As summer comes to an end, two expensive fantasy series filled with sorcery, sword fights and fantastical beasts will premiere on rival streaming services.
While it may seem like Amazon Prime Video’s “The Rings of Power” and Warner Bros. Discovery’s “House of the Dragon” should be dueling franchises, as they begin within a couple weeks of each other, the two series serve very different purposes for their respective studios.
The stakes may be higher for “House of the Dragon,” which will go first. It starts Sunday on HBO and streaming service HBO Max, arriving as newly minted CEO David Zaslav is looking for fat to trim.
Cost-cutting measures have become status quo at the recently merged company including layoffs and content eliminations from HBO Max. As Warner Bros. Discovery seeks to save money, it’s also looking to consolidate its streaming services, something that will be expensive and time-consuming.
“House of the Dragon” tells the story of the Targaryen civil war that took place about 200 years before the events portrayed in “Game of Thrones.” It is based on George R.R. Martin’s novel “Fire and Blood.” Unlike Martin’s other books in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, this one features an omniscient narrator who documents the histories 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” arrives Sept. 2. The series is based on material in the appendices of J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental “The Lord of the Rings” novels. “The Rings of Power” focuses on the major events of Middle-earth’s second age, a time of peace that is disrupted 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 targeted at adults, as it portrays visceral acts of violence, nudity and sexual assault. While there are large battles in “The Lord of the Rings,” previous iterations have been more suitable for younger audiences.
Both series will drop new episodes weekly, a strategy that could turn them into must-watch 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 a lot to prove, and to live up to. The final season of “Game of Thrones” left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths, as showrunners wrote beyond the events in the material created by author Martin, who has yet to finish the story in his books.
“There was this, this kind of cloud that descended on the original [‘Game of Thrones,’]” said Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and a pop culture expert. “Not everybody despised it, but certainly there was a lot of the opposite of love. To some extent as we go into all of these, you know, next chapters in the ‘Game of Thrones’ television world, there’s already that sense of a kind 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 has shelved already made projects, analysts and investors see an uncertain future.
If “House of the Dragon,” which cost a reported $15 million to $20 million per episode, doesn’t live up to expectations, the next phase of the Game of Thrones franchise could fizzle out quickly.
“I feel like they have more to prove in the market,” said Dan Rayburn, a streaming and media analyst. “Amazon, they’re not trying to impress investors and when they are, it’s around commerce.”
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 become a much more substantial part of the pop culture zeitgeist.
“House of the Dragon” holds an 85% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 345 reviews, as of Sunday morning. For comparison, the first season of “Game of Thrones” released in 2011 had a 90% “Fresh” rating. In fact, every season except the final season had a score above 90%. Season eight generated a 55% rating.
No rating has been assigned to “The Rings of Power,” yet. The three original “Lord of the Rings” films each scored between 91% and 95%, while the “Hobbit” trilogy generated scores between 59% and 74% from critics.
The road goes ever on
Unlike traditional standalone streaming services, like HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+ or Peacock, Amazon is less beholden than subscriber metrics. The movies, television series and documentaries it offers are a supplemental add-on to its e-commerce site and its cloud computing business.
“The longer you spend watching something on Amazon, the better chance [you’re] going to buy shampoo, toothpaste, a lawn mower, you know, and that’s ultimately their business,” said Paul Hardart, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at NYU Stern School of Business. “And so they’ve got several ways to make money off of you.”
Amazon’s strategy in recent years has been to focus on content that has a passionate built-in audience and will add value to its platform. In addition to snatching up 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 also partnered 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 Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels and another on Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan.
Amazon has a five-season plan for “The Rings of Power,” a plan that will swallow more than $1 billion in production costs and could take nearly a decade to complete. With this investment, it is unlikely that the company will deviate from the series, even if viewership is smaller-than-expected.
Of course, analysts and investors will likely never get viewership data from Amazon, said Rayburn. The company has always been quiet about its streaming numbers, doling out occasional figures for big films or series, but has not translated those numbers into revenue figures.
“We’re never going to know if the Amazon series is successful,” he said. “They will never come out and give us metrics that are tied to revenue.”
Warner Bros. Discovery, on the other hand, may also keep revenue data quiet, but may be more willing to concede viewership data, he said. The company will also “have no choice” but to cancel the show if it doesn’t perform well, “especially with the [recent] pullback of content spend,” Rayburn said.
Of course, the fans will be the final metric. Even though fans criticized the final season of “Game of Thrones,” the series as a whole is still beloved and its ratings were consistently HBO’s highest during the time of its run.
“The Rings of Power” also has a huge baked-in audience. The six theatrical films tied to Tolkien’s novels generated more than $5.8 billion at the global box office, and Amazon – which made its name as a bookseller, after all – saw a resurgence in interest in the author’s texts earlier this year. Even “The Silmarillion,” Tolkien’s esoteric, posthumously published mythos of Middle-earth, reached Amazon’s top chart for the first time ever, signaling a surge in interest ahead of the series.
If audiences rally behind these shows, whether critics like them or not, then both companies will look for ways to expand their respective universes and provide more content, and products, in the future.
It could also be good news for other streaming services dabbling in fantasy. Disney+ will premiere its “Willow” series, a sequel to the 1988 sword-and-sorcery Ron Howard movie, at the end of November.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. Peacock and Rotten Tomatoes is owned by NBCUniversal.