When Amazon debuted its highly anticipated Most Expensive TV Series Ever Made — The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power last fall — the company had to contend with a bothersome rival from Warner Bros. Discovery: the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. Warners picked a debut date for its prestige TV drama just 12 days after Amazon’s $1 billion gamble launched, ensuring nonstop media and fandom comparisons, many of which were less favorable to the family-friendly Rings. For Amazon, the head-to-head rivalry was all the more galling because Warners is a minority licensee stakeholder in Rings, so they’re ostensibly supposed to be on the same side. Team Rings’ public spin concerning the matchup went like this: None of this matters because these shows are totally different.
All of which made the Feb. 23 announcement by Warners almost Westeros-level brutal: Now the studio is going to make The Lord of the Rings content, too.
As Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav declared in the company’s earnings call, Warners Bros. and New Line Cinema made a multiyear deal with Embracer Group to make new Lord of the Rings movies. The reveal comes at a precarious time for Warners, with the studio admitting a $2.1 billion loss in Q4. Like many studios, the company seems to be circling its wagons ever tighter around familiar IP, focusing on surefire brands like DC. Though there are no scripts yet, one insider suggests to that Warner Bros. hopes to turn LOTR into a Star Wars-like franchise.
The move comes two decades after director Peter Jackson’s hugely popular The Lord of the Rings saga, which won 17 Oscars. Now Jackson — and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — are the precious talent Warners hopes to get on board with its efforts after Amazon seemingly fumbled its courtship of the filmmaker (Jackson told THR that Amazon had reached out to him about its series, but then — after the company’s executive shake-up — he was never sent any scripts). Sources say Jackson and Walsh were very frustrated that so many believed they were involved with Amazon’s show, and are now engaging with Warners/New Line, curious as to how they’ll be stewards of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legacy.
The dealmaking was sparked by Embracer taking over Middle-earth Enterprises from the Saul Zaentz Company last fall, which gave the Swedish video game company the adaptation rights to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books. The takeover stemmed from a lawsuit between Zaentz and Warner Bros. over whether the studio was fulfilling its development obligations to hold onto its license. (Warners had put into production an animated title, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim, to try to meet its fulfillment, which Zaentz deemed insufficient.)
At any rate, Embracer has now taken over Zaentz’s position and settled with the studio. Behind the scenes, Warners’ film division, run by Pam Abdy and Michael De Luca, has been striving to keep Amazon from blurring the lines too much between its LOTR franchises and the TV series (while the streamer took steps such as hiring the movies’ composer, Howard Shore, to score its main title theme).
Which leaves a key question moving forward: Is Middle-earth big enough for the ambitions of Warners and Amazon? Studio insiders suggest Warners’ focus on LOTR and Harry Potter and its recent signing of Akiva Goldsman and M. Night Shyamalan smack of nostalgia for the early 2000s. “It’s a sign of desperation, they want to make it seem like they are the studio of old,” one insider scoffs. “The Hobbit didn’t leave people wanting more.”
While Amazon has publicly made a 50-hour commitment to Rings of Power and is now filming a second season. According to newly released performance data, Amazon contends the debut season is the streamer’s all-time most watched series, that Rings was seen in part by at least 100 million people and that it drove more Prime Video sign-ups than the company’s four next-biggest originals combined. Yet the show struggled for widespread fandom acceptance and its mixed-to-positive critic reviews suggested there was room for improvement. Showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne have acknowledged the ambitious show’s start-up stumbles and have pledged a bigger and better season two. Observers say if Amazon is so bullish on Tolkien, it’s curious the company didn’t snatch up the Zaentz rights themselves to avoid all this and establish true Tolkien dominance (the sale closed just before the show launched). Some wonder if the studio will continue marching forward with its five-season plan if the show’s public perception doesn’t notably improve.
Once again, folks are emphasizing what’s different: Warners’ rights cover Tolkien’s Third Age — which includes fan-favorite characters Gandalf, Aragorn and the hobbits and covers the war over the One Ring — while Amazon is exploring Tolkien’s lesser-known Second Age.
That creative division presents challenges for both sides. Amazon has to make its epic series out of a period Tolkien wrote little about, while Warners has to figure out how to make movies from a time whose best stories were covered by recent films. Unlike Marvel and DC, which lean on decades of stories from comic books, or even Star Wars, with its central tale and sprawling galaxy of vagueness to fill in, Tolkien’s finest quality is his most vexing for adapters: The world is hugely detailed yet mainly built to support two well-worn tales, and even minor deviations from the lore spark fandom backlash. The result could leave two behemoth studios feeling like they’re spending billions to fight over Tolkien’s creative lembas bread crumbs.
Kim Masters and Borys Kit contributed to this report.