TV’s Big Fantasy Gamble: ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘House of the Dragon,’ and the Battle to Claim the Next Blockbuster Franchise

The lights were dim and the air clouded with mist as a bearded gentleman holding a tall wooden staff bade his guests to reach into a giant fire pit and select a personal dragon egg. Later, as everyone waited their turn to sit atop the Iron Throne, a woman in a long Renaissance gown approached them: “Do you know any Targaryens? Lannisters? I’m a lady who likes the wealth.”

The elaborate activation — boasting a colossal dragon skull and dozens of actors playing palace guards, local drunks and more — was part of HBO’s efforts to get the 130,000 attendees at San Diego Comic-Con excited for “House of the Dragon,” the first of what executives dearly hope are many spinoff series from the most gargantuan hit in the network’s history, “Game of Thrones.”

HBO certainly wasn’t the only network turning the mid-July gathering into a launching pad for critical new genre television. Amazon Prime Video unveiled its monumentally expensive fantasy series “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” over several meticulously choreographed days at Comic-Con. There was a surprise meet-and-greet between 21 members of the cast and J.R.R. Tolkien superfans; a regal private dinner with the actors, series creators J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, executives including Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke, and invited media; and a nearly two-hour panel in front of 6,500 attendees in Hall H that featured moderator Stephen Colbert (flown in for less than a day), giant wraparound screens, five exclusive clips, and a 25-piece orchestra and 16-person choir conducted by composer Bear McCreary.

All of this work — and money and time — comes at a critical moment for both shows, which debut just weeks apart. And they’re not alone: The sudden flood of event series based on massively popular fantasy properties starts with Netflix’s “The Sandman,” adapted from Neil Gaiman’s widely acclaimed graphic novel series, which launches Aug. 5. “House of the Dragon” premieres on Aug. 21; “The Rings of Power” 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 series transformed from niche TV to a major cultural force, driving viewership and winning awards. But there’s something different about this new crop of premieres. Until now, just about every genre sensation in the streaming age that isn’t produced by Marvel Studios or Lucasfilm — “Stranger Things,” “Black Mirror,” “The Boys,” “Squid Game,” even “Game of Thrones” — has earned its success organically through old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

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top: Amazon; Netflix (2); bottom: Netflix

But with competition for subscribers growing fiercer as quarterly reports obliterate the streaming bubble, media companies have increasingly turned to well-known and beloved genre franchises, including Netflix’s “The Witcher” and Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina,” in a hungry grab for IP that they hope comes with a preexisting awareness and a built-in fan base — and thus, presumably, less risk.

The opportunity for success seems obvious: The 18 Anne Rice novels to which AMC secured the rights have sold more than 150 million copies globally; Peter Jackson’s trilogies of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” have grossed better than $5.8 billion worldwide; and “Game of Thrones” was one of the biggest TV shows of the past decade, averaging 44 million viewers per episode across all platforms in its final season. Tapping into those fan bases once again could reap similar bounties.

TV has always been a business of managing failure, however, and the chance for that here is just as great — but would come at a greater expense than your typical primetime cancellation. Between purchasing the rights from the Tolkien estate and production and marketing costs, Amazon is likely to spend upwards of $1 billion on just the eight-episode first season of “The Rings of Power.” HBO, Netflix and AMC are also shelling out small fortunes to compete in a landscape in which cinematic production value and spectacle are seen as preconditions for top-tier success. And that success is far from foreordained.

“They are, in many ways, land mine projects,” says Mark Johnson, the chief producer overseeing AMC’s Anne Rice universe, including adaptations “Interview With the Vampire” and “Mayfair Witches.” “You take one false step and the whole thing blows up. You do one piece of miscasting, or you make something funny that is sacrosanct, and you’ve undone the whole thing.”

During the Comic-Con panel featuring creator and executive producer George R.R. Martin and the cast of “House of the Dragon” — one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the first in-person San Diego gathering since 2019 — it became painfully apparent how love for “Game of Thrones,” which waned in its controversial final season, doesn’t automatically translate to “House of the Dragon.” The audience was quiet as Martin, co-showrunner Ryan Condal and the stars, many of whom are unknown to U.S. audiences, tried their best to talk up the show. This was an audience that might be screaming to see the cast next year at the ’Con, but they weren’t fans just yet.

Olivia Cooke, who plays one of the central figures on the show, Lady Alicent Hightower, seemed the quickest to grasp this as she spoke about her show’s predecessor: “There’s this behemoth that we’re following in its footsteps, and there is a massive pressure that we feel to give you guys what you want but also make it different and put our own stamp on it,” Cooke said during the panel. “We just hope that this has the same legacy because, God, we worked our bums off for a year. I just hope you like it!”

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

It’s almost too easy to pit “The Rings of Power” and “House of the Dragon” against each other in the TV colosseum. But the outlets helped stoke that impression when Amazon announced the September 2022 premiere date for “The Rings of Power” a full 13 months in advance — and HBO subsequently placed the “House of the Dragon” debut two weeks ahead of that launch.

“Honestly, my reaction was ‘Of course they did,’” says Vernon Sanders, global TV chief at Amazon Studios. “If I were in their shoes, I probably would do the same thing and want to get out before, as opposed to getting out after.”

No one wants to be seen as the losing gladiator in that fight, so if anything, those involved with both shows were at pains with Variety to make clear there isn’t a rivalry between them, friendly or otherwise.

“What a great time for people where you have these two huge, iconic worlds that people are so invested in and love so much, to be able to explore them at the same time,” Sanders says.

Adds “Rings of Power” star Morfydd Clark, who plays the iconic elf Galadriel: “I’m a massive ‘Game of Thrones’ obsessive. It’s a good time to like fantasy. So I’m chuffed.”

At the “House of the Dragon” premiere in Los Angeles, star Matt Smith, who’s friends with Clark, returns the sentiment. “I love ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he says. “I think it looks fabulous. [Morfydd] is such a fantastic actor; I can’t wait to see what she’s done as Galadriel.”

In an interview following the Emmy nominations in mid-July, HBO/HBO Max content chief Casey Bloys told Variety that the outlet is targeting its own lane. “The only thing that we can do is concentrate on our shows and try to make the best shows that we can,” he said. (The network declined to comment for this story.) “Having ‘Lord of the Rings’ on when ‘House of the Dragon’ is on, I don’t see it as only one can survive. But I’m also not that worried about what anybody else is doing. I can only concentrate on what we’re doing.”

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

Bloys’ attention has certainly been focused on expanding “Game of Thrones” for some time: The network has already shelved an expensive prequel pilot starring Naomi Watts, “Bloodmoon,” and it’s developing seven other possible spinoffs. With Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Platonic ideal, that kind of franchise management — from Paramount+’s confederation of loosely interconnected “Star Trek” series to its expanding ranch of “Yellowstone” spinoffs — is de rigueur for any outlet now.

Launching a larger franchise that perpetuates for many years needs time to grow, but some platforms have chosen instead to jump-start that process, greenlighting a show’s second season well in advance. Amazon has publicly committed to produce 50 hours of “The Rings of Power.”

“One of the challenges with this kind of content is just how long it takes to make,” Sanders says. “From the very beginning, when we were fortunate enough to win the rights, we were in this for the long haul. So it was also important to start figuring out everything from timelines to where do we shoot it? Do we need to build new stages? All sorts of things.”

AMC spent the past decade capitalizing on the tremendous genre success of the “Walking Dead” franchise. But as the original series ends — and AMC keeps the fires burning with “Tales of the Walking Dead” and a just-announced new series starring Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira — the brand has dwindled from its mid-2010s perch as the biggest thing on TV.

The network not only aims to replicate that phenomenon with an Anne Rice universe, but it is coming out of the gate with two series — “Interview With the Vampire” and “Mayfair Witches” — set in the same world, along with crossover projects. “She tests the boundaries of the franchise,” Johnson says of the late author. “Some of these books really have very little to do with one another. But we’re going to try.” While AMC is hoping audiences will be eager to take in the full breadth of the larger story, Johnson acknowledges that the Rice shows are “never going to quite be the Marvel world, in which there are all of these characters that intersect with one another.”

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

Planning a genre franchise before the first episode of the first series has even premiered is a bit like building a train before there’s a finished track — sometimes, things go catastrophically off the rails. After much investment in its adaptation of Mark Millar’s “Jupiter’s Legacy,” Netflix canceled the series following its poorly received first season. The streamer’s head of scripted series in the U.S. and Canada, Peter Friedlander, says Netflix still has plans to “explore a different part of the story” from the property — specifically the Supercrooks characters. But “Jupiter’s” actual legacy is tainted by that initial flop. And that’s a risk Netflix is taking again with “The Sandman.”

The first two installments of Gaiman’s 10-volume graphic novel series make up Season 1 of “The Sandman.” If future seasons keep to that pace, Netflix will need to produce at least five seasons of the show in order to tell the story in its entirety. That’s an easy enough commitment to make if “The Sandman” becomes a new “Stranger Things” or “The Crown” — but not if its viewership puts the series more in line with the many Netflix titles that get the ax after three seasons or less.

“We’re putting all of our chips in the middle,” Friedlander says. “We really want this to work. We really feel like this is an opportunity to tell a dark fantasy story that is completely different from anything else in the marketplace right now. We’re coming in bold.”

Investing heavily before any tangible payoff was a model that worked for Amazon with “The Boys,” when it gave the dark superhero satire an early Season 2 renewal even before the first season debuted in 2019. The show has now wrapped Season 3, spawned two spinoffs and garnered multiple Emmy nominations (including outstanding drama series in 2021). “We’re still seeing people come aboard ‘The Boys,’” Sanders says. “In this third season, the number of people that are starting Season 1 has really blown up.”

“The Boys,” however, is based on an indie cult comic series and built a new audience on Amazon from the ground up. “Lord of the Rings” has a successful film franchise, and “House of the Dragon” has its prodigiously famous older sibling to live up to.

“I do believe there’s obviously a lot of interest in the world and in the show,” Bloys told Variety in July. “So the most important thing is the show is really good. I believe it will find an audience. But I think it’s probably unrealistic to think that every single person who watched ‘Game of Thrones’ will automatically watch ‘House of the Dragon.’ You have to earn that.”

“Interview With the Vampire,” meanwhile, has to live up to an even more intimidating pedigree — namely, the blockbuster 1994 feature film starring Tom Cruise as Lestat, Brad Pitt as Louis, Christian Slater as the interviewer and a young Kirsten Dunst as the child vampire, Claudia.

“There are far more people who have seen the movie than who have read the book,” Johnson says. “That is going to be a lot of people’s reference point.” To combat the comparisons, Johnson avers that the AMC series interprets Rice’s story through its own unique lens — for one, the homoerotic subtext between Lestat and Louis is now simply text.

“It becomes this epic love story in a world that few people know,” Johnson says. “I just want people to be able to look at it and say, ‘Yes, I read the book. Yes, I saw the movie. Yes, I see a lot of movies and a lot of television shows, but I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”

Some fans — or, at least, some people claiming to be fans — have already decided that several of these shows have strayed too far in the effort to give audiences a fresh perspective on established properties. The decision to cast actors of color as elves, dwarfs and harfoots in “The Rings of Power” unleashed a torrent of racist abuse on social media, especially at those playing the roles. While Amazon elected to avoid any discussion of the issue during the show’s Comic-Con presentation, Steve Toussaint, who plays the Sea Snake on “House of the Dragon,” used his time during the show’s Comic-Con panel to directly address fan backlash about a Black actor playing a role written as white — by Martin, who created the series.

“There are people outside who find it a little hard to stomach that someone who looks like me would play this part,” he said. “But that’s an issue they have to deal with, and I don’t have to. I just have to say the lines convincingly and avoid bumping into the furniture.”

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Left: Sophia Nomvete and Owain Arthur in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”; right: Steve Toussaint and Eve Best in “House of the Dragon.” HBO; Amazon Studios

Asked about “Lord of the Rings” fan criticism before Comic-Con, Amazon’s Sanders struck a conciliatory tone. “We have to know that some people are going to love all of the choices, some people are going to love some and not others, and some people are just not going to feel like it’s their version of it. And that’s OK,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can deliver something that is going to be beloved by the deepest Tolkien fans and also be an introduction for people who may not have come to it [before]. We’re certainly hoping that we can deliver both.”

Gaiman, meanwhile, has taken to Twitter to defend casting Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer (a male role in the comics), Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death (depicted as a white woman in the comics), Mason Alexander Park as Desire (a nonbinary character that some don’t want played by a nonbinary actor) and Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine (a gender-flipped version of John Constantine from the comics).

At the same time, Gaiman knows more than most that genre franchises live or die on the passion of their core audience to spread the word. He said as much — and in the most Gaiman of ways — during the Comic-Con panel for “The Sandman,” by comparing its fans to, of all things, the bacteria cultures used to create yogurt.

“Everybody in this hall is yogurt starter,” he said. “If it is good, you’re going to tell everybody you know to watch ‘Sandman’ and you’re going to find people you don’t know and say, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called “Sandman” on Netflix. It’s amazing; you’ve got to watch it.’ So from my perspective, we’re making ‘Sandman’ for you guys to go out and turn the entire world into yogurt. That’s a very strange analogy, but I hope you enjoy it.”

Angelique Jackson and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.