It could be a scene from the pages of a fantasy novel, or indeed a TV adaptation of one.
We’re in the fabled Arena of Streaming, where heroes rise and fall. At one end of the hall, the dragon tamers of House Targaryen hope to bring home the head of their enemy for their master, Lord HBO Max, by reaching the same glorious heights as one of the most successful TV series, Game of Thrones. Their weapon of choice? The show's prequel, House of the Dragon.
At the other, another Knight of the Prequel, Lord Sauron, takes audiences back thousands of years before the events of one of the most successful film franchises, The Lord of the Rings. This time, now on the small screen, viewers are taken to Middle Earth for the story of the creation of the Rings of Power. Fittingly, it is called The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The aim is to slay House Targaryen for his liege, King Amazon Prime Video.
House of the Dragon was released in the UAE on OSN+ on Monday, at the same time it hit screens in the US on HBO Max. Almost 10 million viewers tuned into the American platform, marking its highest series premiere in the region, as well as in Latin America, Europe and Africa, the streaming platform announced, despite the fact it doesn't routinely reveal numbers.
With Amazon Prime Video ready to launch The Power of the Rings on September 2, we can look forward to spending the rest of the year watching the big-budget fantasy adaptations battle it out for the love of audiences and critics alike.
Both platforms will screen episodes weekly, foregoing the binge-watching model of rival Netflix in favour of event TV. Both take place in fantasy realms of magic and dragons and both are some of the most expensive made by their respective broadcasters. But there's plenty separating the two swords and sorcery epics, too.
HBO may have more riding on the success of House of the Dragon than Amazon does on The Rings of Power, which sounds strange, since Amazon has spent about $465 million on season one of its show compared with HBO’s $150m to $200m. The two operate according to rather different metrics, however.
For HBO, House of the Dragon is make or break, both creatively and commercially. The final season of Game of Thrones, which the show’s creators finished off themselves as George R R Martin, on whose novels the previous seasons are based, didn’t complete his books in time, left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans and critics. Seasons one to seven of Game of Thrones all rated 90 per cent or higher on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Season eight holds only a 55 per cent score.
The anticipation around the new show suggests Game of Thrones fans are happy to give HBO another chance. With a maximum Google Trends score of 100/100 since the two shows’ trailers landed in July, House of the Dragon is enjoying significantly more hype than The Rings of Power. Mess it up again, however, and audiences may be less forgiving.
On the business side, HBO's parent, Warner Bros, recently merged with Discovery and bosses are looking to cut costs.
High-profile productions such as Batgirl have already been dropped and new chief executive David Zaslav has stated he doesn’t see a future for costly straight-to-streaming films now cinemas are returning to pre-pandemic attendance levels.
That doesn’t automatically spell the end for big-budget series, though, but a $200m flop in House of the Dragon could be a nudge in that direction.
Amazon lives in a different world. For HBO, viewers and subscribers, and by necessity reviews, are its bread and butter. Its linear channels even report audiences figures, unlike most streaming platforms.
For Amazon, viewers, subscribers and reviews matter less, although nobody wants to make a half-billion dollar show that is pilloried and unwatched. The Prime Video service, however, is a tiny part of a vast macroeconomic ecosystem where the real money is made from other offerings, such as cloud services and retail, despite two recent quarters of losses.
If viewers drift off to do a bit of shopping on the site during The Rings of Power, they’ve done Amazon a favour.
In many ways, Amazon’s model is terrifying. The release of The Rings of Power is expected to lead to a surge in sales of J R R Tolkien’s novels and the world’s biggest bookseller is Amazon itself.
Many of its rivals are planning to move to ad-supported models, but while the forthcoming ad-tier on Disney+ may want to send you to buy toothpaste when you finish watching the latest from Marvel, with Amazon you’re already in the shop.
Neither streaming platform will want its latest fantasy epic to fail, however. One failed big-budget series won’t kill a successful service. It won’t make it successful, either, but a universe might.
Amazon already has a five-series plan stretching over a decade for The Rings of Power, with a budget of billions, and it is also following the universe route with other properties. Its recent purchase of MGM has given it access to franchises such as James Bond, while it has already extensively reworked pre-loved titles such as Jack Reacher, Jack Ryan and The Boys. HBO, too, has at least seven further Game of Thrones spin-offs in development.
Disney+ has been able to keep audiences transfixed with a new, usually successful chapter in either the Marvel or Star Wars franchise on a virtual monthly basis. If either The Rings of Power or House of the Dragon can serve a similar role for their owners, there’ll be some happy suits upstairs.
Finally, perhaps by seeing the two new shows as rivals we’re missing the point. If the audience's appetite for fantasy is reawakened three years after the Game of Thrones finale by House of the Dragon, that could work in The Rings of Power’s favour.
The other streaming platforms will be watching closely, too. With a series reboot of the 1988 fantasy Willow coming to Disney+ in November, a Witcher prequel expected on Netflix in December, with a third series to follow, and Amazon Prime Video returning to the fantasy genre with a second season of The Wheel of Time, audiences who relish the high-production fantasy genre will, ultimately, be the main winners of the streaming wars.
Scroll through more images from 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' below