House of the Dragon and Rings of Power are coming: what’s at stake

HBO MAX Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon (L) and Prime Video Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power promos.

HBO Max | Amazon

As summer draws to a close, two expensive fantasy series full of sorcery, sword fights and fantastic beasts will premiere on rival streaming services.

While it seems like Amazon Prime Videos “The Rings of Power” and Warner Bros. Discovery’s “House of the Dragon” franchises should be, given that they start within a few weeks of each other, the two series serve very different purposes for their respective studios.

The stakes can be higher for “House of the Dragon”, which will go first. It kicks off Sunday on HBO and streaming service HBO Max, arriving as newly minted CEO David Zaslav looking for some fat to trim.

Cost-cutting measures have become status quo at the recently merged company, including layoffs and content eliminations from HBO Max. Because Warner Bros. Discovery wants to save money, it also wants to consolidate its streaming services, something that will be expensive and time-consuming.

“House of the Dragon” tells the story of the civil war in Targaryen that took place about 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones”. It is based on George RR Martin’s novel “Fire and Blood”. Unlike Martin’s other books in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, this book features an omniscient narrator who documents history 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” comes out September 2. The series is based on appendix material from JRR Tolkien’s landmark “The Lord of the Rings” novels. “The Rings of Power” focuses on the key events of the second century of Middle-earth, a time of peace shattered 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 adult themes, Martin’s work is more adult-oriented, depicting deep-seated acts of violence, nudity and sexual assault. Although there are big battles in “The Lord of the Rings”, earlier versions were more suitable for a younger audience.

Both series will release new episodes weekly, a strategy that could turn them into must-see TV events and get audiences talking and speculating about what’s to come.

You win or you die

For Warner Bros. Discovery has a lot to prove and live up to as the second entrant in the Game of Thrones franchise. The final season of “Game of Thrones” left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, as showrunners wrote outside of 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 descending on the original [‘Game of Thrones,’]said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor and pop culture expert. “Not everyone despised it, but there was certainly a lot of the opposite of love. To some extent as we go into all these, you know, subsequent chapters in the ‘Game of Thrones’ television world, there’s already that sense of some 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. While the company is quietly pulling shows and movies from HBO Max and suspending projects already made, analysts and investors see an uncertain future.

If “House of the Dragon,” which reportedly cost $15 million to $20 million per episode, falls short of expectations, the next phase of the Game of Thrones franchise could soon disappear.

“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 if they are, it’s all about commerce.”

The opposite is of course also true. If the “Game of Thrones” prequel is a critical hit, Warner Bros. Discovery can see this fledgling franchise become a much bigger part of the pop culture zeitgeist.

“House of the Dragon” has a “Fresh” rating of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes out of 177 reviews. In comparison, the first season of “Game of Thrones” released in 2011 had a “Fresh” rating of 90%. In fact, every season except the last season had a score of over 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 scored between 59% and 74% from critics.

The road always goes on

Unlike traditional standalone streaming services, such as HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+ or Peacock, Amazon is less required than subscriber stats. The movies, television series and documentaries it offers are a complementary addition to its e-commerce site and its cloud computing business.

“The longer you look at something on Amazon, the more likely it is [you’re] shampoo, toothpaste, buy a lawnmower, 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 have different ways to make money off you.”

Amazon’s strategy in recent years has been to focus on content that has a passionate built-in audience and that adds value to its platform. In addition to acquiring the rights to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” additional material in 2017 for an estimated $250 million, the company recently purchased 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,” a series based on on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels and another. on Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan.

Amazon Studios shared its first image of its upcoming self-titled series “Lord of the Rings,” which will hit its streaming service on September 2, 2022.

Amazon Studios

Amazon has a five-season plan for “The Rings of Power,” a plan that will gobble up more than $1 billion in production costs and could take nearly a decade to complete. With this investment, the company is unlikely to deviate from the series, even if the viewership is smaller than expected.

Of course, analysts and investors will probably never get viewership data from Amazon, Rayburn said. The company has always been quiet about its streaming numbers and occasionally handed out figures for major films or series, but has not translated those figures into sales figures.

“We’ll never know if the Amazon series is successful,” he said. “They will never come out and give us statistics linked to revenue.”

Warner Bros. Discovery, on the other hand, may also keep its earnings data quiet, but may be more willing to admit 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] withdrawal of content spending,” Rayburn said.

Of course, the fans will be the last measure. While fans criticized the final season of “Game of Thrones,” the series as a whole is still loved and ratings were consistently the highest from HBO during the time of the series.

“The Rings of Power” also has a huge ingrained audience. The six theatrical films associated with Tolkien’s novels generated more than $5.8 billion at the worldwide box office, and Amazon – which, after all, made a name for itself as a bookseller – saw a resurgence in interest in the author’s lyrics earlier this year. Even “The Silmarillion,” Tolkien’s esoteric posthumously published mythos of Middle-earth, reached the top of Amazon for the first time ever, signaling a surge in interest in the series.

If audiences rally behind these shows, whether critics like them or not, both companies will look for ways to expand their respective universes and offer more content and products in the future.

It could also be good news for other fantasy streaming services. Disney+ will premiere at the end of November with the “Willow” series, a sequel to the 1988 Ron Howard movie with sword and sorcery.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. Peacock and Rotten Tomatoes is owned by NBCUniversal.

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