THR is given a behind-the-scenes tour by two first-time showrunners who secured the biggest TV series as they overcome obstacles even more terrifying than Mordor, such as “patently nasty” online abuse and enormous industry expectations.
The show’s creator Patrick McKay explains, “This is where everything happens.” A “War Room.”
The long conference table is the focal point of the spacious, windowless room, yet your eyes are drawn to what’s covering the walls. Concept art illustrating key set pieces for season two of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is all around you. McKay and J.D. Payne, the show’s creators, guide the audience through the scenes. They intend to introduce more well-known locales, well-known people from Middle-earth, and a big two-episode conflict.
Of course, this is top-secret information; the set of the fantasy drama, let alone this area, has been off-limits to the media. However, the showrunners wanted to provide a glimpse behind the scenes to explain what it’s like to run the most successful TV show ever made.
The Rings of Power, an Amazon billion-dollar high fantasy that debuted on Sept. 2, has received both positive reviews from critics (84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and negative reviews from online fans (39 percent on Audience), which may or may not involve “review bombing” by internet trolls. The show’s Nielsen audience is impressive; over the course of its first four days, about 12.6 million Americans watched each of its first two episodes.
However, the standard is absurdly high given that this is Lord of the Rings. Nobody is more knowledgeable about the stakes than Payne and McKay. In order to create their J.R.R. Tolkien passion project, the two first-time showrunners set out on an unexpected journey nearly five years ago. As McKay puts it, they are now “on the fault line of the culture war,” with everyone from armies of anonymous Tolkien fans to the two wealthiest men in the world weighing in. Elon Musk’s criticism on Twitter makes it difficult to concentrate on writing screenplays and overseeing a cast and crew of 1,300 on the most challenging TV production ever.
The cynical view that this is a money grab has been difficult to hear, according to McKay. “Oh my God, it’s the opposite. The most sincere production is this one. No one is doing this for a paycheck. This project is heartfelt.
On a Friday in 2017, Amazon received a call from the Tolkien estate’s attorneys informing them that they would consider bids for a Lord of the Rings television series. Every entertainment firm, including Prime Video, was searching for “the next Game of Thrones.” Jeff Bezos, the founder, and CEO of Amazon has always been a lover of Tolkien. It seemed obvious to go for The Lord of the Rings, and an internal “fellowship” was formed to determine how to outbid competitors.
According to sources, HBO pitched the estate on adapting Peter Jackson’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy, which brought in $3 billion and won 17 Academy Awards, to focus on the “Third Age” of Middle-earth. Although the late Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, claimed that Jackson’s adaptations “eviscerated” the works, the estate has issues with them and wasn’t keen on going over the same territory again. A number of programs, including a Gandalf series and an Aragorn drama, were proposed by Netflix. One person with knowledge of the negotiations claimed that “they adopted the Marvel approach,” which utterly scared out the estate.
The estate was courted by the Amazon negotiation team—led by Sharon Tal Yguado, Roy Price, and Dan Scharf—not with a specific proposal but rather with a promise of a strong partnership that would give the estate a voice in decision-making so it could safeguard Tolkien’s legacy. There was also the money, of course. According to sources, Netflix actually submitted the astounding bid ($250 million), while Amazon’s was thousands of times less (albeit, still staggering).
Vernon Sanders, co-head of Amazon Studios TV, claims that “it was our united love and fidelity to Tolkien that ultimately won the day” (who came on board in 2018 as part of an executive shakeup that included Price being ousted for a misconduct claim, Jen Salke joining as Amazon Studios chief and Albert Cheng being installed as TV Co-Head).
When Payne, 42, and McKay, 41, learned that Rings was heading to television from their reps, McKay said that “a chill passed through us.” They originally became friends when they joined the same high school debate team after their junior high encounter in Northern Virginia. They relocated to Los Angeles and toiled for years at screenwriting without experiencing significant success. Their last position was at Bad Robot, where they worked on a number of unfinished projects, including a Star Trek movie. We had reached a turning point because we had been writing films for ten years that ought to have been produced, according to McKay.
There have been movies where everything was perfect—the director, the cast, the writing, the title, and it was a major IP—and still it didn’t work out. So perhaps we could try this TV thing, we reasoned.