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The Lord of the Rings Amazon TV series release date, cast and budget

HBO has Game of Thrones. Netflix has Stranger Things. Hulu has The Handmaid's Tale. Disney has Marvel Studios and Star Wars. Now, Amazon has The Lord of the Rings. After years of searching for a heavyweight flagship series, Jeff Bezos' retail behemoth finally managed to beat out Netflix in an epic battle to lock down the rights to Middle Earth. It's a valuable investment — J.R.R. Tolkien's world provides a fertile collection of stories that are certainly capable of carrying the entire Amazon video streaming service to a whole new level.

The question is, what has Amazon Studios been up to since the earth-shaking news of the rights acquisition broke back in 2017? Initially, little more than the occasional rumor followed. However, a sizable number of rumblings and leaks — not to mention a curious set of maps — have finally surfaced. After a quiet start, there's no doubt that Amazon is gearing up to take full advantage of Tolkien's creation in order to bolster their streaming service's offerings. 

From release schedules to potential casting choices, from astronomical budgets to familiar filming locations, here's everything we know about Amazon's Lord of the Rings series so far.

What's the release date for Amazon's Lord of the Rings?

When Tolkien fans learned that Middle Earth would be coming to screens for the first time since Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, it's only natural that their first question was "When?" An exact answer will have to wait, as no official release date has yet been announced. However, there are a few pieces of information that can clue us in as to approximately when the series might drop.

First and foremost, there's the contract factor. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon chief Jennifer Salke confirmed that part of the deal for the rights included the condition that the show had to be in production within two years. She added that the hope is to have the show "on the air" by 2021. This sentiment was repeated by renowned Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey in a separate interview where he explained that he was under the impression that Amazon "meant to start showing it on TV in 2021."

While it may feel a ways off, one does not simply conjure a project of this size and scope out of thin air. The idea that Amazon could be able to pull the first season together within four years of purchasing the rights is about as good as anyone could ask for, especially if you don't want to sacrifice quality along the way.

What's the budget for Amazon's Lord of the Rings?

While budgets and numbers are always hard to pin down (especially early on in production), there's little doubt that Amazon's adventures through Middle Earth are going to cost the studio a tidy sum. Right out of the gate, the rights alone cost Bezos and company a whopping $250 million. No, that's not a typo — the company spent a quarter of a billion just to obtain the screen rights to Tolkien's world. 

As if that wasn't enough, rumors immediately began swirling regarding how much they planned on shelling out to, you know, actually make the show. EW reported early in 2018 that the first two seasons alone were going to double the cost of the rights. 

Since then, the number has only gone up. At this point, when all costs are considered, a cool billion stands as one of the lower estimates out there, while others have pushed the figure comfortably north of that mark. While it's easy to trot out the old line that "it takes money to make money" — especially in an era rife with luxurious production budgets — the idea of dropping somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion on a single television show is about as exorbitant as it gets.

Who's in the Fellowship of Amazon's Lord of the Rings cast?

With such a gargantuan undertaking, one would think that a fellowship of actors would be put in place fairly quickly. While casting calls have already been issued for Middle Earth "Soldiers, Villagers, and Villains," though, Amazon is keeping pretty quiet when it comes to the bigger names. 

So far, only one cast member is confirmed. In July 2019, Variety reported that young Australian actress Markella Kavenagh had been cast in a regular role on the series. According to the publication, Kavenagh — who has previously appeared in Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cry — will be playing a character named Tyra. Curiously, no character with that name exists in Tolkien's writing.

Kavenagh is the only official cast member at this point. But The Walking Dead star Tom Payne did stir the waters back in early 2019 when he stated in an interview that he wanted to keep his luscious locks partly because Amazon was "casting Aragorn," clearly implying that he wanted a shot at the role. However, so far there is no further evidence that Payne's unshorn ambitions ever came to fruition.

Will Jackson's characters return?

In another casting-related interview, Sir Ian McKellen was asked about who else should play Gandalf if the wizard makes an appearance in the new series. "What do you mean another Gandalf?" McKellen replied with surprise. He elaborated, "I haven't said yes because I haven't been asked, but are you suggesting someone else is going to play it?" The return of Sir Ian "Gandalf" McKellen certainly could factor into a series set during pretty much any point in Middle Earth history due to his age — the wizard is thousands of years old, after all. 

McKellan's commitment to the role aside, one thing that does seem increasingly unlikely is the return of any other actors from the Peter Jackson-helmed trilogy — if for no other reason than the timeline the series will reportedly explore. Apart from Gandalf, the only other real contender (from the original nine members of the Fellowship, at least) could possibly be Legolas, thanks to his immortal Elven blood. But, alas, Orlando Bloom shot that idea down when asked. Though he does like to consider himself ageless, the star explained, "I don't know where I would fit in that world." While it's feasible that other more tangential characters like the venerable Elrond or ageless Galadriel could find their way into the series, there's no evidence that Amazon has any plans of the kind so far.

Who's writing and directing Amazon's Lord of the Rings?

While the cast may be shrouded in mystery, Amazon has finally come right out and announced its Lord of the Rings creative team, and the list of names is lengthy, to say the least. Not only is it loaded with star-power, but the sheer number of alumni coming over from other high-profile productions is a bit hard to take in all at once. In late July 2019, Amazon dropped a short but sweet video that highlighted the collective in a very Tolkien-esque way, using epic fantasy music and a typewriter setting to facilitate the roll call. 

On the one hand, the video confirmed previous reports that Star Trek writers JD Payne and Patrick McKay would serve as showrunners, Game of Thrones' Bruce Richmond and Bryan Cogman were serving as executive producer and writer respectively, Breaking Bad's Gennifer Hutchison was on board as a writer, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom's J.A. Bayona had been chosen to direct the first pair of episodes

But it didn't stop there. The less-than-two-minute clip continued to provide a cascade of other names, including Stranger Things' Justin Doble as writer, Avengers: Age of Ultron's Ron Ames as co-producer, Avengers' Jason Smith as visual effects supervisor, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi's Rick Heinrichs as production designer. Renowned illustrator John Howe (who also worked on Peter Jackson's trilogy) and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey were also revealed as being involved on the project. The list goes on and on. It certainly seems that Amazon is putting its gobs of Middle Earth cash to good use in the creative department so far.

The Jackson Factor

Unsurprisingly, one other name that has continually been brought up in relation to the series is renowned filmmaker Peter Jackson. From the moment the news of Amazon's series broke, rumors have waffled back and forth regarding a potential Jackson connection. While he initially flat out denied being involved, multiple reports have refused to confirm this fact, with Jennifer Salke herself stating that the lack of any other specific news wasn't a negative. 

In addition, Jackson himself later added that he was keen to help however he could, even expressing an interest in looking over the scripts. Interestingly, one could surmise that Mr. Jackson has been ready for this event since he rolled cameras on his own trilogy 20 years ago. Legolas actor Orlando Bloom mentioned in one interview that literally while filming, Jackson had said, "Wouldn't it be fun to think about people doing a remake of Lord of the Rings?" 

Despite his prophetic utterance, at present Jackson's involvement is currently little more than a denial that refuses confirmation. In other words, it's impossible to say what will ultimately happen until more news leaks. After all, Jackson wasn't slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy until the last minute. For now, though, he seems a peripheral influence at best.

How long will Amazon spend in Middle Earth?

With so much money and time being poured into the project, one question that naturally arises is how much Middle Earth cinema we're going to have coming down the pike. As far as big-picture stuff goes, the studio is reportedly laying the groundwork for a solid five-season run, along with a possible spinoff (via The Hollywood Reporter). Not only that, but Tom Shippey has also stated that the first season alone is supposed to run for a whopping 20 episodes, making it one of the longest seasons of any Amazon Prime show to date.

While it's always gutsy committing to such ambitious plans all at once, the promise of five entire seasons spent in Middle Earth is encouraging, as it gives the showrunners time to tell the story without hustling in order to meet artificial deadlines — a concern that caused infamous issues for Game of Thrones' truncated final season. 

The possibility of a spinoff is intriguing, as well. Tolkien's stories often focus on a single character for extended periods of time, with heroes like Bilbo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, or even Beren and Lúthien holding the reader's focus at various points across the Middle Earth timeline. Spinning that tapestry off into one or more tie-in series is a concept with some merit, but only time will tell if the idea has any merit.

Where will Amazon find Middle Earth?

The question of where the project will be produced was officially answered (at least partly) in mid-2019, when it was announced that a "huge" part of the show would be filmed in none other than Peter Jackson's old stomping grounds of New Zealand. The Pacific island nation famously served as the home to the bulk of the production of both The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies in the past, and Amazon had apparently decided that they simply couldn't beat the awe-inspiring scenery.

The return to the land of the Kiwis is rumored to focus around the cities of Auckland on the northern island and Queenstown on the southern one, with local facilities apparently already busy with pre-production. The northern metropolis has already felt the impending arrival of such a huge operation, as businesses in West Auckland have reportedly had to sign non-disclosure agreements as they gear up to do brisk business while Amazon Studios is in town.

Originally, Scotland had also been considered as a serious contender for filming. However, Radio New Zealand claimed that the Scots had lost out due to "the tumultuous Brexit situation." Either way, it seems likely that other places will also be tapped to get in on the Middle Earth production as the process continues. Tom Shippey even pointed out that there could be several locations used for filming, although he wasn't sure of any specific spots being considered.

How will the story differ from Peter Jackson's trilogy?

Suspense and surprise are a big part of the film business these days. Avengers: Endgame made a gargantuan splash on opening weekend partly because everyone was dying to see how the questions teased by Marvel's secretive ad campaign ended up playing out. Naturally, then, it should come as no surprise that Amazon is doing their level best to keep their plans for Middle Earth a secret. But even within this context, the lengths to which they'll go in order to do so are pretty extreme. 

In one interview, Jennifer Salke went on record about how the studio was handling the team of writers as they secretively wove a story like spiders in the darkest depths of Mirkwood. Seriously, the analogy holds up, as they made sure the writers were pretty much cut off from the daylight as they worked on the plotlines and scripts.

"There's a fantastic writers room working under lock and key," Salke said. She went on to explain, "You have to go through such clearance, and they have all their windows taped closed. And there's a security guard that sits outside, and you have to have a fingerprint to get in there, because their whole board is up on a thing of the whole season." Looks like Amazon isn't willing to risk having any of their Middle Earth secrets leaking out before they're good and ready.

How does Aragorn factor in?

Way back in May of 2018, a rumor percolated stating that Amazon's Lord of the Rings series would focus on a younger version of everyone's favorite Gondorian monarch, Aragorn. Since then, reports have moved the timing of the show back into Middle Earth's Second Age, which leaves it firmly out of the reach of Aragorn's lifespan — we're talking about a period of time that ended nearly three thousand years before the ranger was even born.

The question of how Aragorn could fit into a series that is purportedly set three millennia before his time is a curious one, though. Could he be merely be needed for an initial framing sequence as he rules Gondor in the Fourth Age before the show flashes back in time? Or could it be that the earlier seasons will start in the Second Age and ultimately end on Aragorn in his youth during the fifth season? Of course, there's still the question of that spinoff series, too.

Like Tolkien, Amazon started with a map

Speculating too much about how Aragorn might factor into things is a fool's errand at this point. However, there is some solid information regarding the story's timeframe, released by Amazon Studios themselves. On February 13, 2019, the studio posted a tweet that simply read "'I wisely started with a map' — J.R.R. Tolkien." The quote hearkens back to the Oxford professor's roots and his infatuation with worldbuilding and geography. At the time, though, little evidence was given as to the motive behind the message.

Two days later, another tweet went out, this time with the words "Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky," quoting the first line of Tolkien's famous poem about the rings of power. More importantly, the tweet came with a map. It was made of four folded panels, and while its topography was unlabeled, it showed the familiar geography of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age, including a large portion of the lands further to the east. It was followed by a second tweet that linked directly to Amazon, where fans could zoom into a high-quality version of the map. Still, the lack of text meant there wasn't much for fans to discover. It was a fun little interactive adventure, even if it was hardly anything to write home about. But the studio was just getting started.

More information from Amazon's Middle Earth maps

Three days after the "three rings" post — notice the numerology at play — a second map popped up on Amazon's social media. This one was captioned "Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone." A third map followed seven days after that, accompanied by the line "Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die." A fourth map came, you guessed it, nine days after that: "One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne. In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie."

Critically, these three newer maps were labeled, the first with a handful of major place names and the second and third with many smaller locations filled in as well. While most of the names were those that fans of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories would be familiar with, there were several small changes as well — including one conspicuous detail. The area where Rohan existed during the time of the Fellowship's journey was labeled "Calenardhon." 

This meant that the maps were from an era that was at least a half-century before the trilogy takes place, as Théoden's Rohan is a 500-year-old kingdom that took the place of the Gondorian province of Calenardhon. The information was intriguing (and pointed away from a Young Aragorn series), but it wasn't definitive beyond that point — at least, not until the next day.

Númenor and the Second Age confirmed

On March 7, 2019, Amazon Studios posted one final map along with the last line of the poem: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie." This last map had nine folded panels and a wider view of the landscape. This macro view of Middle Earth exposed one critical piece of information in the bottom left corner that changed everything: the island of Númenor

The reason this not-so-little island is a big deal is because it only existed during the Second Age of Tolkien's mythology. Founded after the catastrophic ending of the First Age, the island served as a home for the Númenóreans, a nation of blessed men that flourished during the Second Age — they're the ones that founded Gondor and Arnor on the mainland — until they were destroyed and their island sank beneath the waves not long before the Third Age began. If the map has Númenor on it, it means Amazon's creative team has its sights firmly set on the Second Age

There's been little other information about the exact setting, with Amazon's co-head of television, Vernon Sanders, even reiterating that all of the information the studio is willing to release at this point is, indeed, that it will be set somewhere in the Second Age. In other words, within a time span that is 3,441 years long. While there's been little other information about the setting, the revelation that Númenor exists for at least part of the show has brought a thrill of new excitement to the venture, as it means audiences will get to bask in an elaborate realization of a part of Middle Earth history that has never been explored on the screen before.

Amazon's series promises to be "Tolkienian"

One important factor that many diehard fans are doubtlessly nervous about is the amount of leeway that Amazon Studios will have over the content itself. Will they be able to wreak havoc on the characters, storyline, and locations (a bit like the jarring myriad of changes that were done to the Hobbit trilogy) or will they have a shorter leash? Tom Shippey once again weighed in on the subject with some information that was a bit reassuring.

He clarified that Amazon does indeed have a "relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since… very few details are known about this time span." However, he followed this up by pointing out that "the Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered." He added, "All this, the course of history, must remain the same."

The fact that Amazon Studios can elaborate on the original source material isn't a surprise. But the fact that they can't alter the primary narrative nor add anything counter to what Tolkien has written is a balm for those still licking their wounds from the flagrant disregard for canon that The Hobbit trilogy, in particular, displayed. As Shippey himself stated, "It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain 'Tolkienian.'"

An international affair

It's a small world after all, and while it's easy to think of The Lord of the Rings as a western phenomenon, it absolutely isn't. Remember, we live in an era where Avengers: Endgame made nearly three-quarters of its box office earnings internationally — with China alone bringing in over 30 percent of that global total. So you can bet that Amazon is counting on a healthy response outside the good ol' U.S. of A. in order to help float their #LOTRonPrime boat. 

Fortunately for them, it looks as if the rest of the world (and especially the box office goliath of the People's Republic) is primed and ready to go. According to an overview by Abacus, Chinese fantasy fans are pumped for the new series, harboring hopes that the new adaptation of Middle Earth could be a balm on their post-Game of Thrones wounds. Whether or not Amazon's Lord of the Rings manages to help overcome the backlash from wrapping things up in Westeros, though, it does appear that the show will have an army of fans around the globe to herald its long awaited arrival in everyone's Prime queues.

Is Amazon planning a Middle Earth extended universe?

We live in an era where everything from Marvel and DC to The Walking Dead and Star Wars have the concept of an "extended universe" built into their long term plans. Naturally, then, Amazon would be foolish not to at least have one eye on an extended Middle Earth universe of sorts, especially when they're working with the dense and storied lore of one of the most popular universe creators of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien. 

While specific franchise plans will take time to unfold, Amazon has already announced one potential piece of universe building in the form of a new Lord of the Rings console video game that is already in development. The game does not appear to be directly linked to the show, but that hardly disqualifies it as a part of the greater continuity that Amazon is in position to propagate. 

Like the show, the game doesn't have a release date yet, but it appears to be a free-to-play "massively multiplayer online" game that will, as Entertainment Weekly revealed, "give fans around the globe a new, immersive game experience for epic exploration of the vast world of Tolkien." Whether the game ultimately ties into anything from the coming show or not, it appears that Amazon's exploration of Tolkien's world is only just beginning.