In case you’ve missed it, a Cambridge professor of language once wrote a story about a ring, a quest, elves, and magic. Spoilers! The quest is to destroy the ring, and that’s what they did. This story, “Lord of the Rings” (LotR), sold… well. By “well”, I mean hundreds of millions of copies. It also spawned generations of readers, launched a $3 billion movie trilogy, inspired nearly every fantasy book, movie, or comic for generations, and gained the status of holy relics among its fans. Now, Amazon Prime wants to go to the next level spending one billion dollars to produce a new streaming series. Is this just a vanity project or is it something more? We’re about to find out!
Amazon’s series will cost more, FAR more, than any other series in history. The last year of Game of Thrones (GoT) was the most expensive in the long-running series, costing a mere $100 million (just three years ago). This was recently beaten by Netflix’s mega-project, Dune, at $165 million. Amazon Prime turns up the finances to 11 by paying a billion-dollar, just for season one, which is expected to be 8 episodes. Each episode of the Amazon series will cost more than an entire year of GoT. That’s a big bump in the increasingly high-stakes world of streaming media.
Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, made it clear that he is personally interested in the success of the series. The official Amazon mythology is that Bezos greenlighted the record-breaking price tag because Amazon Prime needs its own Game of Thrones. Any accountant for Amazon Prime will tell you that’s not a good sign. When the “big boss” tells his organization that he really (really) wants something, cost controls will fall by the wayside, and consumer feedback is often ignored.
Hollywood is littered with loss-leader projects that blew past agreed-to budgets. “Water World”, a 1995 movie ended up spending twice the agreed-to-budget and tanked at the box office. Two years later, “Titanic” followed the same script, spending twice the budget. Titanic, however, was a huge, profitable, and critically successful hit. Not every bloated budget spells failure, but overspending is generally not a good thing. Keep in mind that Titanic cost $200 million, $350 with inflation. A mere third of the cost of the first year of Amazon’s project.
Will Jeff Bezos be impervious to warnings about his Game of Thrones clone? Keep in mind that Bezos recently went on a trip into space because… he could. It’s a pretty good bet that he wants, no matter what it costs. But will people watch it? Making a series based on Tolkien’s has a lot more issues than the fanbase or the accountants are aware of. It’s not just the cost, Amazon is facing perhaps insurmountable creative and marketing issues that make this series the biggest gamble in the history of entertainment! Consider the following…
Missing Characters: The world has changed since LotR was published in 1954. The books have almost no female characters. Keep in mind that Tolkien uses “race” to describe the people (and things) of this world. There are a few humans and Elf women, but most major races have no female characters. Dwarves are major characters, but not a single female character appears. Wizards are pivotal to the story, but there are no female Wizards. Even the bad guys (Orcs, Nazgul, trolls, giants,) have no females. Ents, walking tree people, are one of the most loved races. Ent females exist, but they wandered off and the male Ents couldn’t find them. Needless to say, this is going to be a big, big issue.
Racism: Not just women are absent from the tale. Major characters are “good” and virtually always white. Evil creatures, races, and monsters are not (and usually must live in “blackness”). Tolkien organizes his world and its characters by “race”, which determines WHAT you are (skills, temperament, and lifestyle). Characters always follow their stereotype. The exceptionally white Elves are the best race, “immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings”. Baddies like the Orcs lack any positive qualities. In the entirety of LofR (all 1,200 pages) you meet a lot of Orcs, but not one is a “good Orc”. When you label all characters by race, and characters only operate within their label, is this Racism? Yes, it is. The fan base is at war with itself over how to “fix” the source material, break stereotypes and add diversity, while still delivering a “true” LotR experience.
Faithfulness: At the other end of the fanbase, we have purists. It is what it is, just leave it alone. The problem is that Tolkien is a VERY consistent and comprehensive author. There’s not a lot of wiggle room to add or remove anything. Pull one thread and the whole story can fall apart. Fans were thrilled that the movies, with $3 billion in revenue ($6 billion if you count overseas and DVD sales), remained faithful to the books. They didn’t add characters, change key plot points or write new dialogue. The movie focused on trimming what would not fit into the 9 hours of screen time. For LotR, faithfulness is bankable. Departure from the original story, adding characters or dialogue, or tampering with Tolkien’s style could spell financial doom.
Story Rights: Amazon’s press release highlights “Tolkien” and “Lord of the Rings”. Yet, Amazon did not buy the rights to LotR. They bought “The Silmarillion”. LotR was a fun adventure story with rich dialog, a huge number of characters, and a writing style that has enchanted readers for decades. The Silmarillion is a history book that tells the 4,000 year back story to LofR, with few characters and less conversation.
Chris Tolkien: The Silmarillion is comprised of unfinished stories and notes that were compiled and written by Chris Tolkein, J.R.R. Tolkein’s son. It is also the worst-selling of Tolkien’s major works, with sales of just 1 million after 45 years of publication. Compare this to over 150 million book sales for LotR. A decade later Chris Tolkien released the 12 volume, “History of Middle Earth”, which sold even less. Why did 99% of the Tolkein fanbase reject the Silmarillion? Perhaps Chris chose the wrong stories. Perhaps his writing style clashes with that of this father. Or it may be that Chris Tolkien is not J.R.R. Tolkien, and that is the end of the story for the fans.
Screen Time: The movie trilogy turned the 1,200 pages of LotR into 9 hours of screen time. However, If the Amazon series is to match the 63 hours of screen time of Game of Thrones We have another problem. The Silmarillion is less than 400 pages. The trilogy averaged 130 written pages of LotR for every hour of screen time. The series gets just 6 pages per hour. I hate to use math to explain the creative process, but 95% of what we will see on the screen has to come from the creative team. That writing must keep the series running for 5 to 10 years and build the biggest audience in history. While there’s at it, they might as well win every critical award for the next decade. Does the writing team get bonus guarantees?
Style Gap: Game of Thrones is the series to beat, and their audience will be the new infusion of subscribers to justify this project. No problem! Just perfectly mimic GoT’s award writing style. Wait… has anyone considered the “style gap”? GoT, published 40 years after LotR, and has a gritty, realistic style. Well… realistic if you ignore the giants and the dragons. Tolkien is more… chaste? Foul language is never used. No one is ever naked. The most passionate scene is when Aragorn (the future king) kisses an Elf, after about 1,000 pages of build-up. GoT episodes frequently involve nudity, sex, profanity, incest, brothels, prostitutes, rape, and horrific violence. You just can’t “split the difference” in tone. What’s it going to be Amazon, a family-friendly “G” rating or a mature NC-17?
Revenue Streams: GoT, had successful DVD sales, at least in the early years. The LotR movies could depend on money from theater tickets, DVD sales (nearly $800 million), and streaming revenues. Since then, the DVD market has crashed. Since 2008, DVDs sales have fallen by 90%. Why bother with DVDs when everything you want is now streaming? If DVDs are dead, did Amazon Prime exclude DVD sales from their financial model? With only streaming revenues to rely on, can the most expensive series ever recover its costs?
Secret Strategy?: If it looks like Bezos is on a crazy quest, maybe this isn’t his real quest? Even before COVID, there has been a 20-year decline in theater revenues. Broadcast ad revenues have also fallen. Streaming has been waiting to take over the world. But as media giants spun off streaming platforms (Disney Plus, HBO Max, and Paramount+), and newcomers (Hulu, YouTube, Peacock, Apple TV, Crunchyroll) scramble for new revenues, the market is getting crowded. What if you could raise the barrier for new entrants while converting theater revenues into new streaming subscribers? Netflix might invest $165 million in Dune, elevated streaming content (or budgets?) into Hollywood Blockbuster territory. Amazon might raise the bar even higher, to limit competition. A billion-dollar project sounds about right.
If Amazon’s bet pays off, this might be the launch of the long-anticipated transformation of the entire entertainment industry. DVD is gone, but traditional TV can be replaced with “live” events and binge viewing. Theaters were terrified that movies will be released on streaming and Theaters simultaneously. But what if the most-watched content begins as a series, instead of a movie? t the same time. movies will show up first on stAnd then merges theaters with home entertainment. I wonder if Amazon’s “The Rings of Power”, will be eligible for an Emmy and an Oscar?
Whatever Amazon Prime is up to, they are definitely playing at the high rollers table. They are betting big stakes, and need a big win. Can Amazon pull it off? Will the writers for “Rings of Power” win over the fans or will they be disappointed? If Amazon builds it, will the audience come? What do you think? Let us know in the comments!