Why Amazon Is Making Us Wait for Lord of the Rings

Waiting for Frodo. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Amazon Studios

This story first ran in Buffering, Vulture’s newsletter about the streaming industry. Head to vulture.com/buffering and subscribe today!

Amazon may be known for its two-day package delivery, but when it comes to a blockbuster TV project like Lord of the Rings, the company clearly believes in taking its time. Nearly four years have passed since its Prime Video division announced plans to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary novel for television, but this week, audiences were told the highly anticipated package would take another 13 months to arrive, with a new guaranteed delivery date of September 2, 2022. While such long gestation periods often signal behind-the-scenes trouble for a production, in this case, it is more likely a hint of how ambitious Amazon plans to be in its quest to turn the very costly show into a game-changing hit.

The fact that LOTR is still another year away from hitting screens really shouldn’t come as a shock. Sure, there had been trade paper speculation on a late 2021 or early 2022 premiere. But considering filming on the COVID-delayed first season was still taking place as late as April of this year, those reports always seemed wildly optimistic — particularly given the post-production complexities of such a massive project. What is a bit surprising is that Amazon opted to stake out a specific spot on the calendar so far in advance. Though probably not unprecedented, that’s unusual for TV— even big projects such as LOTR. Normally networks and platforms will keep things vague until two or three months before launch, at most hinting only that a tentpole release will drop in the summer or fall. The longest advance heads-up I can recall in recent years came back on New Year’s Eve 2018, when Netflix revealed a July 4, 2019, arrival for Stranger Things 3. Claiming a date a year or more into the future is a tactic usually reserved for the feature-film world, where studios regularly pencil in premieres for big franchises before a single frame is shot.

Given Amazon shelled out a reported quarter-billion dollars just for the rights to make a new LOTR, it makes sense that the company is treating the show like a movie event. While the date announce was a bit more low-key than might have been expected — a simple press release as opposed to a splashy TV ad or Alexa broadcasting the news to her millions of users as they brushed their teeth — the timing allows the company to head off any press speculation about the status of LOTR. Instead of wondering when the show will finally be a reality, the focus now shifts to the countdown to premiere. And it also gives Amazon’s marketing team maximum flexibility in planning what will almost certainly be a relentless effort to make sure audiences around the world know when the journey back to Middle Earth kicks off.

As for why Amazon chose Labor Day weekend 2022 for the premiere, it could be something as simple as the company sticking with what works. Prime Video’s successful Jack Ryan franchise bowed over the September holiday back in 2018, fantasy adventure Carnival Row debuted there in 2019, and season two of megahit (and Emmy nominee) The Boys did the same last year. Tech companies love them some data, so if the numbers suggest Labor Day weekend is a good time to get folks to sample a show, then there may be nothing more to Amazon’s reasoning here than following said data. Indeed, an Amazon insider tells me the company’s past September successes were absolutely a factor in the scheduling.

But it should also be noted what else is set to happen circa September 2 next year: Prime Video, which has simulcast a selection of Thursday Night Football games for the past few years, will become the exclusive home to the NFL franchise in 2022. So, in addition to selling subscribers (both existing and potential new ones) on LOTR, Amazon will also be looking to get eyeballs on its new football package, at least in the United States. LOTR will obviously be a global event, so there won’t be universal overlap, but having two major tentpoles within days of each other gives Amazon a hell of a sales pitch to lure people into its TV ecosystem. Plus, given episodes of LOTR will debut weekly versus being dropped all at once, you can expect massive cross-promotion — think TNF announcers plugging the show and pre-roll ads on LOTR hyping upcoming games. That couldn’t have happened with a summer 2022 premiere, assuming the episodes will even be ready by then.

Could a subscription change be in the cards? I also have to wonder whether or not Amazon is considering using the combo of TNF and LOTR to change how a Prime subscription works. Right now, there is simply one membership to rule them all: Anyone who subscribes to the company’s free shipping and same-day delivery service gets all the shows and movies housed under the Prime Video banner at no additional charge. By contrast, while Prime membership automatically includes access to a hefty amount of free music and books, Amazon also upsells customers who want a more deluxe digital-content experience, offering them Amazon Music Unlimited and Amazon Kindle Unlimited. If Amazon ever wanted to shake up its video status quo and introduce a new tier of Prime Video, a splashy scripted spectacle such as Lord of the Rings — possibly combined with access to America’s favorite sport — would certainly serve as attractive enticements. I’m not suggesting Prime Video would necessarily become a stand-alone subscription service decoupled from the broader Prime membership. But making subscribers pay just a bit more for the very best original content doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched.

To be clear, Amazon execs haven’t even hinted they are planning such a change. This is simply me thinking out loud about how the company might monetize some incredibly expensive new properties (beyond the ad revenue Amazon will reap from having Thursday football exclusively). Plus, even if something like this were to happen, it seems more likely Amazon would wait until 2023: Altering the basic structure of Prime Video before audiences have even gotten a chance to check out the new LOTR series or adjust to the move of TNF from traditional TV to streaming seems way too risky. It would also be a great way to piss off a bunch of LOTR nerds: I know some Star Trek fans have never gotten over CBS’s decision to immediately put all new Trek shows on what was then called CBS All Access. What seems more likely is that Amazon would up the cost of Prime membership before LOTR and TNF arrive, using these new goodies (and an increasingly ambitious slate of feature films) to justify a big price hike. In the U.S., Prime hasn’t seen a rate increase since spring 2018, so if you’re an Amazon bean counter, you can even argue such a move is overdue.

The IMDb TV Factor Another thing to keep in mind is that Amazon’s totally free streaming service — currently named IMDb TV — is going to be getting a massive upgrade over the next few months. A big wave of original programming — including a courtroom show from Judge Judy — is about to roll out, complementing a bulked-up library of acquired content, such as the Norman Lear sitcoms and movies from Universal. By next September, I think a (hopefully rebranded) IMDb TV will be a much more important part of Amazon’s video portfolio, which in turn could allow Amazon to further distinguish Prime Video as its more precious, er, premium TV brand.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Because of its big budget and long lead time, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of stories over the next year about Amazon’s Big Bet and the Long Road to Lord of the Rings. It’s an understandable narrative given five years is a legit long lead time for television, a medium where historically ideas have moved from pitch to page to local program listings within a year or two, tops. But the gestation period for LOTR is not at all unprecedented, nor does it necessarily signal anything about the project’s eventual success.

Next month, for example, FX will finally reveal its adaptation of Y: The Last Man, an idea first put into development back in October 2015. I have no clue whether the show will be good or bad, but its journey to the screen has been longer (and bumpier than LOTR. Amazon and producer Sony have also taken about five years to bring the epic book series The Wheel of Time to TV; it finally debuts on the service in November, with early buzz positive.

And looking back further in TV history, a good comparison to LOTR might be ABC’s 1983 epic miniseries The Winds of War. The adaptation of Herman Wouk’s classic novel sadly isn’t streaming anywhere, nor does it get rerun on cable much (or at all), so it’s probably been forgotten among anyone under the age of 40. But the Alphabet network paid Paramount Pictures nearly $100 million in 2021 dollars to produce the 18-hour World War II extravaganza, essentially spending $5 million per hour at a time when networks spent less than $1 million per episode on dramas. Getting the project on the air took six years, according to a very detailed account published in Time magazine just before Winds of War’s February 1983 premiere. That sort of lead time was unheard of for TV at the time: ABC’s 1977 miniseries Roots, for instance, debuted less than a year after Alex Haley’s novel was published.

But despite the long development and filming process, Winds was a massive hit and spawned an even more expensive sequel, War and Remembrance. Its development was a bit more streamlined: It only took five years to make.

South Park Comes Home (Sort Of)

Two years ago, ViacomCBS opted for short-term profit over long-term investment when it allowed WarnerMedia’s HBO Max to snatch up streaming rights to one of the company’s crown jewels, Comedy Central’s South Park. Rather than pony up the necessary coinage to keep the franchise in-house, ViacomCBS opted to take $500 million from one of its chief rivals, which has in turn been using the new and old episodes of the long-running Trey Parker and Matt Stone-created animated hit to build HBO Max’s subscriber base. Meanwhile, ViacomCBS’s own streaming service, Paramount+, currently has exactly zero South Park content.

For a company which has described its streaming services as a “house of brands,” not having one of its best-known properties as part of its streaming offering has always seemed a massive mistake. But today, ViacomCBS took a step toward fixing that error: In a deal Bloomberg BusinessWeek says is worth $150 million per year, ViacomCBS simultaneously renewed South Park through 2027 and, perhaps more importantly, struck a deal with Stone and Parker to produce an average of two South Park-branded movies for Paramount+ every year through 2026 (14 in total.) The first movies will stream this year.

Some quick thoughts on this news:

Back in 2019, ViacomCBS execs rationalized the deal with HBO Max by saying its own streaming portfolio wasn’t mature enough to absorb a $500 million hit, and that it made more sense to take WarnerMedia’s money in the short-term as the company bulked up what was then CBS All Access (and is now P+). The downside in this, of course, was that ViacomCBS would be helping one of its competitors grow, repeating the strategy that allowed Netflix to build its base on the back of reruns from outside studios. And that’s sort of what has happened: HBO Max is growing much faster than P+ in the U.S., in part because there’s very little on P+ you can’t find elsewhere, and some very big ViacomCBS content — like South Park — not on the service at all. Two annual South Park movies won’t dramatically change things but they’re a very big step in the right direction, and immediately give the millions of South Park die-hard fans a reason to check out P+.

Most of the HBO Max execs who greenlit the deal with ViacomCBS for South Park reruns are now gone, but I have to imagine the current bosses at the platform aren’t particularly thrilled to know their “exclusive” rights deal for the show has now been breached, at least in spirit if not by the actual letter of the law. I’ve no doubt Parker, Stone, and ViacomCBS have every right to make these movies for P+, but the deal effectively ends the streaming stranglehold HBO Max has had on the franchise since June 2020. Not ideal, considering HBO Max spent a half-billion dollars to be the digital home of South Park.

The biggest question now is whether ViacomCBS spending upwards of $1 billion to keep South Park in production for another six years means it’s more or less likely the show’s library and next-day reruns come home to Paramount+ when the HBO Max deal expires in a couple years. Today’s deal makes clear ViacomCBS is willing to invest big bucks in content, both for Comedy Central and Paramount+. But the company has also shown a penchant for amortizing such expenditures by making its programming available on multiple platforms. Assuming ViacomCBS hasn’t merged or been absorbed by another company within a few years, it wouldn’t shock me to see South Park continue to live on more than one streaming service.

Why Amazon Is Making Us Wait for Lord of the Rings