Amazon dropped the latest 2.5-minute trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The ambitious and obscenely expensive (reportedly $465 million for the first season) fantasy show adapts J.R. R. Tolkien’s “Second Age of Middle Earth.” It will launch on September 2, with new episodes dropping weekly. You can see the budget in terms of scope, scale and fantastical effects. I dig the hellish floating corpses shot at 1:15. But it’s also mostly set in new(ish) worlds with primarily unknown actors playing mostly unknown characters amid a story taking place thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The billion-dollar question is whether anyone will care, beyond initial curiosity, in a show that’s merely somewhat related to a once-popular film series. It’s betting on the generic and abstract over the specific.
The Tolkien books have remained popular best-selling, generational touchstones. However, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was an Oscar-winning blockbuster franchise partially because of its comparatively unprecedented quality. It made new fans out of audiences who hadn’t read or knew little about the source material. The Fellowship of the Ring turned general audiences, the kind that perhaps didn’t first realize that Strider and Aragorn were the same person or that the first film was going to end on a cliffhanger, into fans of the specific film trilogy. It’s about making a film or show that appeals to those with little connection to the IP. It’s about a high-concept Jumanji movie that works as a high-concept, well-cast comic adventure. It’s about an Ant-Man movie that plays to audiences unaware that Marvel replaced original director Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed.
The Fellowship of the Ring arrived in late 2001, offering a towering example of fantasy cinema that had never been seen before. Without getting into better/worse, the imagery and action scenes, along with practical magic, well-integrated CGI and actors playing it like historical fiction, put it on par with the Star Wars trilogy and Excalibur. It was sold as a newbie-friendly, horror-infused action fantasy. It featured characters we’d like played by actors we kinda-sorta recognized. It starred “Sallah from the Indiana Jones movies, that guy from A Perfect Murder, that kid from Huck Finn and The Good Son, Magneto from the X-Men movies and Liv Tyler! It would $897 million global and be embraced as a game-changing spectacle. Lord of the Rings grossed $2.93 billion on a combined $400 million budget. Return of the King grossed $1.1 billion and swept the 2004 Oscars.
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’
That success created a fanbase for that specific theatrical trilogy and its primary characters. Mixed reception aside, even The Hobbit prequel trilogy offered a returning Peter Jackson, sky-high production values, and a few returning favorites. Like George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy a decade earlier, it debuted amid a theatrical world where films of its size (along with Michael Bay’s Transformers movies) were rare enough to be automatic events. The Hobbit trilogy earned $2.914 billion on a combined $750 million budget. However, theaters are now almost entirely dependent on mega-budget action fantasies. Thanks to a streaming war, the small screens are filled with big-budget fantasy shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones (which preceded this madness), Netflix’s The Witcher and Amazon’s own The Wheel of Time. Rings of Power will not arrive as a giant among insects but rather just another fish in the sea.
Will IP awareness, sans marquee characters, be enough? Audiences showed up to The Lord of the Rings because they liked Frodo, Sam, Gandolf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas. They showed up to The Hunger Games thanks to Katniss Everdeen and The Twilight Saga for Bella, Edward and Jacob. Audiences who grew up with the Harry Potter films adored the core characters (Harry, Ron, Hermoine, etc.) along with the “kid goes to wizarding boarding school” high concept. Ditto Netflix’s Stranger Things and its marquee characters. Varying quality notwithstanding, the deluge of failed franchises riffing on Harry Potter (The Dark is Rising, The Spiderwick Chronicles, etc.), The Lord of the Rings (The Golden Compass, Mortal Engines, etc.), Twilight (The Host, Beautiful Creatures, etc.) and The Hunger Games (Divergent, The Giver, etc.) mostly bet on “a big-budget fantasy like that other one you liked” without marquee characters.
Promising audiences a new story in a vaguely familiar world before the popular narrative isn’t automatically enough. Most general audiences will watch the trailer and see big-scaled fantasy adventure storytelling with unknown actors playing unknown characters with “Lord of the Rings” in the title. At least speaking theatrically, that route didn’t even always work for Star Wars as we discovered with Solo ($394 million on a $275 million budget in 2018). It only worked once for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ($814 million global in 2016) before the curiosity factor began to wane. I imagine lots of Amazon Prime members will sample the early episodes The Rings of Power. However, unless it’s genuinely superb, many of them will cash out after a sample. More importantly, many who finish season one will decide they don’t care about season two.
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’
We’ve seen this happen in the streaming era, where a big show debuts with loads to free attention, media coverage and active publicity while season two to debut with a whisper. Think, offhand, The Politician, Russian Doll, Girls5Eva, The Babysitter’s Club, Saved by the Bell and Uploaded. They can’t all be The Mandalorian, and I’m curious whether Paramount+’s reportedly popular Halo can keep its momentum in season two. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is still a significant show based on an abstract pitch (a “new” story with characters you don’t know that took place before the story you liked) rather than one rooted in a specific interest or even a marquee character like “Henry Cavill as Sexy Dude Who Grunts and Kills Monsters” or “Baby Yoda.” Some of these new characters need to become as popular as Jon Snow.
It is another chance for streaming to show that it can develop and manage IP any better than conventional studios. Cowboy Bebop and Jupiter’s Legacy were critical and commercial disasters. Halo wasn’t exactly a critical darling. Netflix is already making the Hollywood mistake of arbitrarily rebooting an IP (Death Note) that already failed for them. If Amazon can’t “do it” better than the studios, what value do they offer by developing the various MGM properties (Robocop, Stargate, etc.) into new shows and movies? Of all the companies out there, along with Apple, Amazon can most afford to take a swing of this size and hope it works. There are signs The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is repeating the same mistakes that doomed the films that tried to mimic the success of the original Lord of the Rings.
Rings of Power looks big and expensive, while “just watch it at home” offers an advantage over “drive to theaters” for the casually curious. However, Lord of the Rings will compete with shows inspired by its initial success. There’s an irony in this: Rings of Power is the latest attempt by streaming platforms to find the next Game of Thrones, which was (commercially) inspired by the blockbuster Lord of the Rings series. We’ve learned that the “next Lord of the Rings” is usually nothing like Lord of the Rings. Netflix’s Stranger Things was nothing like HBO’s Game of Thrones, which was nothing like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was nothing like Disney+’s The Mandalorian, which was nothing like Paramount’s Yellowstone. Hell, I’d argue Amazon Prime already has “the next Game of Thrones,” it’s called The Boys, and it’s nothing like Game of Thrones.