Inside Most Expensive TV Show Ever: Amazon Chief Talks Big Gamble ‘Power Rings’

Six years ago, when TV viewers were fascinated by White Walkers, dragons, and the fate of Westeros on HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made it clear he wanted a huge franchise for his streaming service.

Amazon Studios didn’t need to look very far. Television rights became available for the popular fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and Bezos was a huge fan of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. The billionaire billionaire, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, wrote a note to various rights holders, including the author’s heirs, in which he expressed his affinity for the material and indicated that Amazon would handle the modification of books carefully.

On Thursday, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” premiered on Amazon Prime Video, bringing to life Middle-earth from Tolkien’s lore, inhabiting dwarves, elves, humans, and artisans (ancestors of the Hobbit).

Electronic retail giant Culver City spent more than $700 million, including the purchase of television rights, for the show’s first season, according to people familiar with the budget who were not authorized to comment.

Episodes of Power would be the most expensive TV show ever, and there are inherent risks in doing such a massive swing.

Jennifer Salk, head of Amazon Studios and her assistants, recognized the many challenges, including how the series should satisfy hordes of “Lord of the Rings” and Bezos fans, as well as attract millions of new viewers around the world.

It should also perform during future award seasons, with a bounty fetched from figurines like “Game of Thrones,” which has won over the years at 59 Emmy Awards.

“This was not for the faint of heart,” Salk told The Times. “We saw this as a big opportunity, of course you [have] Nervous excitement about being able to deliver on such a huge commitment and passion on behalf of the entire company.”

The importance of maintaining the spirit of Tolkien’s work meant that studio executives and opponents turned to the author’s grandson, British novelist Simon Tolkien, for direction. Tolkien is a chain consultant.

“I got really nervous getting into that,” admitted Vernon Sanders, head of TV at Amazon Studios, who joined the company in May 2018, several months after Salke joined the company.

But ties with Simon Tolkien, executive producer Lindsey Webber, and show makers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay soon eased his concerns.

“So with that kind of fellowship, I felt a much more confident kind of,” Sanders said in an interview.

Few movie and TV studios can afford such a big bet, but Amazon generated nearly $470 billion in revenue last year, and the reimagining of the Tolkien franchise represents the company’s latest boost. To solidify its position as one of Hollywood’s leading studios.

In March, it spent $8.5 billion to acquire MGM Film Studio, home of the James Bond and Rocky films. It’s also ramping up its free streaming service, Freevee, to attract price-conscious consumers and capture a significant portion of the TV ad market.

And later this month, the company will begin broadcasting live NFL matches with “Friday Night Football.”

Prior to the announcement of the “Lord of the Rings” deal, Amazon was known mostly for niche but critically acclaimed shows such as Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Flybag. In 2017, she won Academy Awards for the original screenplay and lead actor for “Manchester by the Sea”, and the Iranian movie “The Salesman”.

Industry experts said the Tolkien deal put Amazon on a different level.

“Now the whole world knows you can bring anything to Amazon and they will think about it,” said Tom Noonan, a former studio executive. “Whether or not the show is a success, in some ways it really does the job… to make Amazon a player in the big-budget content game and to signal that their team, led by Gene Salk, is not afraid 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 with the necessary infrastructure and crew well-versed in the worlds of Middle-earth after spending years working with director Peter Jackson on his three “Lord of the Rings” and three “The Hobbit” films. .

Jackson, who was not involved in the series, told The Hollywood Reporter that Amazon contacted him but then did not receive the scripts he requested review.

“In pursuit of the rights to our show, we have been obligated to keep the series distinct and separate from the films,” Amazon said in a statement. “We have the utmost respect for Peter Jackson.”

Production was launched for 25 days starting in February 2020 but was then halted as the world was grappling with the coronavirus. The show set up a virtual book room for the second season.

Early commentary on “Rings of Power” was mostly positive, praising the cinematic quality of the production and the more prominent female characters.

In Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings, most of the main characters are portrayed by white men – such as the Hobbit Frodo, Gandalf the wizard, and Legolas the elven warrior.

Studios have been under pressure to diversify their teams to better reflect other races and cultures, and some companies like Amazon have been proactive in addressing this. The show prominently features female characters, including the franchise’s first black dwarf princess.

Some fans mocked Puerto Rican actor Ishmael Cruz Cordova’s choice as a gin soldier when she described Tolkien as having light skin and long hair. Sanders said there has been an openness in choosing the best actors and in scripts, and “there were no specifications for this character to look like this.”

Cordova, who grew up in mud-floored houses, said his first DVD purchase was “The Lord of the Rings,” which he saved up money for, and felt an emotional connection with the elves.

“When I first saw the films, which were very touching, I felt spiritually represented there, but maybe not [in] Córdova said in a panel discussion during Television Critics Assn. event in August. “Now that we’re here, a new generation will be able to create their own image based on what we’re showing on screen for the first time with this privilege.”

Salk said she stands by the show’s choice decisions.

“They want the show to represent the world we live in and so we’re really proud of the actors we have on the show,” Salk said. We welcome discussion and even criticism about the series. However, we will not condone racism of any kind.”

Developing a series based on initial events set before “The Lord of the Rings” has raised some concerns among fans about how the timeline will be displayed and how close the back stories of the characters will follow Tolkien’s words.

Unlike the movies, the new series takes place during the Second Age of Middle-earth, at the time when the Rings of Power were being formed.

Executive Producer Webber said that the story of the first season, as well as the Bible series across multiple seasons, have been blessed by Tolkien’s ownership, including time pressure.

“The events of the Second Age occur over thousands of years,” said Weber, “that it was not the most satisfying storytelling to stick to the timeline set by Tolkien.” “So with the legacy, we worked to compress the schedule, but not change the chain of events.”

Amazon announced its premiere date over a year ago, and was quickly drawn to the feud of fantasy Titans with rival HBO and the Dragons franchise. HBO rolled out the gates first with its prequel to “Game of Thrones,” “House of the Dragon,” attracting 10 million viewers in its first two episodes on HBO and streaming service HBO Max.

The simultaneous release is almost a comparison, 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 see this as a competition,” Sanders said.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will also be compared to Jackson’s work. His “Lord of the Rings” trilogy won 17 Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 2004 for The Return of the King.

Discussions have begun between Amazon and Warner Bros. and HarperCollins and Tolkien Estate 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 has gained an advantage over competitors due to its history of winning awards, its track record of successfully adapting books for TV shows and the fact that its executives have demonstrated a deep knowledge of Tolkien’s work. Another bonus: Amazon’s ability to sell Tolkien’s books and other related products.

“One of the reasons the Tolkien estate is so passionate is the opportunity to get more people into the source material,” Sanders said. “People flock to watch those movies [on Amazon] Because they love them and they are excited about our show, and I think we’re seeing a rise in book sales through anecdotes, so it’s all about reconnecting people with Tolkien, or calling them for the first time.”

Unlike other streaming services, Amazon Studios’ original programming is seen as a supplement to encourage people to sign up for the $139 annual Prime membership that offers free shipping on many online items. There are more than 200 million Amazon Prime subscribers around the world who can access original programming through their membership. Others can subscribe to Amazon Prime Video individually for $8.99 per month.

So a key measure of success is whether “Rings of Power,” which will be released in more than 240 countries and regions and 32 languages, will attract new Prime subscribers. The first two episodes of the eight-part series will be released on Thursday.

“We are looking for new customers who are coming to Prime World from door to middle-earth,” Salk said. “We hope to introduce a new, younger generation, people who have never been to Tolkien’s world, to this experiment.”

The show should break through a busy streaming scene.

“Even if it has a world history like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ it better be that the adaptation is amazing, or there are a lot of other options people have to focus on,” Noonan said.

Despite the huge investment in new content, some analysts said the studio still lacked a clear identity for its original shows.

Parrot Analytics ranks Amazon second, away from Netflix, when analyzing US demand for the original series in the second quarter. Netflix accounted for 40.5% of US 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 to define what it is, but the demand for its assets continues to grow with each quarter,” Parrot Analytics said in a recent report.

But Amazon executives believe the successful launch of The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power could bring new audiences to Amazon’s streaming service.

“It’s a huge and important part of the company’s ethos to be there to think big and innovative, and there’s been nothing bigger than tackling this story,” Salk said.

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