Amazon Prime are making the most expensive TV show of all time. Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is slated to be the first TV series costing more than $1 billion. In this episode we take a dive into the financial deal between Amazon and the New Zealand government, who sought to ‘leverage’ the show for ‘national branding’ purposes. I reconstruct the timeline of their negotiations, based on hundreds of pages of documents from several government agencies, and why the deal eventually collapsed and Amazon moved the production to the UK.
I’ve explored some of this story before, but since the most expensive TV show ever made is coming out I felt it was time for a full examination of what’s happening here, because I think it is fascinating, and important.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon’s Prime streaming service has been looking for a blockbuster, must-see, social media-friendly, clickbait crazy show for some time. While they’ve had some big successes on the TV side, such as The Boys and Jack Ryan, they haven’t had a cross-demographic, four quadrant ratings juggernaut.
Amazon are hoping that The Rings of Power is that breakthrough TV show, and it’s a safe bet. Reboots of franchises with an existing fan base have proven very lucrative – Star Trek, Jurassic Park or Jurassic World, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and book or comic adaptations like Kingsman, The Boys, Hunger Games all raked it in. That’s without counting the Marvel and DC universes, and the Monsterverse. There hasn’t been a Tolkienverse production for a decade, and while Games of Thrones filled that gap for a few years, the Tolkien fan base and the broader medieval fantasy fan base are right there, waiting to be schtupped.
But we’ve already had full adaptations of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so they’ve done what Disney did with Star Wars – simply bought the rights to make productions set in this universe, rather than the rights to a specific story. When Disney paid Lucasfilm $4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, George Lucas did have some ideas for what to do with the new trilogy, but Disney weren’t interested. They just wanted the rights to a setting and some characters – the essential branding that guarantees name recognition and visual association in the pre-existing audience.
Prime did the same thing, paying the Tolkien estate $250 million, a snip compared to what Disney paid for Star Wars. A lawsuit between Warner Brothers and the Tolkien estate had been arguing over who had the rights, but that was settled and a bidding war begun, which Amazon won. It seems they then just opened the doors and welcomed pitches from producers and showrunners on what the hell they should do with this expensive property they’d just acquired. At a Comic Con panel, the showrunners for The Rings of Power explained how they got the gig.
Amazon have committed enormous resources to The Rings of Power, planning for five seasons and fifty episodes, running to hundreds of millions per season. No one has ever attempted a TV show on this scale before – one estimate puts it at $58 million per episode. That’s about double the $30 million per episode for the latest season of Stranger Things, and around four times the cost for The Mandalorian or the final season of Game of Thrones.
At Comic Con the showrunners were asked about the fairly stunning visuals in the various trailers for the series, and producer Lindsay Weber said ‘we built as much as a group of humans ever could’.
In another interview a cast member revealed that the level of detail that went into building an entire fake city was absurd – they even had incense burning in certain streets, to create the smell of this ancient, utopian civilisation. I’m not sure if Prime intend to include Smellovision any time soon, but I am simply not interested. At any rate, it sounds like The Rings of Power is going to be like Cecil B DeMille meets the Star Wars prequel trilogy – a cast of thousands, sets on a vast scale, and a ton of CGI to glisten everything up.
Note that she says that New Zealand ‘graciously provided’ shooting locations, and clearly provided the land for them to build this fictional city. This is critical to the story I want us to focus on, because production for season 2 – which has already begun – has moved to the UK. So what happens to Númenor, the Island Kingdom? Are they just going to ship it, lock, stock and barrel to Scotland? Or are they going to film season 2 on opposite sides of the world, running up a huge pollution bill in the process?
Before we get into all this I do want to address a couple of points that have come up repeatedly in the run-up to the show’s release. First, Tolkien fans bitching about how they aren’t being ‘true to the books’ and how they sacked a supposed Tolkien scholar who was working as a consultant on the series. The rumour is that he accused the producers of ruining the show, and hence was fired.
I find this extremely narcissistic. It’s one of those cases where people become so obsessed with something that they simply cannot conceive of someone else having a different, equally valid reaction to it. This is very common these days, from fans of particular cultural items whether it be books, films, music, whatever, but also in politics. One of the best examples is the media fakery conspiracy theory crowd, who dismiss anything they don’t want to have to deal with by declaring it ‘clearly fake’. And then, when you ask them for evidence, they tell you to watch a youtube video, because to them the possibility that I might watch that video and draw a totally different conclusion isn’t conceivable.
It’s the same with obsessive fans, whether we’re talking the Matrix, Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, Tolkien or anything else. To them, there is only one true reaction to these things and hence any adaptation or sequel or spin-off that deviates from this one true reaction is somehow betraying the original work. They’ve literally managed to turn their own reaction to something into a universal definition and interpretation of that thing.
So, while I accept that the Tolkien scholar was likely fired due to getting into an argument with the showrunners, does this mean the scholar was right? Or is it an entirely subjective matter? After all, this scholar worked on the LOTR trilogy, which was very successful among the Tolkien fans, but also on The Hobbit trilogy, which divided opinion. So is he part of the one true club or not?
The other lameass, punkass, dumbass, bitchass talking point that has come up is how the cast is multi-cultural. I’ve heard fans arguing that this is ‘identity politics ideology being rammed down our throats’ and so on, even people saying that because the books are based on medieval England the cast should all-white.
Well, by the same token that means the TV show shouldn’t contain any government beyond landowners, everything is run by the church, medical science is non-existent, no one lives to be over 35 or grows to be over five and half feet. Because we wouldn’t want to betray Tolkien’s one true vision, would we?
Also, there have been black people here in Britain since the Moorish regiments of the Roman army came and occupied the country. That is to say, there have been black people here for hundreds of years before the medieval period, and thousands of years before Tolkien wrote anything. But, racist dumbskulls gonna racist dumbskull.
Of course, the real reason why Maoris were cast in the show was because of the deal with the New Zealand government, which has nothing to do with liberal identity politics, multi-culturalism or any of that. Once again, this is all being produced by the vagaries of post-industrial state capitalism, it isn’t part of some niggerlovingcommiegayjewish conspiracy.
New Zealand’s Culture Ministry
Amazon could not have committed such enormous resources to this production without the help of the New Zealand Ministry of Culture. Technically, their Ministry of Culture and Heritage had little to do with this deal, it was Tourism New Zealand, the NZ Film Commission and their Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment who made this happen. But still, they are some of the cultural arms of the government in Wellington, so we can file them under the culture ministries banner.
The NZ Film Commission do a bunch of things, such as providing grants to film-makers, usually on a fairly small scale for low budget, independent productions. I don’t have much of a problem with this, because we’re not talking about big sums of money and it does help films get made that otherwise would not, so it helps keep cinema varied.
But I have to object to the Film Commission, along with the other agencies, arranging for a 25% rebate on production expenses for The Rings of Power. That money goes to Amazon, or whatever local subsidiary production company they set up in New Zealand. For the corporation, it isn’t just a subsidy – it’s a hedge against this series failing. Why not just buy futures in a rival product, such as the new Game of Thrones film that’s just come out (at the exact same time as this Lord of the Rings series)? Why did Amazon go cap in hand to the New Zealand government?
The answer is that they didn’t – the New Zealand government went to them. The way the system works, you can get a 20% rebate if you fulfil certain criteria, which as with most culture ministries includes the stipulation that you’re not making pornography. Whether Game of Thrones counts as pornography or not is a matter on which reasonable people may disagree.
However, as the New Zealand Film Commission’s website says:
A small number of productions may be invited to apply for an additional 5% Uplift, if the production can demonstrate significant economic benefits to New Zealand.
This is what happened with The Rings of Power – the government invited Amazon to apply for an additional 5% rebate, or an additional 1 in every 20 dollars that they spent on making this epic. And when you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars, going from 20% to 25% makes a difference of tens of millions.
Ever since this story broke I’ve been chasing it up, because it seems obscene to me that one of the world’s largest corporations was not only given a subsidy for making an absurdly expensive TV show, but was invited to apply for an even bigger subsidy. At its simplest, Amazon don’t need the money, and I’m sure the people of New Zealand can think of dozens of better ways to spend it.
To try to get to the bottom of this, I procured nearly 600 pages of documents from the New Zealand government on how this whole deal went down, and to some extent why it went wrong and how The Rings of Power ended up moving to the UK. As the documents and media reports reveal, the UK was the main rival for New Zealand in trying to land the series, so this is also the story of an international culture war over the most expensive TV show ever between two FIVEYES allies.
The documents begin with a briefing from late 2019, for Phil Twyford, Minister for Economic Development, Grant Robertson, Minister of Finance and Jacinda Ardern, (then) Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. It states:
Amazon Studios was invited to apply for the ‘5% uplift’
The studio was invited to apply for the additional 5% rebate (the ‘5% uplift’) in January. This scheme was introduced in 2014, as a means of leveraging large-budget live-action productions that are well placed to market, promote and showcase New Zealand.
Having been invited, it is then for the studio to determine whether to submit an application, given the requirements involved. These include satisfying a ‘Significant Economic Benefits Points Test’ and presenting activities or other offerings of a total value that meets or exceeds the fiscal cost of the 5% uplift being applied for.
As I said, an extra 5% comes to maybe $20-25 million so what were Amazon giving up in exchange for this? And why would they bother, unless their offerings were actually worth less than this extra 5%?
This is where the Tourism people come in, because the primary economic benefit to New Zealand in having The Rings of Power is increased tourism. As the briefing says:
Key pillars of the proposal cover tourism, the screen industry and innovative partnerships. The proposal is broadly structured around three core pillars. The most significant is a marketing partnership for tourism, allowing a rejuvenation of New Zealand’s existing (highly valuable) association with the Tolkien stories.
Fostering development of the local screen sector, such as training opportunities or initiatives to advance technology in this field, is also included.
The final pillar is dedicated to building a wider relationship with other parts of the Amazon network, and opportunities to leverage our association with Amazon to profile New Zealand businesses and business opportunities to a global audience.
Notice how this is a government document, a briefing for a minister, but it sounds like someone from a PR agency wrote it. The language ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘leverage our association’ is pretty vague, and difficult to quantify. But they were quantifying these things by inviting Amazon to apply for the additional 5%. However, they weren’t entirely stupid, and suggested a two-tier agreement with Amazon whereby they negotiate a deal for the series as a whole, as well as individual deals for each season. The briefing explains:
Proposed two-tier structure of any future agreement
A multi-season, long-run streaming series is a new format for the 5% uplift. Traditionally applicants have been individual films, with a simple start and finish. By contrast, each season of this series will have its own leverage opportunities, with cumulative gains as the series proceeds.
It is therefore to New Zealand’s benefit that we establish a partnership that embeds commitments from both sides across the full series, whilst also managing our risk and the opportunity by approaching each season as a unique leveraging proposition.
As you can see, they had to adapt to the shifting nature of the entertainment industry, towards longer-form TV and franchises and away from single, standalone products. They were used to inviting major movies to apply for the extra 5%, whereas Amazon’s Tolkien adaptation was a new prospect.
The briefing concludes:
We are therefore seeking your approval to this structure, particularly given the quantum of funding involved.
Who writes this shit? Outside of government, and maybe hipsters working in the finance industries, who says ‘quantum of funding’?
The New Zealand Government, Amazon and The Rings of Power
How much will a country pay for a positive image of itself? You could take a free market approach and say something is worth what someone is willing to for it, and in practice this is true. Another briefing for the minister around a year later in November 2020 concludes with a list of things to take note of, or take action on, including:
Note that TNZ consider that the partnership can deliver significant value to New Zealand’s country branding strategy post-COVID-19.
Again, the vague language of ‘significant value’, but the important part is ‘New Zealand’s country branding strategy post-COVID-19’, because it’s an explicit admission that governments have overall strategies for how to brand the countries they hold hostage – I mean, serve. This image is projected inwards and outwards, to convince the domestic population and the wider international audience that this country is a good country.
The way governments think of countries is a lot like how parents think – no one likes to think of themselves as a bad parent, but they slag off other parents like you would not believe. If we went on the images governments project then there are no bad countries, no bad governments. But if we go on the images they project of each other then every government and country is a bad country in some way or another. What this says about parents, I will leave to you to conclude, but what it says about nation states – i.e. countries with governments – is that they’re a manifestation of collective narcissism.
Fundamentally, this is what the culture ministries do – they invent, maintain and propagate images of nation states for the purposes of national branding. The history of a nation becomes simply a flag to be waved to whip up a crowd while they’re bleating on about this country’s ‘values’ or ‘who we are as a people’. That they were doing this while engaging in the largest-scale violation of basic rights the world has ever seen, in response to a virus which had been rocking around the world quite happily for several months before anyone noticed it, is psychopathic.
The Rings of Power is a case in point – it ‘can deliver significant value to New Zealand’s country branding strategy post-COVID-19’ because it reminds everyone that New Zealand is not a technocratic, corporatised nightmare state run by a fake socialist, it’s an idyllic, green and pleasant land full of mystical lost races of goblins and midgets. It isn’t part of a global surveillance state that kidnaps, tortures and murders people at will, it’s a wholesome, rural island populated by undersized peasants. Look at all these pretty costumes, and this castle that we paid Amazon to build.
As I pointed out on a subscribercast last year, Amazon also benefit from this imagery. Rather than being a capitalist leviathan who spies on their customers, drives competitors out of business and treats their employees like slaves, they’re the producers of an idealised vision of what the world might have been like before they came along. People have made this criticism of The Boys – that the story is about evil corporations taking over the world, and hence acts as a steam valve for people’s anger towards organisations like Amazon. Certainly, I’ve felt this more and more about The Boys, and their hypocrisy over making a show that says both sides are corrupt, when every single cast member was out there whoring for Biden in the run-up to the last election, irked me too.
The Rings of Power is a different kind of corporate PR, it encourages people to associate this medieval world with Amazon (itself a name chosen to evoke something which the company is not – beautiful and natural). Assuming that the series will be a blend of romanticising the upper class and making war seem like the inevitable by-product of human flaws, it will fit right in with the coverage the Washington Post has been putting out since Bezos bought it. So, those serfs dying in Amazon warehouses are a natural consequence of a bloody world, but the queen wears a pretty dress so she can’t be blamed for anything. And look at her hair, we’ll all have to rush to youtube to find a tutorial for doing our hair like that. Oh look, a handy popup for buying hair products on Amazon. No need for youtube after all.
What’s fascinating in terms of the psychology and semiotics here is the sheer degree of contradiction. One of the world’s most technologically advanced, supposedly democratic states pays a subsidy to a tech company to produce propaganda which fetishises primitivism and aristocracy. We’re literally using the most technically sophisticated content delivery system ever created to get turned on by a monarchical, backwards society.
Isn’t this the sort of society we progressed out of? Isn’t that the myth that governments like New Zealand’s and corporations like Amazon like to tell us? Isn’t our current society supposed to be better than the worlds of The Hobbit and Game of Thrones? Aren’t we supposed to be freer, because we have democracy? Aren’t we supposed to live more varied lives due to the liberations of technology? Aren’t we supposed to enjoy the greatest material quality of life ever enjoyed by anyone who walked the earth?
Thus, at the same time we have three essentially contradictory things going on:
- Amazon and New Zealand branding themselves as idyllic and green and simple, when they are far from it.
- The transformation of the past we supposedly escaped through capitalism and democracy and technology into an idealised fetish.
- We’re escaping from the horrors of this world into a fantasy of the past, which is a tacit admission that the world Amazon and the New Zealand government are actually creating is the opposite of the world they’re creating on screen.
That is to say, if the New Zealand government and Amazon didn’t exist then they wouldn’t have to be doing this, because the world would more closely resemble the simple, natural society that people think they want. Whether they’d actually want it if they found themselves in it for real, who knows? Our feelings are so bound up in national branding and corporate myth making that it’s impossible to judge.
New Zealand kills its own tourism industry, and The Rings of Power come to the rescue
The timeline for this deal goes back to late 2018, when Amazon met with officials from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment and the New Zealand Film Commission. A few months later, in January 2019 the government invited them to apply for the additional 5% rebate. In September, Amazon announced that New Zealand would be the production base for the series. In November, they sent in their application for the additional rebate, which was considered and provisionally approved by the Special Economic Benefits Verification Panel (the SEB panel, as the documents refer to it).
This approval meant that the agencies could move forward with negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding with Amazon. Bear in mind, Amazon were already filming the show at this point, but they suspended production in March 2020, because of Covid restrictions and the general shutdown in the entertainment industry. Production recommenced in September, and the MOU was negotiated throughout this period, finishing in November. The SEB panel considered the negotiated memoranda and approved them.
In the summer of 2021, Amazon announced that it would be moving the production base from New Zealand to the UK, and that it would not be pursuing the additional 5% uplift from the Wellington government. Essentially, the agreed-upon deal fell apart and New Zealand lost a valuable cinematic asset to Britain. So let’s reconstruct this, and look at how and why this part of the cultural subsidy agreement came undone.
The numbers, in terms of significant economic benefits to New Zealand, are all over the place. Initial estimates of the boost to the country’s tourism industry were around $225 million over the five seasons. After the government responded to a virus that had been around for a year by shutting down international travel and locking down the country, these estimates dropped significantly, to between $178-198 million. The main economic purpose of this exercise was to boost New Zealand’s tourism income, but the government negotiating this deal then made that more difficult for itself. A wonderful example of the split personality disorder many governments engage in when it comes to economic policy.
The government got Deloitte Access Economics to produce their own assessment of the economic benefits, and their ‘conservative’ estimate was a boost of over $500 million to GDP over the lifetime of the series, including a $366 million increase from tourism. In July 2020, another briefing for ministers says:
Note that TNZ has reassessed the potential value of a marketing partnership and considers that it is larger than the value of the 5% Uplift.
So, at the same time that they were downgrading their own estimates of the economic value in terms of jobs, increased tourism and so on, they were also telling ministers that the marketing partnership alone was more valuable than the extra 5%. Keep in mind that this marketing partnership was one of three pillars underpinning this deal, the others were a technology partnership and help for the local screen industry, which included paid internships where Kiwis could shadow the director or other senior staff on the production.
So, the marketing element of this alone was considered more valuable than the 5% rebate, let alone the other aspects of the deal, even though the estimates of increased tourism income were going down. Clearly, nation branding is about a lot more than attracting tourists.
Tourism New Zealand prepared their own assessment for the SEB panel – this is the first time round, when they were considering Amazon’s initial application for the extra 5%. It begins with some stats about how 19% of international visitors cited The Hobbit movies as a factor in why they came to the country, and so on. It details a $79 million marketing campaign by Tourism New Zealand around the release of the Hobbit films, and says that the legacy impact of this will wane without new activities (such as paying for a quarter of the most expensive TV show ever made).
One page is astonishingly blunt about how this all works:
Counterfactual — another “Home of Middle-earth”
The Hobbit films continue to provide a legacy benefit to NZ —the “Home of Middle-earth” has largely shaped international visitor perceptions and the appeal of New Zealand as a holiday destination particularly amongst our core target markets. This benefit is protected by our status as the only location in the world where fans can experience the real Middle-Earth.
Should another destination ‘closer to home’ (for example the UK) deliver the same value proposition, then NZ should expect this legacy impact to quickly taper off – particularly in the current climate of slowing global travel and economic uncertainty.
New Zealand led the way in film tourism leverage but other destinations have learnt, mimicked and caught up (for example Game of Thrones destination attraction by Northern Ireland and Croatia), as such we should expect other destinations to quickly materialize the tourism benefit of the production should UAP move to another location.
The inability to leverage the new series would risk New Zealand losing equity built up from our strong association with the ”Home of Middle-earth” concept and a loss of an aspirational hook for the promotion of NZ and our epic landscapes.
Ironically, they predicted exactly what would happen, but that’s because they made it happen by making it impossible for Amazon to film in the country due to draconian Covid restrictions.
The SEB Panel heard from all the agencies involved, not just Tourism New Zealand, before making their decision to negotiate the deal with Amazon. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment also put together a presentation for the Panel, and among the documents are a series of emails where officials discussed what to tell the Panel, and what not to tell them. Essentially, they deleted anything that might dissuade the Panel from approving the negotiations. There are lines through whole sections from drafts of the presentation that detail concerns and problems.
For example, the Ministry felt that ‘some aspects of the application are inconsistent with the NZSPG criteria’, ‘several undertakings lack certainty’ (no shit, Sherlock), and ‘the quantum of the additional grants obliges a high level of confidence in the value that can be returned’ and this was virtually impossible on a five season show being made over a decade. They also deleted lines saying, ‘Unlike the earlier film trilogies, this production is not led by New Zealanders. The drivers can therefore be expected to be more commercial in nature.’
One key aspect here is that the prior film trilogies had a well-deserved reputation for treating the New Zealand workers like shit. During production on The Hobbit trilogy, the local performers found out they were being paid a lot less than their American and British counterparts, and started to unionise. NZ Equity, the actors union, was an outgrowth of the equivalent union in Australia, and encouraged the actors to demand equal pay, which they did. The whole thing blew up, there were public demonstrations, accusations and counter-accusations, Warner threatened to move the production elsewhere and so the government rewrote labour laws, stripping actors of their collective bargaining rights and ensuring the production stayed in the country.
What began as a group of actors trying to negotiate better pay and conditions was spun by the government, sections of the media and Warner themselves as a dangerous threat that the films would go away. Then, when the new deal was struck and the Hobbit law was passed, stripping the collective bargaining rights, the Prime Minister spun it as him saving the movie, not damaging the local industry.
But damage it he did – in the following years revenue from the film industry fell, and only started growing again in 2016. The Hobbit law was eventually rewritten, but salaries in the NZ industry are still below international standards, while subsidies to foreign productions are reaching record levels. The bottom line is that this isn’t helping the local industry, it’s simply making it dependant on foreign productions, which in turn is dependent on generous rebates.
Emails and other documents relating to the Hobbit law labour dispute were released years later, over the objections of Peter Jackson and Warner Bros. One government memo records how Disney had said that if the government allowed the actors to demand equal pay, they would probably stop bringing productions to New Zealand. Emails between Jackson and government officials show that he claimed to be pro-union, noting how he was a member of several American screen entertainment unions. But he also badmouthed the actors – his fellow Kiwi citizens, let’s not forget – and branded their actions ‘toxic nonsense’.
So the Ministry pretending like not having Kiwis running the show on The Rings of Power meant that the whole thing would be a commercial effort is the height of hypocrisy.
Amazon Play Hardball
One of the amusing things about the documents is that while they list the members of the SEB panel, the whole thing is clearly corrupt. For one thing, they’re all high ranking officials within the agencies presenting to them – so it’s a circlejerk. For another, there’s one page that lists the panel members and details their conflicts of interest in terms of ‘Current Directorships, Board, Trust or Inquiry Appointments’, and ‘major Involvement in screen productions or other commercial interests’. But the whole page is redacted, suggesting there’s all sorts of potential conflicts of interest.
Unsurprisingly, in late 2019 the panel affirmed the decision to negotiate with Amazon over the extra 5% rebate, using the ‘hybrid’ or ‘two tier’ structure whereby there would be overall requirements for the series as a whole, as well as individual requirements for each season. For example, in the technology partnership section they considered various areas on which Amazon could help – initially space and drones, but they also discussed artificial intelligence, fabrics and advanced materials, augmented reality and virtual reality, and healthcare innovation.
That last one is especially horrifying, given that ambulances pick up Amazon workers from warehouses every day, especially in the recent heatwave, while Amazon is now moving into healthcare provision. You see, I’m sure, how valuable this show is to them, not only in projecting a world whereby people like Jeff Bezos are glamourised for their wealth and supposed importance, but also in smothering this technocratic shithole of a society with idealised images of a simpler world.
The negotiations lasted most of the year, and while most of the emails are heavily redacted and some of the attachments weren’t released, and almost everything from the Amazon side is considered confidential, we can be sure of one thing. The fundamental problem was that the New Zealand government wanted to make the language as specific as possible, really nail down exactly what Amazon would have to do to receive the extra 5%, but Amazon wanted the opposite.
So, instead of ‘Amazon will continue to engage and collaborate meaningfully with the New Zealand agencies, and leverage UAP assets to enable the New Zealand agencies to achieve their goals as expressed in this Series MoU’ Amazon wanted this to be ‘empower the New Zealand agencies to…’. On the one hand the government officials were running away with estimates of how valuable the partnership would be, but on the other hand they were insisting on measurable, deliverable conditions. Whereas Amazon wanted vague language so they could argue they met these conditions, because with such vaguely defined terms no one could prove they didn’t.
While they did, eventually, come to an agreement and it was approved by the Panel, the deal fell apart and Amazon moved The Rings of Power season two to the UK. From the documents and the public statements, it seems the major reasons why they did this was because the New Zealand government’s restrictions were making production very difficult, and because they could get the same rebate – 25% – from the UK government, without any of the additional conditions attached. The main reason for picking New Zealand in the first place appears to be that Scotland, the main rival, didn’t have a production base set up already, whereas New Zealand did.
Thus, this is a story of government overreach backfiring on them in two ways – first, the absurd Covid restrictions, and second the petty demands they kept making of Amazon on top of the marketing benefits, even while their internal documents show the marketing benefits more than made up for the extra 5%.
The British Culture Ministry and The Rings of Power
Naturally, I put in a FOIA request with the British culture ministry – the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to try to find out more. What happened next was not surprising, as such, but is worth recounting.
Initially they tried to claim that all such materials would be commercially confidential. I explained that I wasn’t looking for direct communications with Amazon officials, but rather internal assessments and records of efforts to bring the production to the UK. I’d already had rejections from Film Scotland and other related agencies.
So, the culture ministry spent several months essentially dodging my request – occasionally sending a letter saying they needed another 30 days to consider whether to release the documents, but then taking another three months before sending me another letter. I sent emails asking for a review of how my request was handled, which they never responded to. I filed an additional request asking for all emails pertaining to how my original request had been handled, which they never responded to. This is actually illegal, but at this point I consider everything the government does to be criminal.
Eventually, they responded by refusing to release any of the records, saying they’d consulted with a minister and they’d agreed with the decision. I wrote back, demanding a review (essentially a first-stage appeal against their response) which they acknowledged, and promised a review within 30 days. Months passed, and then they reversed course and released a handful of heavily-redacted documents.
Some of these are emails celebrating the news that Amazon were moving The Rings of Power to the UK, other emails were a bit narky when it was originally announced that the show would be in New Zealand. Bizarrely, they said it had nothing to do with Brexit, when that had to be a factor because it makes travel to the UK and visas and work permits more complicated. There is also a redacted, embargoed email chain discussing messaging opportunities following the news that it was coming to the UK after all.
When that news broke, the culture minister made a statement celebrating this and announcing that thousands of jobs would be created. Again, this is curious because if we go back to Deloitte’s analysis for the Wellington government, they said it would create only 600 full-time equivalent jobs per annum. So, more proof that this is about a lot more than economics, and the price of nation branding is whatever a nation is willing to pay for it.
As such, the fate of Númenor hangs in the balance. The series apparently depicts the decline of this great island kingdom, but presumably it will have to appear in season two, even if it’s in a degraded state. So they will have to shoot some of season two in New Zealand, even if most of it is shot in the UK. Thanks to the magic of the commonwealth (a profound misnomer in itself), there is a co-production agreement between New Zealand and the UK, which states:
A co-production film shall be entitled to the full enjoyment of all the benefits which are or may be accorded in New Zealand and the United Kingdom respectively to national films.
This means that as well as a 25% rebate on production expenses in the UK, Amazon can also claim a 20% rebate on filming expenses in New Zealand. So, they aren’t really losing anything by walking out on the deal and moving to the UK, if anything they’re finding an additional government to help pay for even more of the most expensive TV show ever made.