Before it was called Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, it was called “Amazon’s $1 billion Lord of the Rings show.” The headlines around The Rings of Power have always been contextualized by the sheer amount of money behind the TV series for Prime Video. And the financial breakdowns will make your jaw drop: in 2017 Amazon paid $250 million just for the rights from the Tolkien estate with at least a $750 million commitment for five seasons. The first season alone ended up costing $465 million. For comparison: HBO’s Rome series was the most expensive TV production ever, barring talent salaries, in 2005: the first season cost about $100 million.
The stories of The Rings of Power’s expenditures are also wrapped up in film production’s two favorite words: tax breaks. Like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, The Rings of Power received a considerable tax break valued at around $100 million from the New Zealand government for filming in the country. They got the break at a much higher rate than most productions, and yet still abandoned this deal in favor of filming in the UK for future seasons. Clearly, money is no object to this production.
Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke justified the high cost of the first season by explaining they’re “building the infrastructure of what will sustain the whole series.” The studio has every intention of investing years into this show and putting every last dollar to use. So with a budget of the annual GDP of the African island nation of Comoros being committed to bring Tolkien’s world to life, does the show actually feel like a billion dollars put to use?
The truth is that the show does look incredible. The small details that make a fantastical world feel beautiful are everywhere. Detailed armors and costumes stand out, but the tiniest twigs and branches that the Harfoots use are where Amazon’s money really shines. The grand establishing shots that show off the natural beauty of the world alongside impressively built cities and villages brings a cinematic quality to the show that TV has been trying to emulate for years. And the VFX, of which 9,500 shots were completed, is on par with the best film productions and even better than most Disney outputs in the past few years. There’s a sense while watching The Rings of Power that the show needed to look good. Any inkling of cheapness and the crew would be ridiculed from every part of the internet for the “billion dollar show” to come out no better than an average Netflix production.
And yet, The Rings of Power still pales in comparison to what should be possible with that amount of money. It’s inevitable to compare The Rings of Power to The Lord of the Rings series, which set a high bar for what can be done to bring fantasy to life. The budget for all three films came to just less than $300 million and is considered one of the great feats in filmmaking: 48,000 pieces of armor, 10,000 real arrows, 1,800 Orc body suits, and battles with 250 extras!
But the most valuable thing a production can buy with their money is not people or product, it’s time. The first season of The Rings of Power went from writing to airing in less than 3 years while The Lord of the Rings spent 2 years in pre-production before any footage was shot. But with such a substantial investment, I doubt anyone at Amazon wanted to spend too long just planning the show. (Amazon bought the rights and the commitment to making a series in 2017; they had no idea what the actual show would be yet). What could The Rings of Power have done with an extra year just to design and imagine the world they had a blank check to make?
I’ll never know the answer because The Rings of Power is not just a TV show, it’s just one path in Amazon’s desire for complete control over culture and commerce. Mark Sweney in The Guardian put it succinctly: “Amazon’s TV strategy is supposed to support a wider strategic objective: get people to buy more stuff.” If you move your mouse or press a button while watching The Rings of Power, an Amazon overlay will invite you to buy Tolkien’s books or provide snippets of The Silmarillion to pique your interest. The Rings of Power is the synergy between Amazon’s vertical and horizontal integrations. They want to own every possible sector and every possible step down the line.
The Rings of Power is just the latest development in the Streaming Wars for supremacy. Having a big name brand and eye-catching content is better than any slow approach. When Amazon bought the rights in 2017, they were coming off several major scandals and were generally considered low on the production ladder compared to Netflix. Putting record-breaking dollars behind a wildly beloved piece of intellectual property is a good way to get people talking about your streaming offerings instead of the true cost of your two-day shipping.
But The Rings of Power is not just a vapid piece of “content” that is inherently tied to a multi-year marketing strategy. The show was created by J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay who pitched the series to Amazon with just a few film credits. They got this show made through their passion for the subject matter. In his interview with GamesRadar about the production, director J.A. Bayona said about Galadriel and Elrond’s long dialogue scene in Episode 1, “But doing that scene, I knew it was not about the set pieces. That was what the show is about.” The Rings of Power is made by people who love Tolkien and seem absolutely delighted to be able to tell compelling stories in a fantastical world. It’s not about maximizing the amount of spectacle with their endless dollars. They find the joy in the little pieces of lore and storytelling that drove Tolkien to write pages upon pages about trees.
The sheer amount of money being spent to bring a couple of passionate people’s world to life in stunning resolution shows the actual cross section of The Rings of Power’s role as a TV show. It draws to mind a quote from an internal memo at Paramount in 1982 where Michael Eisner (future Disney CEO) wrote “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement. We must always make entertaining movies, and, if we make entertaining movies, at times, we will reliably make history, art, a statement or all three.” For all the press The Rings of Power got for bringing diversity to Tolkien’s world or how beautiful it looks, all these things are incidental in Amazon’s real goal to make money. TV is a business, but The Rings of Power feels more like a product than most shows because it has and always will be discussed in the context of that $1 billion price tag. It could have been made for less and still looked wonderful and been driven by passionate people. All the beauty, all the headlines, it’s just a part of the marketing strategy.
The most disappointing part of The Rings of Power is that even with all this money, Amazon couldn’t buy the world’s attention. Streaming numbers have not been released but based simply off online buzz and anecdotal conversations, HBO’s fantasy rival House of the Dragon appears to be wildly more popular. You can put The Rings of Power on your homepage, you could make the box of every Prime delivery say “WATCH THE RINGS OF POWER,” you could even have everyone’s Alexa sing Howard Shore’s score constantly until an episode starts playing. But genuine excitement for a project has to be felt through the screen and passed between people.
So what does it mean to spend $1 billion on a show? It means things are only going to go up more and more. The streaming world is accelerating and the ones who will go the fastest are going to be the ones that have the most money to burn. Amazon has the resources to blow a billion dollars, does Netflix? Does Paramount?
Amazon hyped up The Rings of Power as a risk but I don’t believe that. Salke said the project was “not for the faint hearted” and the series was often described as a “bet” or “gamble” in the press. But The Rings of Power has all the risk of going all in on a poker hand when you own a stake in the casino. Amazon passed on tax breaks, they spent the money to build up a streaming platform they hadn’t invested much attention to over the years, and the company reportedly makes $1.29 billion dollars a day! Digital researcher Andrew Hare described Amazon’s approach to the success of the show as being “worth it for them to see how this shot lands.” Success will back up the prevailing strategy that you can buy attention through IP and acquisitions. Failure means Amazon has to pivot their streaming strategy and reconvene their Idea Men again. Either way, the only people who lose are the shows that thought they were important to Amazon when really they’re just the latest corporate approach in a binder of many.
I don’t want The Rings of Power to fail because I genuinely like the people behind it. I don’t want The Rings of Power to succeed because I don’t think the message that you can buy yourself cultural legitimacy through IP is the right path. But with viewership numbers secret and Amazon already committing to further seasons, it seems like it will be a while until we know how the story of the billion dollar series really turns out. Maybe all the effort, teamwork, and passion will come together to create a powerful show that can rule them all. Or maybe The Rings of Power is destined to be lost to time at the bottom of a river with all the other content that didn’t survive the Streaming Wars.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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