The debut of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Prime Video is in many ways a new age of Middle-earth adaptation. Set firmly in the Second Age, thousands of years before the events of the The Hobbit, this TV series sets out to explore the the age of settlements in Middle-earth when the civilizations of elves, men and dwarves were at their peak.
It’s an era many Tolkien fans never expected to see on screen, as J.R.R. Tolkien had only bullet-pointed the big things that end up relating to the events of the Fellowship. So how did a TV series based on the appendices, or notes at the end of The Return of the King, end up with a billion dollar budget?
Let’s look back:
November 15, 2017
In a surprise announcement nobody saw coming, Amazon and the Tolkien Estate announce a new alliance — the TV series rights to The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings books, and everything contained in them. The deal included tons of stipulations:
- Only a TV series, no films or made-for-TV-movies
- Five-season commitment
- Multiple TV series are OK
- Must be in production within two years (to avoid development issues like what happened with The Hobbit films)
- Cannot retell what’s been told on screen
- Tolkien Estate or family must be involved
- Additional rights to characters and stories may be available on a case-by-case basis
- $1 billion budget for Season 1 (including the rights purchase price)
How does this differ from the rights Peter Jackson used to win all those Oscars? J.R.R. Tolkien had sold the film rights to United Artists (founded by Charlie Chaplin) back in 1968 to help his family cover any death & estate taxes that were to come upon his passing. Later he claimed it was his own naivety that these rights were sold in perpetuity — basically for all time. The film rights would never again revert back to the Tolkien family for total control, and Saul Zaentz bought those rights from UA in 1976, immediately making animated films from Rankin & Bass and Ralph Bakshi, then later working with Peter Jackson. Saul Zaentz died in 2014, his LOTR rights were sold to Embracer Group in 2022, and Amazon acquired United Artists/MGM in 2022.
The only thing not included in those forever rights were to a TV series “over 8 episodes long”, and the family realized TV production may actually be able to tell some stories at quality and scale. They requested pitches from all of Hollywood, and it was Jeff Bezos personally who shared his love for the books and offered an amount showing that passion: $250 million. It was perfect timing as the streaming wars were just heating up, and Amazon had just created a department called “Amazon Studios” which had been searching for a major franchise to use as the tentpole and foundation for their video experiment.
Christopher Tolkien announces he is handing over management of Middle-earth to the next generation. His life-long focus on the expansion of Middle-earth was primarily through book form. With his oversight, the deal with Amazon was done, creating a canvas for the next generations of Tolkien family to make their mark on the Legendarium. Christopher Tolkien would pass on to greener shores three years later in January 2020, at the age of 95.
After receiving Spy Reports, TheOneRing.net reports that Amazon’s massive TV series will be about YOUNG ARAGORN. The single-sourced news breaks the internet and trends above the royal baby’s birth, but is never confirmed by the studio. Four years later, ESQUIRE confirms the early rumors as one of many pitched to the studio.
Dream job confirmed! Writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay announced as the showrunners for the Lord of the Rings TV series. While unknown to any fan, and with an empty IMDb credits page except for an unproduced Star Trek script, these guys were well known to Hollywood insiders as insanely talented script doctors (a job that never gets credited) and Tolkien uber-geeks. They couldn’t help but be compared to another big fantasy show with two unknown showrunners: Game of Thrones.
After nearly a year of of silence, innuendo and discourse, LOTR on Prime springs to life with a single tweet: Welcome to the Second Age. A map is revealed showing Númenor, a place fans never thought they would ever see.
Who’s in charge of LOTR? Amazon drops a surprise creative team video introducing showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, along with an all-star team of peak TV writers, legendary Tolkien artist John Howe, and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey.
The inclusion of Tom Shippey allows fans to breathe a sigh of relief as a trusted name in Tolkien scholarship is on board to make sure the lore is managed fairly. Amazon later chooses to abandon this LOTR youtube channel and posts all future content on the broader Prime Video channel.
Co-Showrunner Patrick McKay announces that LOTR on Prime will shoot in New Zealand.
We needed to find somewhere majestic, with pristine coasts, forests, and mountains, that also is a home to world-class sets, studios, and highly skilled and experienced craftspeople and other staff. And we’re happy that we are now able to officially confirm New Zealand as our home for our series.Patrick McKay & JD Payne, Showrunners
Another sigh of relief from fans! New Zealand IS Middle-earth! Rumors started flying that Amazon really was “getting the band back together” with Weta Workshop, Weta FX and the Oscar-winning teams jumping on board. These rumors were never confirmed by the studio and the rumors persist three years later. In the end, Rings of Power involved 1,500 digital artists around the world with over a dozen VFX studios.
Other TORn Spy Reports start getting picked up by mainstream media as Deadline confirms Howard Shore involved with the new LOTR show. TORn-folk knew about this six months prior!
Production begins in New Zealand as Amazon finally announces the cast of of what NZ locals called “Untitled Amazon Project.”
COVID-19 takes the world by storm. Production is shut down as the entire island nation of New Zealand goes into lockdown. Nobody is allowed into the country.
Summer (or NZ Winter) 2020
Production resumes in NZ under new pandemic protocols, one of the first countries in the world to get back to work. Tons of movies & TV shows try to film in NZ but find that LOTR is so large it has hired nearly all the best entertainment people in the entire country. The country’s covid-zero policy limits who can fly into the country on a very selective basis with long hotel quarantines. This in effect leaves the LOTR creative team to film the show they want with minimal studio involvement (Amazon Studios are based in Los Angeles). It also limits what marketing can do, as there are no press set-visits due to lockdown. The entire show basically becomes a big dark secret and leaks are few and far between.
Reports of nudity in Amazon’s LOTR show reach fever pitch. Based on casting descriptions for background extras “comfortable with sheer clothing” and the hiring of an “intimacy coordinator” the fan reaction was loud and swift. Clifford “Quickbeam” Broadway eloquently laid out the responsibility to the lore here on TORn.
Show synopsis leaks to the TheOneRing.net as this site begins to receive bits of information from people excited about the work they are doing on the production.
TORn reports that Tom Shippey is off the project, later confirmed by Dr. Corey Olsen (The Tolkien Professor), beginning a long and tense conversation between fans and studio. In the absence of official releases, incomplete information will continue to fill the air for the next year and a half.
In the weeks after we reported several other high-profile departures include lead designer Rick Heinrichs, the pause or possible disbanding of the writers room, and an unsubstantiated narrative began taking form of a troubled production playing loose with lore.
The first big LEAK! Sourced from numerous spy reports over a few months, TORn reports on several details for the first time including:
- Harfoots and who’s playing them (Lenny Henry!)
- Celebrimbor recasting
- Orc concentration camps
- Elves have short hair
Whereas we had a constant trickle of information and leaks during Peter Jackson’s productions, this was an explosion of information on the secretive show — and a method of delivery that Amazon would employ for official releases going forward.
Aug 2 – Untitled Amazon Project (UAP) wraps production in New Zealand with a massive party for the large crew & cast. NZ is still in lockdown with strict restrictions on travel into the country.
Aug 3 – First OFFICIAL image from the LOTR show is released featuring… the light of the Two Trees before the First Age! No context is provided of who the foreground character is or what we are looking at, only that it is a still from the opening of the first episode. Fans debated what is going on as this is clearly not the Second Age, not Numenor, not even in the Middle-earth map they had released earlier. Does Amazon have rights to this era? What story are they telling? Without any context, an all-star fan group spent hours analyzing every pixel.
Aug 12 – Amazon Studios in Los Angeles announce Season Two production is moving to the UK – allegedly to the surprise of all involved including actors, producers, vendors, workshops and even the NZ government who had offered a generous tax break on the basis of a production keeping kiwis employed for multiple seasons.
An unmarked package arrives at TORn HQ — a wooden box with a copy of the complete LOTR saga — and leather bookmark at the first page of the Appendices. We confirm for the first time that Amazon’s rights begin and end within the pages of that one book — The Lord of the Rings (and any Second Age references they might glean from The Hobbit) — but every single word is up for expansion. For example , the two-sentence mention of Harfoots in Chapter One begat an entire storyline for a set of TV show characters.
The title of the show, after nearly 5 years of mystery, is revealed to be The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Amazon reawakens with a new name — Prime Video — and launches a deluge of official releases
Feb 3 – 22 character posters given to 22 influencer and media outlets (without context of who the torsos belong to) keep fans guessing who and what we are looking at.
Feb 10 – Vanity Fair publishes a FIRST LOOK with photos from the production, interviews with the showrunners, and a complete overview of the billion dollar mysterious show. TORn chatted with the co-writer of the article for even more details.
Feb 13 – Super Bowl trailer. FINALLY some footage! We spent 6 hours analyzing the trailer!
Feb 15 – The infamous “Superfans” video
While TORn parterned with some of the best voices in fandom for an epic 6-hour trailer review livestream featuring Ph.Ds, tiktokers, studio and media execs, stan twitter and lore YouTubers, Prime forged in secret another Super Bowl trailer review. Flying out dozens of fans to the Spanish island Mallorca to an old castle ruins in the middle of the night, they showed them the trailer, then filmed an hour long discussion about the excitement of the trailer. But the final edit posted to YouTube was three minutes of cringe with very little discussion about Tolkien or Middle-earth, instead focused on inclusion and diversity. Participants in the video were shocked how it was edited. While nearly all fans agree that representation matters, the video was tone deaf for the time and place and target audience. Given the frustrations of a near-blackout of information for three years combined with a series of no-context releases, it was a stunningly bad effort that was quickly deleted. They do know that what matters to Tolkien fans is… Tolkien. Right?
Online discourse really heated up in the wake of this monster drop of releases. A lot of the old, tired voices of hate and bigotry — some of the same ones that took issue with Ian Mckellen playing Gandalf because he was gay — now started criticizing the idea of diverse cultures in Middle-earth. To be clear, Tolkien rarely describes skin color, and he made a conscious effort to write stories that everyone around the world could see themselves in. This would come to dominate social media chatter about the show for the next six months, but cooler minds knew better than to focus on it.
Prime Video flies out Tolkien influencers from around the world to London for a preview of the show. The “London 30” represented nearly 10 million core followers from eight different countries, with over a dozen published books on Tolkien between them. This second effort at working with Tolkien fans went much better, with an intimate setting and controlled environment. Some got more enthusiastic about the show, but more importantly most everyone came away with confidence in the creative leadership — a vacuum that had existed since the Tom Shippey news a year earlier.
Empire Magazine reveals John Howe is one of the concept artists behind the show.
E.W. reveals that Simon Tolkien is the lore expert guiding the writers room and decisions made with the direction of the storylines.
The Rings of Power debuts a full proper trailer online while San Diego Comic-Con fans get an extended look at some extra footage, plus a giant Hall H panel with the showrunners and actors hosted by Stephen Colbert. Fandom seems united in positive impressions! They have a balrog! Prime Video also collaborated with TheOneRing.net for an SDCC party which the entire cast attended. It was the first time fans really got to see and know who is doing this next LOTR thing, and it was the first time many in the cast had interactions with the fandom. Everyone had a great time as the conversation turned very positive.
Photo credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Separate from Amazon and Tolkien Estate, the film rights to LOTR long-held by Saul Zaentz are sold to video game publisher Embracer Group for a rumored $2 billion. Everyone expected Amazon and Jeff Bezos to win the auction for the rights — after all, they had already spent $250 million just for TV rights, half a billion dollars producing one season, and $8 billion for MGM which included some Hobbit rights. Spinoff movies and games are going to happen no doubt, independent of the TV show.
The screenings of power! Prime begins previewing the first two episodes to fans around the world. LA, Mexico City, NYC, Mumbai and London all got big preview event screenings, which fans were invited to.
Then on August 31, Prime Video rented hundreds cinemas in eight countries for free screenings of the two-part pilot directed by J.A. Bayona.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power debuts on Prime Video streaming service at 9pm ET Thursday Sept 1, before settling into its weekly release of 11:59pm ET every Thursday night.
Since that first announcement in November 2017, this five-year journey to TV screens, full of rumors, leaks, fan events and a pandemic, has been an incredible experience for all involved — but especially the hard working cast and crew that have grown closer together through all the trials and tribulations. We can’t help but see many parallels to the Peter Jackson films, where that cast formed lifelong bonds of family and friendship. This new cast of LOTR really feels like a family as we journey into the next five seasons of this Middle-earth adaptation. Congrats to all for a well-reviewed start to the show!
Join episode discussions now and every week on the TORn discord at https://discord.gg/theonering