The Billion Dollar TV Show
Is the Lord of the Rings going to send Amazon to space?
Last night, at a screening room in a ritzy hotel in Soho, I watched the first two episodes of the most expensive TV series ever made.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (seemingly they’re paying by the word for that title) is Amazon’s billion-dollar gamble on the future of its streaming platform. It is a production on a vast scale, dwarfing HBO’s investments in projects like Game of Thrones and Westworld, in order to present the full grandeur of Middle Earth over an eight-episode arch. I’m embargoed from saying whether I think it’s any good (certainly not for the cheapskates before the paywall) but it’s certainly hella expensive.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that this is the first ever billion-dollar media product. The most expensive feature film ever made is, supposedly, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which was put together for a paltry $422m (a lot of that spaffed on the contracts of its major stars; bear in mind that this new LOTR TV series involves nobody more famous than Lenny Henry). Each of the Avengers movies cost about $350m a pop, and the priciest movie made for a streaming service is, I think, The Gray Man at $200m (though films like Lightyear, Black Widow and Mulan did, as far as I can remember, release simultaneously on Disney+). The most expensive video game ever made (or more like ‘never’ made) is the upcoming Star Citizen, which has already clocked costs of more than $400m raised through crowdfunding – of more traditional projects, Cyberpunk 2077 leads the way with a spend of more than $315m.
The original Lord of the Rings film franchise cost $281m across the three feature films (which have a combined running time, in the extended editions of 686 minutes, so could’ve run for 11-and-a-half hour-long episodes). The reason why Amazon’s Rings show has proven so expensive starts with the rights acquisition. It cost Bezos and Co a cool $250m dollars to acquire the rights to the Appendices of Lord of the Rings (and some of the lore from The Silmarillion) which is kind of staggering. If JRR Tolkien wasn’t long-dead, he would be the richest author alive.
Why was it so expensive? Well, obviously the books are hugely successful and among the most copies sold of any novel in the English language. The films, equally, matched critical and commercial success and made $3bn back from their original investment. Even the three dreadful Hobbit movies made $3bn (albeit from an investment of c.$700m). There’ve also been 30+ different video game versions of the series made, including Lord of the Rings Online which was a market leading MMORPG in the mid-00s. Basically, nothing touched by Tolkien fails. $250m is a big bet, but a safe one.
And if you know that it’s Amazon trying to buy your rights, you probably charge a bit extra. It is, after all, the most profitable company in the world, and its head honcho, Jeff Bezos, is known to be a fanatical Tolkien fan. Call it the fan tax, but I suspect you can add a few million bob because they know that the bald bigshot wants to make the show.
But $250m (a quarter billion, in other words) still leaves a big deficit. The figure of $465m (or $500m in other places) has been widely reported as a production budget, which speaks, I suspect, to the rising costs of film production in the ages of both CGI and covid. Indeed, the latter has likely created huge issues for the show, filming in covid exile down in New Zealand over the past couple of years. It’s not much reported on, but new covid protocols across film and TV are hugely restrictive to how and when shooting teams can work. I have little doubt that budgets are losing 10%+ to this new way of work. But it’s unavoidable. The question of whether so much, and so glitzy, CGI was also avoidable… well, that’s one for the critics.
The rest of the budget, the stuff that could push it over a billion, is marketing spend, including renting out Soho Hotel and stuffing me full of drinks and canapes. Again, for a product this BIG, we’re talking about an estimate quarter of a billion dollars. This is a campaign that you will see everywhere – from your TV to the side of buses, from the radio waves to promotional tie-ins on video games. When you’ve invested $750m in the production so far, you simply cannot afford not to push it under people’s faces. This is not the sunk cost fallacy, this is a total pragmatic reality: the more you spend on production, the more you’re obligated to spend on marketing.
Though, in reality, a Lord of the Rings TV series does, to some extent, market itself. And the headlines about it being the most expensive TV show ever made (which I’m not sure are carefully curated; I haven’t received a press release saying as much from Amazon Studios) are all good publicity for the show, which launches at the start of September. But over the next ten days, pay even the slightest attention to any platform which publicises entertainment products, and you’ll see Hobbits and Elves and Orcs and whatever else, crawling out of the woodwork (no spoilers, but almost literally).
A word then, finally, on the extent to which this is a gamble that could materially impact the future of streaming. Ever since Netflix’s made the, now questionable, decision to hire Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and bring an adaptation of the BBC’s House of Cards to the arena of US politics, streaming services have had huge clout as progenitors of big-budget television. They took the model perfected by HBO with series like Deadwood, Westworld, Game of Thrones and Band of Brothers and turned it into an industry. Every platform now has a few stinkingly expensive shows. Netflix has The Crown and The Sandman, Apple has The Morning Show and See, Disney+ has, well, everything Disney makes is expensive as hell.
Amazon’s originally programming has been, I think, less successful. The Wheel of Time (up to now its biggest show) was described by CNN’s Brian Lowry as a “poor man’s version of The Lord of the Rings” and generated nothing like the buzz of LOTR or Game of Thrones. All the same, it performed strongly enough with audiences (it is Amazon’s second highest performing original TV show) to guarantee a second and third series renewal. This suggests, to me, that Amazon knows it has the ability to make any show seen. The question is not whether its current subscribers watch it but whether it generates new subscribers. And in this regard, I fully expect The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power to be a huge success. It has two major advantages here: