Markella Kavenagh’s experience on the set of rings of power was unlike anything she says she has worked on before. For an adaptation based on the fantastic myth of JRR Tolkien The Lord of the Rings, the Aussie actor – who plays the hobbit Elanor (Nori) Brandyfoot on the show – expected a lot of studio work, CGI and green screens.
Instead, what would be the most expensive TV series ever made did what it set out to do – went all out.
“They kind of built the foundation literally for us,” Kavenagh told CBC News of the massive on-site construction done for the Amazon Prime Video show, which premiered on Friday.
“They built all of these sets for us. They made it as real as possible, and we were able to just walk in and react to it, really.”
Massive budgets changing the landscape
This level of production is hardly surprising; it’s just another big-budget series among a sea of others, slowly but surely changing the television and film landscape.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, an avowed Tolkien fan, had his company acquire the rights to the Lord of the Rings‘ annexes for an amount of 250 million US dollars. Appendices are extra information that Tolkien included at the end of his books, and because of that, Amazon doesn’t even have the ability to include information from the books main story or his prequels like The Hobbit.
And with the first season of a five-season run costing around US$465 million (subsequent seasons, while still very expensive, may require slightly reduced budgets as producers will be able to use existing construction and costumes), rings of power may cost the studio over a billion US dollars.
While that would put it in league with the most expensive series on the market, it’s far from the only one. According to Variety, game of thrones cost HBO around $100 million per season over its eight seasons between 2011 and 2019. The first two seasons of Netflix’s royal drama The crown cost around $130 million, which the BBC says is comparable to the real cost of the royal family for the British government.
Likewise, Netflix stranger things The fourth season cost $40 million per episode over its nine episodes. HBO Max Dragon Housewhich debuted only a week before rings of powerwas a relatively cheap $200 million according to Variety — a similar figure, although slightly lower, than Series toured in Alberta The last of us.
There is also Disney+ Wanda Vision, AppleTV See and another upcoming Amazon production, Citadel. This project, of Captain America and avengers directors of the Russo Brothers, has a budget that would reach more than $200 million for just seven episodes – the second most expensive show ever made, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
New era for television
While the television industry has always been big business, single-season budgets that dwarf Hollywood blockbusters (for comparison, the budgets of both Top Gun: Maverick and The Batman were just under $200 million) was not the norm.
And screenwriter and University of Georgia film and television professor Neil Landau explained that it’s not just the money invested in these shows that has changed, but the way production companies — and above all, streamers – see them.
From 2010, points of sale such as the New York Times, Vulture, the wall street journal and vanity lounge noted the increasing quality of television broadcasts as breaking Bad, Thread and Mad Men on film.
But where it used to be primarily one-of-a-kind cable TV shows among mostly closed series, that’s no longer the case. Extensive serialized, cinematic shows are becoming the norm for production companies and show writers, who are beginning to view television as an entirely new genre.
“They call themselves filmmakers,” Landau said. “They shoot a feature film every week. You know, they don’t follow the formula or a model. It’s extremely cinematic television for writers.”
That, Landau said, came from the shift from network and cable TV to streamers — who don’t need commercial breaks or strict time blocks that have often led to necessarily stereotypical storylines. They also don’t have the same risk of viewers leaving after the first few minutes of an episode, allowing them to write more cinematic stories as streaming services know audiences are likely to stick around. their ecosystem, whether or not they like a particular show.
But as streaming has become the dominant means of media consumption by the public, the field has become crowded. Since Netflix was the only option for most people looking to stream content, studios would license their content to be hosted there.
“That’s no longer true,” Landau said, noting that studios like Disney, Apple and HBO have all chosen to create their own platforms instead of turning to Netflix. “[Audiences are] on all platforms. So now it’s like, who’s going to make the most noise to get the eye’s attention when there’s over 500 choices?”
How to “cut the clutter of streaming wars”
Matthew Belloni, former editor of The Hollywood Reporter and founding partner of media outlet Puck, says this drives studios and streamers to spend big on flagship series. The name of the game is to have something remarkable enough to bring the audience into the ecosystem.
And for Amazon in particular, Belloni said, making money on rings of power or any other series is mostly an afterthought. Bezos (who joked in 2016 that when Amazon wins a Golden Globe, “it helps us sell more shoes”) has a business that’s much more than a streaming service. It – and the vast majority of other streaming services, which are mostly offshoots of more diverse businesses – doesn’t need to make a profit on its shows.
This is what allowed Amazon to spend as much as it did on rings of powerand prompted an advertising campaign that Belloni likened to “a traditional film-style press rollout on steroids”.
As long as rings of power captures attention – either through cinematic storytelling or sheer curiosity at its high price tag – it will have done its job. And, according to Belloni, it seems to be working.
“The success of this show will validate the strategy to go big,” Belloni said. “And… if anything, everyone is learning from HBO Max’s experience with game of thrones and Dragon House, that is the way to go. That these big, big projects that get media coverage like this are the way to reduce the clutter of the streaming wars.”
Canadian independent film risks being overwhelmed
But Toronto film and television producer Marina Cordoni says success comes at a price for films, especially Canadian films.
During pandemic shutdowns, and even after, theaters have struggled to survive and turn a profit. This has made it infinitely more difficult for films to make a profit. And while blockbusters can weather the storm and successfully attract an audience, Cordoni said it’s nearly impossible for independent films to find their audience.
At the same time, the tendency for people to stay home to watch shows has led to the proliferation of mostly American, cinematic-style long series – largely to the detriment of local films.
“All I hear from the networks being the traditional networks and/or the streamers is that they are moving away from the cinema and focusing on the series,” she said. “Streamers now have a monopoly on audiences because people don’t need to leave their homes.”
If this continues, she says, it could have serious consequences for cinema.
“Otherwise,” she said, “I believe we will lose it and we will lose our place in the world, in a sense, on the world stage.”