Promos for HBO MAX Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon (L) and Prime Video Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
HBO Max | Amazon
As summer draws to a close, two expensive fantasy series full of sorcery, sword fighting and fantastical beasts will premiere on competing streaming services.
While it may seem like Amazon Prime Video’s The Rings of Power and Warner Bros. Discovery’s House of the Dragon were meant to be dueling franchises given that they start within a few weeks, the two series serve greatly different purposes for their respective studios.
The stakes could be higher for “House of the Dragon,” which will go first. It starts Sunday on HBO and streaming service HBO Max as new CEO David Zaslav goes in search of fat to trim.
Cost-cutting measures have become the status quo at the recently merged company, including layoffs and the removal of content from HBO Max. As Warner Bros. Discovery tries to save money, it’s also looking to consolidate its streaming services, which can be expensive and time-consuming becomes.
House of the Dragon tells the story of the Targaryen Civil War, which took place approximately 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones. It is based on the novel “Fire and Blood” by George RR Martin. Unlike Martin’s other books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, this book features an omniscient narrator documenting the stories based on collected accounts of events. In some cases, these stories contradict each other and there are multiple versions of events.
Amazon Prime Video’s “The Rings of Power” will be released on September 2nd. The series is based on material in the appendices of JRR Tolkien’s monumental novels The Lord of the Rings. “The Rings of Power” focuses on the major events of the Second Age of Middle-earth, a time of peace disturbed by the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron. It takes place thousands of years before the start of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which filmmaker Peter Jackson turned into separate blockbuster trilogies earlier this century.
While both series have mature themes, Martin’s work is more adult-oriented, as it depicts acts of visceral violence, nudity, and sexual assault. While there are big battles in The Lord of the Rings, previous iterations were more suited to younger audiences.
Both series will be releasing new episodes weekly, a strategy that could make them essential event TV and keep audiences talking and speculating about what’s to come.
You win or you die
For Warner Bros. Discovery, the second entrant in its Game of Thrones franchise has much to prove and fulfill. The final season of Game of Thrones left many fans with a sour taste, as showrunners wrote about the events in footage created by author Martin, who has yet to finish the story in his books.
“There was this kind of cloud that descended on the original [‘Game of Thrones,’]said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor and pop culture expert. “Not everyone despised it, but certainly there was a lot of the opposite of love. To some extent, as we move into all of these next chapters in the Game of Thrones television world, there’s already a sense of some sort of compromise.”
At the time, HBO was owned by AT&T. Now Discovery has merged with Warner Bros. and new owners have a new streaming strategy. As the company quietly pulls shows and films from HBO Max and puts projects on hold that have already been completed, analysts and investors see an uncertain future.
If House of the Dragon, which is rumored to cost $15 million to $20 million per episode, doesn’t live up to expectations, the next phase of the Game of Thrones franchise could quickly fizzle out.
“I feel like they have more to prove themselves in the market,” said Dan Rayburn, a streaming and media analyst. “Amazon isn’t trying to impress investors, and when it is, it’s about trading.”
Of course, the opposite is also true. If the Game of Thrones prequel is a critical hit, Warner Bros. Discovery could see this fledgling franchise becoming a much more integral part of the pop culture zeitgeist.
“House of the Dragon” has a freshness rating of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes from 177 reviews. For comparison, the first season of Game of Thrones, which released in 2011, had a 90 percent fresh rating. In fact, every season except the final season had a score of over 90%. The eighth season received a rating of 55%.
“The Rings of Power” has not yet been assigned a rating. The three original Lord of the Rings films each scored between 91% and 95%, while the Hobbit trilogy scored between 59% and 74% from critics.
The road keeps going
Unlike traditional standalone streaming services like HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+, or Peacock, Amazon is less committed than subscriber metrics. The movies, TV series, and documentaries it offers are a complementary addition to its e-commerce site and cloud computing business.
“The longer you look at something on Amazon, the better your chances [you’re] They’re going to buy shampoo, toothpaste, a lawnmower, you know, and that’s ultimately up to them,” said Paul Hardart, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “And so they have multiple ways to make money off you.”
Amazon’s strategy over the past few years has been to focus on content that has a passionate, engaged audience and adds value to the platform. In addition to acquiring the rights to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings supplemental material in 2017 for an estimated $250 million, the company recently bought MGM Studios for $8.5 billion, giving it access to James Bond, the Rocky franchise and “The Silence of the Lambs.”
It has also teamed up with Dungeons and Dragons media group Critical Role to create an animated series based on one of the group’s campaigns, and has created its own series based on A League of Their Own, one based on it on the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child and another on Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan.
Amazon Studios has shared its first image of its upcoming untitled Lord of the Rings series, due out September 2, 2022 on its streaming service.
Amazon has a five-season plan for The Rings of Power, a plan that will cost more than $1 billion in production and could take nearly a decade to complete. With this investment, the company is unlikely to stray from the series, even if viewership is lower than expected.
Of course, analysts and investors will likely never get viewership data from Amazon, Rayburn said. The company has always been quiet about its streaming numbers, occasionally handing out numbers for big movies or series, but hasn’t converted those numbers into revenue numbers.
“We will never know if the Amazon series is successful,” he said. “They’re never going to come out and give us metrics tied to sales.”
Warner Bros. Discovery, on the other hand, may also be keeping revenue data private but may be more willing to admit viewership data, he said. The company will also have “no choice” but to cancel the show if it’s not doing well, “especially with that.” [recent] withdrawing content spending,” Rayburn said.
Of course, fans will be the final metric. While fans criticized the final season of Game of Thrones, the series as a whole is still popular and its ratings have consistently been HBO’s highest throughout its run.
“The Rings of Power” also has a huge, burned-in audience. The six feature films based on Tolkien’s novels have grossed more than $5.8 billion at the global box office, and Amazon – which has made a name for itself as a bookseller, after all – saw a resurgence of interest in the author’s writing earlier this year. Even The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s esoteric, posthumously published myth of Middle-earth, topped Amazon’s charts for the first time ever, signaling a surge of interest leading up to the series.
As audiences rally behind these shows, whether critics like them or not, both companies will look for ways to expand their respective universes and offer more content and products in the future.
It could also be good news for other streaming services that dabble in fantasy. Disney+ will premiere its Willow series, a sequel to Ron Howard’s 1988 Sword and Magic film, in late November.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. Peacock and Rotten Tomatoes is owned by NBCUniversal.