights were becoming available to the popular fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings,” and Bezos was a passionate fan of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. The billionaire mogul, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, wrote a note to the various rights holders, including the author’s heirs, expressing his affinity for the material and indicated that Amazon would handle the adaptation of the books with care.
On Thursday “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” premieres on Amazon Prime Video, bringing back to life the Middle-earth of Tolkien’s lore, where dwarves, elves, humans and harfoots (ancestors of the hobbits) dwell.
The e-retailing giant’s Culver City studio has spent more than $700 million, including to buy TV rights, for the show’s first season, according to people familiar with the budget who were not authorized to comment.
“The Rings of Power” will be the most expensive television show ever, and there are inherent risks in taking such a colossal swing.
Amazon Studios Chief Jennifer Salke and her lieutenants recognize the many challenges, including how the series must satisfy legions of “The Lord of the Rings” fans and Bezos, as well as appeal to millions of new viewers around the world.
It also must deliver during future awards seasons, bringing home a bounty of statuettes like “Game of Thrones,” which over the years hauled in 59 Primetime Emmy Awards.
“This was not for the fainthearted,” Salke told The Times. “We saw this as a huge opportunity, so of course you [have] nervous excitement about being able to deliver on such a major commitment and passion on behalf of the entire company.”
The importance of preserving the spirit of Tolkien’s work meant studio executives and showrunners turned to the author’s grandson, British novelist Simon Tolkien, for guidance. Tolkien is a series consultant.
“I felt really nervous coming into it,” admitted Vernon Sanders, Amazon Studios’ head of TV, who joined the company in May 2018, several months after Salke.
But soon the bonds with Simon Tolkien, executive producer Lindsey Weber and showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay eased his anxiety.
“So with that sort of fellowship, I felt much more sort of confident,” Sanders said in an interview.
Few film and TV studios could stomach such a big bet, but Amazon brought in about $470 billion in revenue last year, and re-imagining the Tolkien franchise represents the company’s latest push to cement its status as one of Hollywood’s premier studios.
In March, it spent $8.5 billion to acquire the storied MGM film studio, home of the James Bond and Rocky movies. It also has been ramping up its free streaming service, Freevee, to appeal to price-conscious consumers and grab a big piece of the TV ad market.
And later this month, the company will begin live-streaming NFL games with “Thursday Night Football.”
The deal is the latest in the media industry that’s aimed at boosting streaming services to compete against Netflix and Disney+.
Before the “Lord of the Rings” deal was announced, Amazon was mostly known for niche but critically acclaimed shows such as “Transparent,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag.” In 2017, it won Academy Awards for “Manchester by the Sea‘s” original screenplay and lead actor, and for the Iranian film “The Salesman.”
The Tolkien deal put Amazon on a different level, industry experts said.
“Now the whole world knows you can bring Amazon anything and they’ll consider it,” said Tom Nunan, a former studio executive. “Whether or not the show works, in some ways, it’s already doing the job ... to make Amazon a player in the big-budget game of content and to signal that their team, led by Jen Salke, is unafraid of the biggest of all challenges.”
The first season of the series was filmed in New Zealand, where Amazon received financial incentives and benefited from a country that had the necessary infrastructure and crew well versed in the worlds of Middle-earth after spending years working with filmmaker Peter Jackson on his three “The Lord of the Rings” and three “The Hobbit” movies.
Jackson, who was not involved in the series, told the Hollywood Reporter that he was approached by Amazon but then never received the scripts he asked to review.
“In pursuing the rights for our show, we were obligated to keep the series distinct and separate from the films,” Amazon said in a statement. “We have the utmost respect for Peter Jackson.”
The production shot for 25 days beginning in February 2020 but then shut down as the world grappled with the coronavirus. The show set up a virtual writers room for Season 2.
Early commentary on “The Rings of Power” has been mostly positive, praising the cinematic quality of the production and more prominent female characters.
In Jackson’s movie version of “The Lord of the Rings,” most of the lead characters — such as Frodo the hobbit, Gandalf the wizard and Legolas the elven warrior — were portrayed by white men.
‘The Rings of Power,’ premiering Thursday, is Prime Video’s most ambitious (read, expensive) gambit yet. And it’s an enjoyable, if conventional, ride.
Studios have been under pressure to diversify their casts to better reflect other races and cultures, and some companies like Amazon have been proactive in addressing that. The show prominently features female characters, including the franchise’s first Black dwarf princess.
Some fans scoffed at the casting of Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova as an elven soldier when elves are described as light-skinned with long hair in Tolkien’s work. Sanders said there was an openness to cast the best actors and in the scripts, and “there were no specifications of this character needs to look like that.”
Córdova, who grew up in houses with mud floors, said his first DVD purchase was “The Lord of the Rings,” which he saved money to buy, and he felt an emotional connection to the elves.
“When I first saw the movies, which were so influential, I felt spiritually represented there, but perhaps not [in] the image,” Córdova said at a panel discussion during the show’s Television Critics Assn. event in August. “Now that we’re here, a new generation will be able to create their image based on what we’re putting on screen for the first time with this franchise.”
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Salke said she stands by the show’s casting decisions.
“They want the show to represent the world that we live in and so we’re really proud of the cast that we have in the show,” Salke said. “We welcome discussion and even criticism around the series; however, we will not condone racism of any kind.”
Developing a series based on preliminary events set before “The Lord of the Rings” has raised some concerns among fans about how the timeline will be presented and how closely the back stories of characters will follow Tolkien’s words.
Unlike the movies, the new series takes place during the Second Age of Middle-earth, during the time that the Rings of Power were forged.
Executive producer Weber said the story of the first season, as well as the series bible across multiple seasons, was blessed by the Tolkien estate, including its compression of time.
“The events of a Second Age take place over so many thousands of years that it wouldn’t have been the most satisfying storytelling to stick to the exact timeline as laid out by Tolkien,” Weber said. “So with the estate, we worked on compressing the timeline, but not altering the series of events.”
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Amazon announced its premiere date more than a year ago and was quickly drawn into a clash of the fantasy titans with rival HBO and its dragons franchise. HBO shot out of the gates first with its “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon,” drawing a whopping 10 million viewers on its initial two episodes on the HBO channel and HBO Max streaming service.
The near simultaneous release sets up comparisons, although “The Lord of the Rings” is generally seen as more family-friendly entertainment, without the sex, nudity and bloody beheadings in “House of the Dragon.”
“We don’t look at this as a competition,” Sanders said.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” also will be compared to Jackson’s work. His “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy won 17 Oscars, including best picture in 2004 for “Return of the King.”
Discussions among Amazon, Warner Bros., HarperCollins and the Tolkien estate began in 2017. Amazon paid more than $200 million for the rights, according to two people close to the company.
Aside from its deep pockets, Amazon gained an edge over rivals because of its history of winning awards, its track record of successfully adapting books to TV shows and the fact that executives displayed deep familiarity with Tolkien’s work. Another bonus: Amazon’s ability to sell Tolkien’s books and other related products.
“One of the reasons why the Tolkien estate has been so passionate is the opportunity to bring even more people to the source material,” Sanders said. “People are flocking to watch those movies [on Amazon] because they love them and they’re excited about our show, and I suspect just anecdotally we’re seeing spikes in book sales, so it’s all about getting people reconnected with Tolkien, or connected for the first time.”
Amazon is launching its first global series that combines unscripted programming with its retail store.
Unlike other streaming services, Amazon Studios’ original programming is viewed as a supplemental business to encourage people to sign up for annual $139 Prime memberships that offers free shipping on many items online. There are more than 200 million Amazon Prime subscribers worldwide who get access to original programs through their membership. Others can sign up for Amazon Prime Video individually for $8.99 a month.
So a key metric of success will be whether “Rings of Power,” which will be released in more than 240 countries and territories and 32 languages, attracts new Prime subscribers. The first two episodes of the eight-part series will be released Thursday.
“We’re looking at new customers that are coming into the world of Prime through a door to Middle-earth,” Salke said. “Our hope is to introduce a younger, new generation and people who’ve never really engaged in the world of Tolkien into this experience.”
The show must break through a cluttered streaming landscape.
“Even if it has a world-class pedigree like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the adaptation better be spectacular, or there’s just too many other choices for people to focus on,” Nunan said.
The shutout comes as Amazon Studios looks to fortify its place in a more competitive streaming market and recover from production delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite heavy investments in new content, some analysts have said the studio still lacks a clear identity for its original shows.
Parrot Analytics ranks Amazon in second place, far behind Netflix, when analyzing the amount of demand in the U.S. for original series in the second quarter. Netflix made up 40.5% of U.S. demand for original series, followed by Amazon Prime Video at 9% and Disney+ at 8.3%, according to Parrot Analytics.
“Amazon Prime Video has always struggled with defining what it is, but demand for its originals continues to grow with each quarter,” Parrot Analytics said in a recent report.
Amazon Studios announced goals to increase the number of women and members of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups on series and films.
But Amazon executives believe a successful launch to “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” could bring new audiences to Amazon’s streaming service.
“It is a huge, important part of our ethos of the company to be out there thinking in an innovative, big way,” Salke said, “and there was nothing bigger than tackling this story.”
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