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Amazon’s ‘The Rings of Power’ Was the Streaming Bet of the Year. It Was Also a Bet on an Unlikely Duo.

How did showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay land their big break with the most expensive series in TV history? The answer offers a glimpse at what defined Season 1—and what could come next.

Amazon Prime Video/Ringer illustration

Long before they were the showrunners of one of the biggest series of 2022, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay identified as nerds. Picked on by the same bullies at a Northern Virginia high school, they built a friendship and creative partnership after joining the same debate team and then cowriting a one-act play. When school finished, they usually went to Payne’s house to write or drove to Washington, D.C., to watch movies on the biggest screens they could find.

“It was just part of the air we breathed,” Payne tells me. “We got together and we couldn’t help but start thinking about stories. And we instantly found out all of the things I was terrible at, Patrick was amazing at.” Says McKay: “That synergy of having complementary skill sets was so unique and special. In some ways, it’s like parallel paths that happen to fill the missing pieces on both sides.”

The duo wrote screenplays and directed stage plays in their early 20s while Payne majored in English at Yale and McKay studied theater arts at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, Payne moved to Los Angeles with “nothing but a couple screenplays, a suitcase, and a laptop to start the hustle.” Fast-forward more than 10 years, and the writing buddies have landed their big break by helming the most expensive series in television history: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Amazon paid more than $700 million (and counting) to produce Rings, a prequel to author J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring that dropped its Season 1 finale in October. The series was the result of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s reported mandate for the company’s studio to produce the next Game of Thrones. Yet while much has been made of Amazon’s quest to stake a claim on billion-dollar IP that can churn out seemingly limitless prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, not enough has been made of the men who were trusted with making good on that colossal bet.

Why did Amazon decide to put a historic investment and the fate of Middle-earth in the hands of showrunners who were inexperienced and largely unknown in the industry? How did that gamble work out? And what could this say about the future of streaming, both at Amazon and beyond?

In late 2017, Payne and McKay were punching up movie scripts at J.J. Abrams’s production company, Bad Robot, and just starting to “dip their toe” into television, Payne says. That was when Kevin Jarzynski, an executive at Amazon Studios and the duo’s former coworker at Bad Robot, told them that Amazon was accepting pitches for an original Lord of the Rings series. That November, Amazon had paid an unprecedented $250 million as part of a media rights deal that gave the Tolkien estate a “creative seat at the table.” Amazon also committed to five seasons of an LotR TV series.

“We’re building infrastructure for five seasons,” Jen Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, told Variety this year. “We’re building a small city. We were always going to spend what we needed to spend to get it right.”

The deal was about more than just a staggering amount of money, however. Part of the reason Amazon landed the rights over competitor streaming services is because of the way it wanted to bring Middle-earth to the screen. According to The Hollywood Reporter, HBO pitched the Tolkien estate on “remaking Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy”; per THR, “the estate has its gripes with Jackson’s adaptations but wasn’t interested in treading the same ground.” Netflix, meanwhile, proposed a high-volume strategy with different series centered on Gandalf and Aragorn. “They took the Marvel approach,” one insider told THR, “and that completely freaked out the estate.”

In an email to Time earlier this year, Bezos said that Amazon’s directive was to do right by Tolkien’s writing. “I hope we do Tolkien’s work justice,” he wrote. “It goes beyond making a commercially successful show.” While that sounds righteous on paper, the question was whether Amazon’s actions would indeed follow suit.

Payne and McKay, for their part, saw this opportunity as exactly what they had dreamed of: a big-audience blockbuster built on high-fantasy art. McKay says it was “the perfect Venn diagram of the things we loved so much.” Payne crashed at his assistant’s apartment as he started to work on the pitch. He says that he and McKay began “furiously brainstorming” through the 9,000 years of LotR history, eyeing an epic.

As longtime LotR fans who were acutely aware of the types of shows that bigger names were pitching, the duo came to an idea almost immediately, Payne says. Rather than home in on an existing character or dream up a sequel to the existing canon, McKay felt the show had to be a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, sprawling across the four pillars of Tolkien’s Second Age: the rise of Sauron, the forging of the Rings of Power, the fall of Númenor, and the last alliance of elves and men.

“That feels like it has all the ingredients you want for a big Tolkien epic,” Payne says. “Any of the other things felt too small. For it to be Lord of the Rings, you kind of had to have all of these things. This felt like Tolkien’s big, untold Middle-earth epic.”

Getting buy-in from Amazon wasn’t immediate. Payne and McKay were long shots to land the gig, McKay says, as they were pitted against some of the most celebrated writers and directors in the industry, including the Russo brothers, in a rigorous interview process. Yet Jarzynski championed Payne and McKay’s efforts, and Abrams even called Amazon to advocate on their behalf. (Jarzynski and Abrams could not be reached for comment.) What ultimately made the difference was their obsession with Tolkien and the world he’d created.

“They had such a deep connection to the material that was there from the beginning,” Salke told THR. “There was no education you could do for that; it was their natural organic interest.”

Chasing its own version of Thrones, Amazon prioritized familiarity with lore over familiarity with leading a big-budget show. When I ask whether they deserved the opportunity, McKay cuts me off, laughing. “Not one iota,” he says.

“The maximum we’ll say is we feel a combination of fortunate and blessed,” Payne says. “It’s hard to tell when one stops and the other starts.”

They weren’t the only ones who were fortunate. While the duo would never say as much, Amazon—and those involved in production—benefited too.

After they officially got the job, Payne and McKay received an email from Abrams with the message, “Trust your instincts, but say ‘I don’t know’ a lot.” As first-time showrunners writing, directing, and producing a billion-dollar show, Payne and McKay were all too eager to embrace that ethos.

“Something that we’ve seen before in creative situations is people who are afraid to admit they don’t know something or they don’t have the answer,” Payne says. “So their knee-jerk reaction is to pretend they do know and then act as if they know something they don’t. We are happily admitting we don’t know what we’re doing when we don’t know what we’re doing.”

Payne says that upon arriving on set, the duo asked every department head “what’s the bad version” of a showrunner relationship and “how do we give you the freedom and empowerment to do your job at the highest level.” Adds McKay: “No matter how good we could possibly make it, it’s never going to be as good as it could be if we’re not drawing on the talents of everyone around us. You want good ideas wherever they come from.”

The environment created by this mindset laid the foundation for the show that followed. Whereas some showrunners operate from a position of total authority, Payne and McKay embraced the opposite approach. The writers’ room is a telling example. Gennifer Hutchison, who cowrote the season finale (“Alloyed”) and has worked in other high-profile writers’ rooms, including those of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, says Payne and McKay regularly thanked the writers for their work. Not only that, but they also highlighted specific examples of the room’s successes while shielding the room from the mounting outside pressures on the show.

“That kind of positive validation really makes you feel safe. It makes you want to achieve to your highest level,” Hutchinson says. “I think that really created this atmosphere where we all felt so invested in telling this story.”

Or take some more technical parts of the production. Ron Ames, a visual effects producer with decades of experience working on projects such as Avatar, Shutter Island, and Star Trek, says he was asked to go above and beyond his usual role and mentor the two through the particulars of the filmmaking process. He credits Payne and McKay’s “lack of any existing bad habits” for many of their early wins. “Fascinatingly, the success that we’re having and the reason we were able to get this done was they were so open to anything and everything,” Ames says. “A good idea is a good idea, and they accepted that.”

The list goes on. Payne and McKay spent multiple weeks trying to figure out how to effectively end Episode 4 (“The Great Wave”); once production designer Ramsey Avery’s assistant suggested focusing on “the tree and the petals,” Payne says, the showrunners leveraged that in the final cut. It was director J.A. Bayona who pitched showing bubbles in the water before Arondir is snatched by orcs in Episode 2 (“Adrift”); Payne says they originally “had a completely different idea, but loved it.” A costume designer came up with the idea of having massive antlers on the backs of the two human hunters in the season premiere. Payne and McKay ran with it.

“People tend to be more excited about implementing something they feel like they all have skin in the game with, something they have ownership over,” McKay says. “So we’re really trying to build that creative ownership by constantly saying it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from.”

When asked whether they ever feel that they’re competing against each other in 25 years of writing together, the pair say that one-upmanship burned out in their adolescence. Still, the question sparks an intense discussion on when competitive instincts are valuable—and when they’re not.

“We’ve seen a lot of ways that people seem to be playing the wrong sport, is I guess the way I’d describe it,” McKay says. “It’s not about you. It’s not about what you lack that you’re hoping someone else will give you, whether it’s the audience or the critics or the big-money job. There’s a lot of unhealthy competition of people seeking validation from outside and writing to prove something or being Mr. Cool or jealous that someone else got more money or the better job. We’ve never related to that. It’s so fun to be able to spin story. The point is the thing.”

The behind-the-scenes atmosphere of Rings of Power wouldn’t be so notable if the series weren’t a storytelling and commercial success. That, after all, is why Amazon bet on Payne and McKay—and the results speak for themselves.

A record-setting 25 million Amazon Prime customers watched the series premiere on its release day, and nearly 100 million watched it before the final three episodes were released. Nielsen ratings had Rings clearing 1.1 billion streaming minutes during the week of its finale; that edged out the numbers for the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon in its own finale week. (It should be noted that Nielsen’s streaming data does not include HBO’s linear TV viewers.) Critics praised the “psychedelic” visuals in Rings and lauded how its sensibilities remained true to Tolkien’s spirit. And the show has seemed to resonate with die-hard and casual fans alike.

“We’re never going to please everybody, but I think we’re very grateful that people who like the show seem to see the same strengths and weaknesses in it that we do,” McKay told The Ringer’s Joanna Robinson in October, discussing the widespread response to Rings.

It all comes back to Payne and McKay’s guiding principle for the project. They led every writers meeting with a Tolkien quote. They spoke Elvish in an initial pitch meeting with the Tolkien estate. Ames says the most important factor in production was “the Tolkien legacy and what was actually in the legendarium. It was what we went to every time there was a question.” There was a person on staff whose entire job was to answer any question about the legendarium—no matter how small the detail—and come back with pages and footnotes.

The most unconventional part of Amazon’s billion-dollar gamble paid off. And it may have provided a road map both for future seasons of the series and for ambitious world-building efforts beyond that. Director Wayne Yip, who worked on Amazon’s The Wheel of Time before joining Rings, says he never had a conversation with Payne or McKay about how they got the job but emphasizes the importance of them being “absolute, true, genuine fans of the work.” Lindsey Weber, an executive producer on Rings, says their fandom was a source of inspiration for the entire team. “I suspect their passion for and knowledge of Tolkien—combined with their clarity of vision for the whole series, across multiple seasons—was uniquely impressive,” she says. “When I heard their pitch before taking the job, I was floored. It was incredible. It still is!”

Payne and McKay are already working on Season 2 and plan to bring in new directors, cast members, Middle-earth locations, and more. Now that they have proof of concept, the question is how they can take the series to the next level while staying true to what got them here in the first place.

“We don’t want to make something disposable,” Payne says. “Carrying the responsibility of this material and this man’s life’s work, we aspire to making something that’s special and not like anything else you’ve seen before. … It’s not ours. We have a responsibility to this world and this history and this mythology that this guy created that means so much to these people and want to do right by it.”