The most expensive TV series of all time is just months away from launching in a glory or gloom gamble from Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. Bidding to eclipse anything on Netflix or Disney Plus, he’s betting big on a small screen spin-off from his favourite franchise, The Lord of the Rings.
Having gone into outer space, Bezos now has his sights set on Middle Earth and hopes to rule all of television with Tolkein mega-show, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Shot largely in secret over the last four years, the epic tale comes with an epic price tag of more than one billion dollars. That means if the 50-hour saga fails to connect with viewers around the world, it will also be the costliest failure in TV history.
And there is plenty of risk involved. Peter Jackson, who masterminded the hugely successful Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies is not involved here, and neither are any of his star names like Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom. Instead, a pair of journeymen TV writers with no previous showrunning credits—but a lot of enthusiasm for the material—have been put in charge. Bosses Patrick McKay and JD Payne are relative unknowns, as are most of their actors. Looking down the cast list of 22 characters, the only recognizable name there is Sir Lenny Henry.
But there is certainly a built-in fan base for this material, and Amazon will be hoping that the lure of more tales from the world of J.R.R. Tolkein will work ratings magic when The Lord of the Rings; The Rings of Power debuts globally on Amazon Prime on September 2.
With the writer’s works already adapted for the screen, you might wonder what new stories there are to tell. The Rings of Power, a prequel set a thousand years before Tolkein’s previous tales, is adapted from the source material’s appendices, around 150 pages of backstory that was published along with The Lord of the Rings.
When the screen rights to the appendices came up for auction in 2017, all the major forces were interested, including Netflix and HBO, which was looking for a readymade follow-up to their own mythology masterpiece, Game of Thrones.
But Bezos—a huge Tolkein fan—saw the opportunity for Amazon to have the biggest show ever and presented to the Tolkein estate a winning bid of $250 million, which blew all rivals away. He then commissioned a five-series supershow, which has been quietly shooting in New Zealand. Too quietly, for some fans.
In contrast with other giant entertainment franchises, there has been little fan engagement and pre-publicity for this series: no advance footage or early trailers, no Comic-Con panels, preview podcasts, big interviews nor any social media onslaught. The new thinking in Amazon’s strategy appears to be that the less they say, the more fan interest will build ahead of the September premiere.
But no franchise is bulletproof. The Harry Potter spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts, is struggling badly with its latest movie The Secrets of Dumbledore tanking, and Eternals was a big disappointment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, failing to get anything like the numbers of recent Marvel hits.
Having missed out on the Tolkein appendices, HBO has been readying their Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon, based on George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood book, which will debut this August—a month before The Rings of Power. In contrast, HBO’s show also has starpower going for it, with the casting of former Doctor Who and The Crown star Matt Smith in one of the leading roles.
Something else for Amazon to be worried about is the reaction to their own recent fantasy adventure series, Wheel of Time. Negative reviews and plenty of fan backlash greeted that show, which stars Rosamund Pike. So it’s clearly not that easy to launch a hit series, especially one with expectations as big as this.
In the end, as always, the viewers will decide. But if they turn off in their millions, the timing will be terrible for Amazon, which needs a big win soon. That’s because shares in the online retailer tumbled recently after the company posted its first quarterly loss in seven years. The result was billions of dollars wiped off the company’s market value.
Can spending a billion dollars on a Lord of the Rings prequel series solve the problem? We will find out soon enough.