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Amazon’s foray into medieval fantasy epics – The Rings of Power, a Tolkien adaptation – is perhaps the most expensive TV product ever made, but is only possible due to the largesse of government subsidies.  As recently-leaked viewing data shows, the series is a flaccid flop that doesn’t even appear to have chimed with the core, established Tolkienverse audience.  Season two has moved to the UK, which offers even greater subsidies than Amazon Studios accumulated for the first season, so I ask whether the entire culture ministry system is going off the deep end.

New Zealand Subsidises The Rings of Power

As I have previously examined in some detail, Amazon were invited by the government of New Zealand to apply for a 25% subsidy on production expenses for season one of The Rings of Power.  They see the association between the country and the Tolkien fantasy world as vital for tourism and wider cultural exposure of New Zealand.  On a budget reported to be in the region of $500 million, this equates to a lot of free school meals or whatever you think public money is better spent on than Jeff Bezos’s desire for a Games of Thrones-style four quadrant ratings bonanza.

In the event, the ‘5% uplift’ deal fell apart, leaving Amazon with just a 20% (or $100 million) rebate for the money they spent building a fake city in New Zealand.  From the documents I obtained from the Kiwi state, it seems both sides were playing each other.  The government were making additional demands in order for the series to qualify for the extra 5% cashback, even though their own internal studies and communications said that the economic benefits alone made it a good deal for New Zealand.  They wanted a technology partnership, work placements on set whereby promising New Zealand talent could shadow the producers of The Rings of Power and learn from them, as well as other add-ons laid out in memoranda of understanding.

On Amazon’s side, they were simply trying to get as much money as possible out of the Kiwi treasury, while promising at little as possible in return.  The language for the memoranda was redrafted numerous times, often weakened as a result of feedback from Amazon executives.  The corporation saw this as a cashgrab, and wanted few strings attached to that cash.

Enter the pandemic, and the New Zealand government’s insane, obsessive Zero Covid policies, which made the production more difficult and – ironically – more expensive, which in the end meant the government will have to pay even more money to Amazon since the figure of 20%, which The Rings of Power season one still qualified for, is not capped. Amazon Studios decide to move the production base to the UK – Scotland, one of the other locations they were considering for season one – and deal with the British ministry of culture instead.

Rings of Power Viewing Data Proves Horrific

The greater irony is that the series has proved a wibbly flop.  The Hollywood Reporter recently obtained information leaked from sources (presumably inside Amazon Studios) showing that the domestic completion rate for The Rings of Power season one was just 37%.  Overseas, just 45% of viewers watched the season all the way through.

Given that this was supposed to be Amazon’s tentpole, their breakout designed to establish themselves as a credible producer of popular culture, this has to be seen as an epic failure (pun intended).  Likewise, if New Zealand’s tourism and culture agencies were hoping for a national branding boom and for tourists to flood to the country to see the real-life fake city of Númenor, they will be sorely disappointed.

On balance, therefore, I think the government got the less worse end of the deal.  After all, Avatar 2 was also filmed in the country (and qualified for a massive subsidy) and that has taken more money than Jesus.  Though no one seems to know anyone who has actually seen it, and its cultural resonance – as with the original – appears to have been precisely zero.

British Government Cultural Subsidies

Meanwhile, the British government has now acquired this turkey of a show, putting itself on the hook for a gigantic bill come the end of season two.  A couple of weeks back, finance minister Jeremy Cunt announced that they’re upping the film and TV tax credit system from 25 to 34%.

The system is a little complex but essentially, if The Rings of Power qualifies as a high-end TV production, certified by the British Film Institute, then they’ll get over a third of their production expenses back via government subsidy.  The British Film Institute, incidentally, is merely a subsidiary agency of the ministry of culture (officially the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).  It sounds independent, but it ain’t.

Just to illustrate how easy it is to qualify as a high-end TV production, the truly abysmal Intelligence (the David Schwimmer ‘comedy’ set inside GCHQ) qualified under this scheme.  So Amazon should have no problems leveraging this incredibly generous cultural subsidy system to their benefit.

However, if viewing figures and audience responses remain as sub-mediocre as they have proven so far, that means Amazon and the British government are going to be spending a fortune on a manifestly unpopular PR product.  It won’t help bring tourism to Scotland, because who the fuck wants to visit a rainy, impoverished hillside just because a TV show they didn’t like was shot there?  It won’t help keep Britain at the forefront of pop culture production, because it needs to be popular for that to be even remotely true.  And it won’t establish Amazon as serious players in the entertainment business.

Thus, I’m left wondering whether this is a waste of money all round, made possible only through the state capitalist dynamic whereby big corporations are given special treatment, enabling them to become – and continue to be – big corporations.  Whatever PR value either Amazon or the governments of New Zealand or His Majesty’s Kingdom of Great Britain and possibly Northern Ireland were hoping to gain, they aren’t going to get it.  Not very many people enjoyed The Rings of Power, and making the second season take place during a seemingly never-ending hailstorm near Edinburgh doesn’t move the needle for me.

The bigger question, therefore, is whether this is symbolic of the endemic failings and crunching, steady collapse of the state capitalist system, one of the last big throws of the dice before advanced economies can’t afford to do this shit anymore?  And the answer, of course, is yes.