’The Rings of Power’: The Tolkien Estate Was Sold on Amazon’s Pitch Because of Their Passion Despite Netflix Offering More Money
In November 2017, it was announced that Amazon had acquired the rights to do a Lord of the Rings television series from the Tolkien estate, a project that is now what we know as The Rings of Power. The details were fuzzy at the time, but we may have a clearer picture now of what went down back then.
Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay were on the cover story for the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine, which provided a lot of insight into what is going on behind the scenes at Amazon Studios in regards to The Rings of Power. In addition to including some prospects for the second season, which just began shooting, the story provided a lot of information about the pitches that the Tolkien estate heard back in late 2017 when they were shopping around the TV adaptation. Reports from the time point to the estate reaching out to HBO, Prime Video, and Netflix, and ultimately deciding on the Jeff Bezos-owned company.
Bezos himself is a lifelong Tolkien fan, so he was determined to win the bidding war. The Tolkien estate, according to THR‘s insiders, heard multiple pitches from the different studios. Netflix, for instance, apparently wanted to create a Marvel-like franchise with interconnected spin-off shows focused on characters like Gandalf and Aragorn. That reportedly “freaked out” people inside the Tolkien estate, and the pitch was quickly dismissed. HBO proposed to make a series adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, effectively remaking Peter Jackson’s film trilogy into long-form television. Those familiar with the matter could think that this was something that the estate could be interested in — Christopher Tolkien was famously very critical of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, saying they had “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people”. However, they also turned down this pitch, probably because it was too soon to revisit those grounds.
However, Amazon won over the estate, not with a strong pitch but rather with a seat at the table. They pledged to consult with them on whatever series they would make so that they themselves would continue to be the ultimate protectors of Tolkien’s legacy. In fact, according to the story, it wasn’t even a money issue — the widely reported $250 million figure was actually Netflix’s bid, while Amazon’s number was tens of millions below that. “It was our collective passion and fidelity to Tolkien that really won the day,” Amazon Studios TV co-head Vernon Sanders told The Hollywood Reporter.
Come in, Patrick McKay and JD Payne, two lifelong friends who met on the debate team in junior high. The duo had been working for a few years for Bad Robot punching up scripts that ultimately never saw the light of day. When they started their career, they had told their agent that their dream project would be Lord of the Rings — when they heard that the opportunity was there to do a television series, “a shiver ran through us,” said McKay. He added:
“We had reached a point — we’d been writing movies for 10 years that should have gotten made. Movies where the director was right, the cast was right, the script was right, the title was right and it was a big IP — and it still wasn’t happening. So [we thought] maybe we should try this TV thing.”
Their idea? It can be summed up in a single sentence: “Chronicle the first five minutes of Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring during the course of five seasons.” This is essentially a television adaptation of the events of the Second Age, which had been described by Tolkien in the Appendices to Return of the King. They pitched their idea to Amazon nine different times, and that meant the duo had to come up with the main strokes of all the major storylines for all five seasons pretty much overnight when they were called back for their second meeting. According to McKay, they were told:
“You need to go pitch the whole show — this is your shot. Pitch the entire thing to stay alive for the next round. All five seasons.”
After a very intense session of brainstorming, they had created The Rings of Power:
“When that session of fevered creativity and inspiration ended, we had a moment of silence. I looked at the board like: ‘That’s it, this is what the show wants to be.’ “
The process lasted six months and involved meetings with major Amazon stakeholders and even the Tolkien estate. In one of the meetings, apparently, McKay drew a map of Tolkien’s world and circled a small portion, saying:
“This is everything you’ve seen in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies. [As he started describing other places on the map] ‘There’s so much more story to tell!’”
They were running against more qualified candidates. Other pitches included the Russo Bros. proposing a retelling of the Third Age “as an Aragorn story”, which could mean revisiting the events leading up to and of The Lord of the Rings, but through Aragorn’s perspective. Academy Award-nominated writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) apparently had a Shakesperean take on the material. However, it was McKay and Payne’s ambition, as well as their pitch, that swayed the studio and the estate to go with the less experienced writers. Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke reached that conclusion:
“Hearing them bounce back and forth, they had such a deep connection to the material that was there from the beginning. There was no education you could do for that; it was their natural organic interest.”
At the end of the day, we all won. The Tolkien estate is reportedly very satisfied with The Rings of Power after they kept a close eye on it, and the series lives up to the true potential of what Tolkien wrote by adapting an expansive world and picking up the baton in those places where the writer didn’t dive as deep.
Miguel Fernández is a Spanish student that has movies as his second passion in life. His favorite movie of all time is The Lord of the Rings, but he is also a huge Star Wars fan. However, fantasy movies are not his only cup of tea, as authors like Scorsese, Fincher, Kubrick or Hitchcock have been an obsession for him since he started to understand the language of filmmaking. He is that guy who will watch a black and white movie, just because it is in black and white.