Inside Amazon Prime’s Billion-Dollar ‘Big Swing’ With ‘Lord of the Rings’ Prequel

·7-min read
Getty Images, Prime Video

On a picturesque evening in Culver City, California, as the sun began to set and temperatures settled on the perfect side of warm, the cast of “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” stepped through golden framed archways and a small forest of wondrous ancient-looking trees of amber for the premiere of Amazon Prime Video’s big-budget gamble in the fantasy drama world.

But the big stars at the event were really Amazon’s top brass: executive chairman Jeff Bezos; president and CEO Andy Jassy; Jeff Blackburn, the senior vice president of media and entertainment (who oversees Prime Video, Amazon Studios and Amazon Music); and SVP of Prime Video, MGM and Amazon Studios Mike Hopkins.

The presence of the the company’s biggest leaders joining Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke, chief executive officer Albert Cheng and Vernon Sanders, the head of global TV for Amazon Studios, was a key indicator that Amazon is going “full guns blazing, all hands-on deck” on its pricey prequel series toJ.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” epic, according to one Hollywood insider with knowledge of big studios and expensive, big-priority projects.

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So why the show of force? There are several reasons. Bezos spent a reported $250 million just for the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work back in 2017 – and another $465 million on the eight-episode first season. He wanted Prime Video to have its own “Game of Thrones,” and you can’t get much closer to the HBO cultural juggernaut than the fantasy works that inspired “Thrones” author George R.R. Martin.

When Prime Video started with original programming in 2013, other streamers had a big head start. Netflix had Emmy winner ”House of Cards” — which it followed with other critically acclaimed shows such as ”Orange Is the New Black.” Meanwhile, HBO — which had languished a bit in the prestige department after “The Sopranos” ended in 2007 – hit the award-show sweet spot with “Veep” and “Game of Thrones” (which would win its first Outstanding Drama Series Emmy in 2015).

Monday watercooler conversations were happening in offices across America after the latest “OITNB” season binge, HBO’s “True Blood” episode, and what became the jewel in HBO’s crown and a cultural juggernaut, “Game of Thrones.” At the same time, Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” and “Bosch” failed to get even half the attention those shows garnered by both fans and the industry. And the early attention Amazon did receive for its programming came in comedy (“Transparent” in 2015, Phoebe-Waller Bridge’s “Fleabag” in 2019, and throughout its run, the ’60s female standup show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which has 20 Emmy wins to date).

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Prime Video executives decided they needed a huge franchise to compete with the big boys of streaming. Disney+ has Marvel and “Star Wars.” Netflix has “Stranger Things” and “Bridgerton.” Paramount+ has “Star Trek” and the Taylor Sheridan period dramas. Can “The Rings of Power” level up Prime Video?

“This is a big ticket and a big swing,” Robert Thompson, a trustee professor of television, radio and film and director of the Bleier Center for Television and popular culture at Syracuse University, told TheWrap of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” “And it’s adapting material that’s in sacred territory. This isn’t just some new franchise that they’re inventing. This is ‘Lord of the Rings.’ There are millions of people in the country who genuflect when they simply hear those words. So, you’ve got a long tradition, generations of the books’ reputation and especially the Peter Jackson movies’ reputation.”

That Bezos is a fan of Tolkien’s works not only motivates his lieutenants to make sure it’s a hit, but to some degree assuages fears for some of the built-in audience ready to step into the Second Age of Middle-Earth when it debuts on the streamer Friday.

“The idea that Bezos, at the top, himself is a Tolkien fan and that his own interest and passion is also one of the things that motivates this is a comforting thought to me, because the idea that the ultimate decisions are being made by somebody who didn’t really care and who only sees this as a purely mercantile investment — that’s one of the things that often makes fans uneasy about adaptations,” said Corey Olsen, a Tolkien scholar and president of Signum University (who isn’t an official consultant on the series, but has had conversations with the production team).

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Having at least a portion of Tolkien diehards open to the series is a major coup for Amazon, which isn’t just dipping its toes into the springs of Middle-Earth. Prime Video is soaking wet in the middle of a Tolkien lake, having already committed to five seasons of the show.

Prime Video has gone all out to promote the series, even taking the very large cast down to nerd mecca – San Diego Comic-Con – for a panel in the most prestigious room in the convention center, Hall H. That was followed up with a glitzy cast world tour that would rival the PR campaign of any feature film. And for added value, beyond traditional advertising, Prime Video even partnered with Cinemark to debut the first two episodes in select theaters (while also offering attendees a free, $10 snack voucher). But whether audiences will push play on the stream this Friday is still unknown.

“Money doesn’t score goals,” Ian Greenblatt, managing director technology/media/telecom intelligence at J.D. Power, said. “In TV, that also does hold true. Content is very difficult. It’s very hard to get it right. And it’s very expensive. And there is absolutely no such thing as a sure thing. Even sure things aren’t sure things.”

One challenge is that the plot isn’t based on Tolkien’s beloved trilogy or the standalone novel ”The Hobbit” — this is not a remake of Jackson’s two Oscar-winning trilogies — but on collections of stories, notes, appendices and even songs set in the late author’s mythic universe. That gives co-showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, who’ve been friends since high school, less narrative material to work with — but also more latitude to flesh out the story.

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Still, Amazon is in a unique position compared to streaming rivals like Netflix or Warner Bros. Discovery. While the other two are exclusively focused on media and content, Prime Video is just one part of an e-commerce giant with a market capitalization of $1.3 trillion. So, if “The Rings of Power” doesn’t soar on the back of a dragon, the company is better poised to absorb its $1 billion-plus investment in the series.

“Given the scope of Amazon, it’s not a big gamble financially for them. Yeah, they’d rather not lose $1 billion,” Steven Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management said. “But I think where the gamble is, is on what the plan long-term is — the strategy — for Prime Video. If it flops, [if] it loses a lot of money — embarrassment and it could lead to difficulties with the creative community.”

But even if the show founders, Bezos and his successor CEO, Andy Jassy, are unlikely to turn sour on Hollywood.

“Let me ask this question: Can Jeffrey Katzenberg get lunch with no reservation or walk on any studio lot he wants to for any or no reason? Sure. Could Meg Whitman do the same? Sure. Why? Well, I don’t know, Quibi was a pretty high-profile disappointment and the two of them are just fine,” Greenblatt said.

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