‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘House of the Dragon’ and TV’s Big Fantasy Gamble

The lights have been dim and the air clouded with mist as a bearded gentleman holding a tall wood employees bade his company to succeed in into a large hearth pit and choose a private dragon egg. Later, as everybody waited their flip to sit down atop the Iron Throne, a girl in an extended Renaissance robe approached them: “Have you learnt any Targaryens? Lannisters? I’m a woman who likes the wealth.”

The frilly activation — boasting a colossal dragon cranium and dozens of actors enjoying palace guards, native drunks and extra — was a part of HBO’s efforts to get the 130,000 attendees at San Diego Comedian-Con excited for “Home of the Dragon,” the primary of what executives dearly hope are many spinoff sequence from probably the most gargantuan hit within the community’s historical past, “Sport of Thrones.”

HBO definitely wasn’t the one community turning the mid-July gathering right into a launching pad for important new style tv. Amazon Prime Video unveiled its monumentally costly fantasy sequence “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Energy” over a number of meticulously choreographed days at Comedian-Con. There was a shock meet-and-greet between 21 members of the solid and J.R.R. Tolkien superfans; a regal personal dinner with the actors, sequence creators J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, executives together with Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke, and invited media; and a virtually two-hour panel in entrance of 6,500 attendees in Corridor H that featured moderator Stephen Colbert (flown in for lower than a day), big wraparound screens, 5 unique clips, and a 25-piece orchestra and 16-person choir performed by composer Bear McCreary.

All of this work — and time and cash — comes at a important second for each reveals, which debut simply weeks aside. And so they’re not alone: The sudden flood of occasion sequence based mostly on massively well-liked fantasy properties begins with Netflix’s “The Sandman,” tailored from Neil Gaiman’s extensively acclaimed graphic novel sequence, which launches Aug. 5. “Home of the Dragon” premieres on Aug. 21; “The Rings of Energy” bows on Sept. 2; and AMC unveils its reimagining of Anne Rice’s seminal Gothic horror novel “Interview With the Vampire” on Oct. 2.

Over the 2010s, fantasy sequence reworked from area of interest TV to a significant cultural drive, driving viewership and successful awards. However there’s one thing totally different about this new crop of premieres. Till now, nearly each style sensation within the streaming age that isn’t produced by Marvel Studios or Lucasfilm — “Stranger Issues,” “Black Mirror,” “The Boys,” “Squid Sport,” even “Sport of Thrones” — has earned its success organically by old school word-of-mouth.

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high: Amazon; Netflix (2); backside: Netflix

However with competitors for subscribers rising fiercer as quarterly experiences obliterate the streaming bubble, media firms have more and more turned to well-known and beloved style franchises, together with Netflix’s “The Witcher” and Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina,” in a hungry seize for IP that they hope comes with a preexisting consciousness and a built-in fan base — and thus, presumably, much less danger.

The chance for fulfillment appears apparent: The 18 Anne Rice novels to which AMC secured the rights have offered greater than 150 million copies globally; Peter Jackson’s trilogies of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” have grossed higher than $5.8 billion worldwide; and “Sport of Thrones” was one of many greatest TV reveals of the previous decade, averaging 44 million viewers per episode throughout all platforms in its ultimate season. Tapping into these fan bases as soon as once more might reap related bounties.

TV has all the time been a enterprise of managing failure, nevertheless, and the possibility for that right here is simply as nice — however would come at a higher expense than your typical primetime cancellation. Between buying the rights from the Tolkien property and manufacturing and advertising and marketing prices, Amazon is prone to spend upwards of $1 billion on simply the eight-episode first season of “The Rings of Energy.” HBO, Netflix and AMC are additionally shelling out small fortunes to compete in a panorama wherein cinematic manufacturing worth and spectacle are seen as preconditions for top-tier success. And that success is way from foreordained.

“They’re, in some ways, land mine initiatives,” says Mark Johnson, the chief producer overseeing AMC’s Anne Rice universe, together with diversifications “Interview With the Vampire” and “Mayfair Witches.” “You’re taking one false step and the entire thing blows up. You do one piece of miscasting, otherwise you make one thing humorous that’s sacrosanct, and also you’ve undone the entire thing.”

Throughout the Comedian-Con panel that includes creator and govt producer George R.R. Martin and the solid of “Home of the Dragon” — probably the most eagerly anticipated occasions of the primary in-person San Diego gathering since 2019 — it grew to become painfully obvious how love for “Sport of Thrones,” which waned in its controversial ultimate season, doesn’t routinely translate to “Home of the Dragon.” The viewers was quiet as Martin, co-showrunner Ryan Condal and the celebs, lots of whom are unknown to U.S. audiences, tried their finest to speak up the present. This was an viewers that is perhaps screaming to see the solid subsequent yr on the ’Con, however they weren’t followers simply but.

Olivia Cooke, who performs one of many central figures on the present, Girl Alicent Hightower, appeared the quickest to understand this as she spoke about her present’s predecessor: “There’s this behemoth that we’re following in its footsteps, and there’s a huge stress that we really feel to present you guys what you need but in addition make it totally different and put our personal stamp on it,” Cooke mentioned in the course of the panel. “We simply hope that this has the identical legacy as a result of, God, we labored our bums off for a yr. I simply hope you prefer it!”

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Milly Alcock and Emily Carey in HBO’s “Home of the Dragon.”
HBO

It’s virtually too simple to pit “The Rings of Energy” and “Home of the Dragon” towards one another within the TV colosseum. However the retailers helped stoke that impression when Amazon introduced the September 2022 premiere date for “The Rings of Energy” a full 13 months prematurely — and HBO subsequently positioned the “Home of the Dragon” debut two weeks forward of that launch.

“Truthfully, my response was ‘In fact they did,’” says Vernon Sanders, international TV chief at Amazon Studios. “If I have been of their sneakers, I in all probability would do the identical factor and need to get out earlier than, versus getting out after.”

Nobody desires to be seen because the dropping gladiator in that battle, so if something, these concerned with each reveals have been at pains with Selection to clarify there isn’t a rivalry between them, pleasant or in any other case.

“What a good time for folks the place you’ve got these two large, iconic worlds that individuals are so invested in and love a lot, to have the ability to discover them on the identical time,” Sanders says.

Provides “Rings of Energy” star Morfydd Clark, who performs the enduring elf Galadriel: “I’m a large ‘Sport of Thrones’ obsessive. It’s a very good time to love fantasy. So I’m happy.”

On the “Home of the Dragon” premiere in Los Angeles, star Matt Smith, who’s pals with Clark, returns the sentiment. “I really like ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he says. “I feel it seems to be fabulous. [Morfydd] is such a unbelievable actor; I can’t wait to see what she’s finished as Galadriel.”

In an interview following the Emmy nominations in mid-July, HBO/HBO Max content material chief Casey Bloys advised Selection that the outlet is focusing on its personal lane. “The one factor that we are able to do is think about our reveals and attempt to make the very best reveals that we are able to,” he mentioned. (The community declined to remark for this story.) “Having ‘Lord of the Rings’ on when ‘Home of the Dragon’ is on, I don’t see it as just one can survive. However I’m additionally not that apprehensive about what anyone else is doing. I can solely think about what we’re doing.”

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Nazanin Boniadi and Ismael Cruz Córdova in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Energy.”
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Bloys’ consideration has definitely been targeted on increasing “Sport of Thrones” for a while: The community has already shelved an costly prequel pilot starring Naomi Watts, “Bloodmoon,” and it’s creating seven different doable spinoffs. With Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe because the Platonic supreme, that sort of franchise administration — from Paramount+’s confederation of loosely interconnected “Star Trek” sequence to its increasing ranch of “Yellowstone” spinoffs — is de rigueur for any outlet now.

Launching a bigger franchise that perpetuates for a few years wants time to develop, however some platforms have chosen as a substitute to jump-start that course of, greenlighting a present’s second season effectively prematurely. Amazon has publicly dedicated to supply 50 hours of “The Rings of Energy.”

“One of many challenges with this type of content material is simply how lengthy it takes to make,” Sanders says. “From the very starting, once we have been lucky sufficient to win the rights, we have been on this for the lengthy haul. So it was additionally essential to begin determining every thing from timelines to the place will we shoot it? Do we have to construct new levels? All kinds of issues.”

AMC spent the previous decade capitalizing on the super style success of the “Strolling Useless” franchise. However as the unique sequence ends — and AMC retains the fires burning with “Tales of the Strolling Useless” and a just-announced new sequence starring Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira — the model has dwindled from its mid-2010s perch as the largest factor on TV.

The community not solely goals to duplicate that phenomenon with an Anne Rice universe, however it’s popping out of the gate with two sequence — “Interview With the Vampire” and “Mayfair Witches” — set in the identical world, together with crossover initiatives. “She checks the boundaries of the franchise,” Johnson says of the late creator. “A few of these books actually have little or no to do with each other. However we’re going to attempt.” Whereas AMC is hoping audiences shall be keen to soak up the complete breadth of the bigger story, Johnson acknowledges that the Rice reveals are “by no means going to fairly be the Marvel world, wherein there are all of those characters that intersect with each other.”

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Tom Sturridge and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in “The Sandman.”
Courtesy of Netflix

Planning a style franchise earlier than the primary episode of the primary sequence has even premiered is a bit like constructing a prepare earlier than there’s a completed monitor — typically, issues go catastrophically off the rails. After a lot funding in its adaptation of Mark Millar’s “Jupiter’s Legacy,” Netflix canceled the sequence following its poorly obtained first season. The streamer’s head of scripted sequence within the U.S. and Canada, Peter Friedlander, says Netflix nonetheless has plans to “discover a distinct a part of the story” from the property — particularly the Supercrooks characters. However “Jupiter’s” precise legacy is tainted by that preliminary flop. And that’s a danger Netflix is taking once more with “The Sandman.”

The primary two installments of Gaiman’s 10-volume graphic novel sequence make up Season 1 of “The Sandman.” If future seasons preserve to that tempo, Netflix might want to produce not less than 5 seasons of the present with a purpose to inform the story in its entirety. That’s a simple sufficient dedication to make if “The Sandman” turns into a brand new “Stranger Issues” or “The Crown” — however not if its viewership places the sequence extra according to the numerous Netflix titles that get the ax after three seasons or much less.

“We’re placing all of our chips within the center,” Friedlander says. “We actually need this to work. We actually really feel like this is a chance to inform a darkish fantasy story that’s fully totally different from anything within the market proper now. We’re coming in daring.”

Investing closely earlier than any tangible payoff was a mannequin that labored for Amazon with “The Boys,” when it gave the darkish superhero satire an early Season 2 renewal even earlier than the primary season debuted in 2019. The present has now wrapped Season 3, spawned two spinoffs and garnered a number of Emmy nominations (together with excellent drama sequence in 2021). “We’re nonetheless seeing folks come aboard ‘The Boys,’” Sanders says. “On this third season, the variety of folks which are beginning Season 1 has actually blown up.”

“The Boys,” nevertheless, relies on an indie cult comedian sequence and constructed a brand new viewers on Amazon from the bottom up. “Lord of the Rings” has a profitable movie franchise, and “Home of the Dragon” has its prodigiously well-known older sibling to stay as much as.

“I do imagine there’s clearly a number of curiosity on the planet and within the present,” Bloys advised Selection in July. “So an important factor is the present is admittedly good. I imagine it can discover an viewers. However I feel it’s in all probability unrealistic to assume that each single one that watched ‘Sport of Thrones’ will routinely watch ‘Home of the Dragon.’ It’s important to earn that.”

“Interview With the Vampire,” in the meantime, has to stay as much as an much more intimidating pedigree — specifically, the blockbuster 1994 characteristic movie starring Tom Cruise as Lestat, Brad Pitt as Louis, Christian Slater because the interviewer and a younger Kirsten Dunst because the baby vampire, Claudia.

“There are way more individuals who have seen the film than who’ve learn the guide,” Johnson says. “That’s going to be lots of people’s reference level.” To fight the comparisons, Johnson avers that the AMC sequence interprets Rice’s story by its personal distinctive lens — for one, the homoerotic subtext between Lestat and Louis is now merely textual content.

“It turns into this epic love story in a world that few folks know,” Johnson says. “I simply need folks to have the ability to have a look at it and say, ‘Sure, I learn the guide. Sure, I noticed the film. Sure, I see a number of motion pictures and a number of tv reveals, however I’ve by no means seen something like this earlier than.’”

Some followers — or, not less than, some folks claiming to be followers — have already determined that a number of of those reveals have strayed too far within the effort to present audiences a recent perspective on established properties. The choice to solid actors of shade as elves, dwarfs and harfoots in “The Rings of Energy” unleashed a torrent of racist abuse on social media, particularly at these enjoying the roles. Whereas Amazon elected to keep away from any dialogue of the problem in the course of the present’s Comedian-Con presentation, Steve Toussaint, who performs the Sea Snake on “Home of the Dragon,” used his time in the course of the present’s Comedian-Con panel to immediately tackle fan backlash a few Black actor enjoying a job written as white — by Martin, who created the sequence.

“There are folks exterior who discover it just a little laborious to abdomen that somebody who seems to be like me would play this half,” he mentioned. “However that’s a difficulty they need to take care of, and I don’t need to. I simply need to say the traces convincingly and keep away from bumping into the furnishings.”

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Left: Sophia Nomvete and Owain Arthur in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Energy”; proper: Steve Toussaint and Eve Finest in “Home of the Dragon.”
HBO; Amazon Studios

Requested about “Lord of the Rings” fan criticism earlier than Comedian-Con, Amazon’s Sanders struck a conciliatory tone. “We have now to know that some individuals are going to like all the decisions, some individuals are going to like some and never others, and a few individuals are simply not going to really feel prefer it’s their model of it. And that’s OK,” he mentioned. “We’re hoping that we are able to ship one thing that’s going to be beloved by the deepest Tolkien followers and in addition be an introduction for individuals who could not have come to it [before]. We’re definitely hoping that we are able to ship each.”

Gaiman, in the meantime, has taken to Twitter to defend casting Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer (a male position within the comics), Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Loss of life (depicted as a white girl within the comics), Mason Alexander Park as Need (a nonbinary character that some don’t need performed by a nonbinary actor) and Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine (a gender-flipped model of John Constantine from the comics).

On the identical time, Gaiman is aware of greater than most that style franchises stay or die on the fervour of their core viewers to unfold the phrase. He mentioned as a lot — and in probably the most Gaiman of the way — in the course of the Comedian-Con panel for “The Sandman,” by evaluating its followers to, of all issues, the micro organism cultures used to create yogurt.

“Everyone on this corridor is yogurt starter,” he mentioned. “Whether it is good, you’re going to inform all people you already know to look at ‘Sandman’ and also you’re going to search out folks you don’t know and say, ‘Hey, there’s this factor referred to as “Sandman” on Netflix. It’s superb; you’ve obtained to look at it.’ So from my perspective, we’re making ‘Sandman’ for you guys to exit and switch the complete world into yogurt. That’s a really unusual analogy, however I hope you take pleasure in it.”

Angelique Jackson and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.

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