Amazon Prime’s Huge ‘Lord of the Rings’ Bet Faces the Critics

Can nearly a billion dollars buy Jeff Bezos a game-changing franchise?

As one of the richest men history has ever known, former Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos can at least try to purchase anything he wants, including a trip to space. But can he purchase a hit television show that could change the way people view his streaming platform Amazon Prime Video? 

Not necessarily, but he can purchase the rights to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series, one of the most famous cultural properties in the world, and hope for the best. 

The issue at hand here is that you can’t buy good taste, try as some might. 

Hit television programs come about due to a number of factors, from getting the basics right (strong writers, directors, cast and well-thought out plots and characters) to landing upon the right cultural timing to having the right hook to, well, luck. 

If making a game changing television program – the kind that could drastically change a platform’s fortunes – could be reduced to an easily replicable formula, then every network would have several, and they would seem commonplace instead of like rare entities. 

The mere act of owning the television rights to “Lord of the Rings” doesn’t guarantee Amazon  (AMZN) – Get Inc. Report a hit show. But, it does give it at least a leg up and way to cut through the noise, and can ensure that plenty of fans of the books and Peter Jackson’s films will at least give it a shot. But if the show ultimately doesn’t work, that initial interest will fade fast. You can buy a lot of things, but long-term fan loyalty isn’t one of them.

Amazon Prime Needs a Hit

No matter how you cut it, Amazon is one of the biggest companies on the planet. 

But its streaming service Amazon Prime Video is far from one of the biggest streamers in the game. It’s really not even in the running for the top three, as Netflix, HBO Max and Disney+ have their stations comfortably locked in.

Amazon Prime Video is included with the very popular Prime Delivery service, so you can’t really make a congruent, one-to-one comparison with the subscriber numbers of other streaming services. It’s very unclear how many people, if any, sign up just for the streaming platform, rather than just accept it as a nice bonus when they pay extra to get contact lens solution sent to them overnight.  

Separated from subscriber numbers, Amazon Prime Video’s cultural reach is a bit tough to gauge. The superhero farce “The Boys” has a strong cult following, and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has won Emmys and is certainly a hit, but it’s not the kind of gigantic hit Bezos is looking for. 

Amazon Video Prime shows don’t tend to dominate social media or streaming metric charts like Flix Patrol the way Disney+ and Netflix’s biggest hits do. “Mrs. Maisel” might draw in viewers who pay attention to critical favorites and like to be part of the cultural conversation, and that’s always welcome. 

But Amazon Prime Video already does quite well with that demographic, as it started off as an almost Sundance-like boutique service for indie film like comedies such as “Transparent,” “Fleabag” and “Catastrophe.” 

What the service needs, at least from Bezos’ perspective, are new eyeballs, the sort of mass audiences (i.e. not just media-savy adults) that turned “Game of Thrones” and “Stranger Things” and anything related to Marvel or Star Wars into inescapable juggernauts. 

Amazon Prime

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Reviews so Far

Building a franchise from an original (or original-ish) idea like “Stranger Things” is very much a game of chance, as is nurturing a cultishly loved property like George R. R. Martin’s book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” into a worldwide phenomenon like “Game of Thrones.” 

Bezos has famously said he wanted his own “Game of Thrones,” and Amazon purchased the rights to make a TV series based on “Lord of the Rings” for $250 million in 2017, and then proceeded to spend $465 million on the eight-episode first season of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which premiers this month.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” was developed by the writing team of J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who are mainly known for uncredited work on the film “Star Trek: Beyond.” The show has already earned some suspicion from hardcore Rings fans, who are inclined to view the show as unnecessary IP-mining, and are still salty that a beloved pop culture property that already had a disappointing prequel in Peter Jackson’s three-part trilogy adaptation of “The Hobbit,” is about to get further gutted. 

Just because a studio wants to exploit the fanbase for a beloved property in hopes of making a hit film or TV series, it doesn’t mean that the show can’t possibly find something fresh to say to a new generation of fans while also satisfying old ones. From “The Last Jedi” to “Hannibal,” the right creative team can do wonders with a property that seems worn-out.

Plenty of critics seem to have gone into Amazon’s new series much like fans, wary that in an attempt to win the streaming wars, Bezos will tarnish a brand that many people feel needs to be left alone.

But based on early reactions, critics are cautiously optimistic about the series, and impressed by its epic scope, even if the central characters and plot hasn’t quite come into focus just yet. 

While it’s not clear if Bezos has indeed bought himself a hit yet, the early signs are that he might actually possibly get a return on his investment.

Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall admits he had reservations about the “backwards” creative process, and the fact that the TV series rights were purchased before anyone had an idea for how to make the show an actual show, he admits to being charmed by how fun the epic fantasy is, even if he feels the only character who really pops so far is the elf Galadriel, a younger version of Cate Blanchett’s character from the films, played by Morfydd Clark.

Variety says that you can certainly see the money on your screen. It also points out it is much more family appropriate that “Game of Thrones.”

Shots fired! The Guardian thinks Amazon’s new series puts HBO Max’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of Dragons,” which is getting mixed reviews, to shame, saying it makes it “look as if it has been cobbled together on Minecraft.” 

But not everyone is in on board, as Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich is not impressed by the expensive grandeur, saying “There are ways to do a prequel, and ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ does them all wrong,” noting that “Tolkien’s saga was anti-industrialization, which makes it hilarious that Rings of Power is an Amazon product.”

Geeks of Color appreciated that the cast is much more diverse than you tend to see in fantasy films and TV shows, and thinks this one is built to last.

The Washington Post thinks it looks expensive and beautiful, but finds it all boring and empty and lacking any spirit.

Slashfilm thought it was fun, but not anywhere near the same league as Peter Jackson’s original trilogy. So adjust expectations.

IO9 thinks it all looks gorgeous and wants to see where it all goes.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg calls the show “a promising start,” while also allowing that “it could fall off a precarious cliff at any moment.”

IGN’s Alex Stedman says “It’s not only one of the most gorgeous TV shows I’ve ever seen, it goes toe-to-toe with most big-screen blockbusters.”

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