In 2017, Jeff Bezos issued a mandate to Amazon’s video division: find the next Game of Thrones.
Bezos knew that if Amazon Prime Video were to compete with Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock, it must change television/streaming in one swing. And should a studio find the “next Game of Thrones,” it would re-order the hierarchy of the entertainment industry.
From 2011 to 2019, Game of Thrones grew into a brand on the level of Star Wars. Corporations across the country marketed their products with the show’s themes — some still do. AEW, the impressive new wrestling promotion, announced an upcoming event called “Winter is Coming,” the ominous phrase synonymous with the Thrones series.
That’s the difference between Thrones and current popular shows like Yellowstone, Succession, and Billions. Game of Thrones was a phenomenon that exceeded its own vision.
So it’s no wonder that Bezos, without any patience, envisions Amazon as the home to Thrones‘ successor. Bezos wonders: how else can Prime Video become more than an extra feature for shoppers who can’t wait three days for a new pair of jeans?
Bezos’ ambitious goal is far from a top-secret plan. If a fantasy series takes off, there’s no guarantee it will come from Amazon. All of Amazon’s video competitors share precisely the same vision: find the next Game of Thrones.
In 2019, Netflix got ahead of the race with The Witcher, a fine series to binge with little to remember. HBO, with a built-in advantage, plans to fill the Thrones void with multiple prequel series. The first, House of the Dragon, with events set 200 years before Thrones, will debut in 2022. Then Amazon, the most aggressive among the services, plans to win the race by outspending the competition.
Amazon Studios will make history next fall with its upcoming Lord of the Rings television series. Amazon will have spent a $465 million budget on the first season, the most expensive ever produced, when it airs. But first, Amazon rolled out the Wheel of Time last Friday, an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s 14-book series of the same name.
Wheel of Time debuted to a more promising start than The Witcher and has perks Thrones never had. As all fantasy readers sigh, George RR Martin still has not finished the final two books in the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel series HBO adapted into Thrones.
Martin’s failures were among the reasons Thrones’ quality dropped in the final two seasons. Without source material, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had to transition from adapting Martin’s work to creating original storylines en route to Martin’s planned ending. Unfortunately, Martin doomed Thrones after he let Benioff and Weiss outpace him.
Conversely, Robert Jordan — with Brandon Sanderson, the co-author for the final three novels — finished the Wheel of Time book series, providing Amazon a definitive journey to the destination. However, Wheel faces challenges Thrones didn’t.
Before Thrones rose into a public microscope, Benioff and Weiss had time to make adjustments before. Like Game of Thrones’ budget — which started at $6 million per episode and ended at $15 million per episode — the show steadily grew in popularity, eventually into a mammoth.
As Mike Weber, an executive producer of the Wheel of Time, told GQ, “the audience expectation [for Wheel] is coming off of the last season of Game of Thrones, not the first season.” Therefore, Amazon spent a reported $10 million per episode on Wheel’s first season.
Those are the expectations that Wheel of Time faces.
Wheel and other hopefuls also have the task of turning a niche fantasy series — written only for a select group of readers — into a mainstream brand. Keep in mind, half of Thrones‘ audience had never wasted a minute on the fantasy genre before its final season.
While Martin’s world includes dragons, mythical creatures, magic, and resurrections — the human elements grew the adapted television series into a gold standard.
Benioff and Weiss found that the viewers cared more about the realistic elements of the series than the fantasy. HBO must agree with this assessment as it denied a prequel series based on the White Walkers but greenlit the prequel based on the origins of the Targaryen dynasty.
Ultimately, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, and Cersei Lannister were real people living in a world of fantasy. Viewers felt personally cheated by the show’s ending because they had invested a decade of emotions into the characters. That’s attachment, not infatuation.
Amazon will have a more challenging time reaching casual viewers. Jordan’s characters are not as sympathetic or devious as Martin’s. Through three episodes, Wheel is more Lord of the Rings than Game of Thrones.
Then there’s the question of whether any network or service can even capture the audience size that Game of Thrones did — which includes HBO’s prequels.
Though Thrones only ended two and half years ago, the world has changed immensely since that time. Viewers bolstered Thrones‘ popularity with debates, theories, predictions, and possible easter eggs after each airing. By the final seasons, outlets covered episodes like football games. OutKick, Barstool, The Ringer, and other sports websites created live weekly reaction shows around Thrones. Of course, that doesn’t happen in a streaming era as every viewer consumes the product at a different time. And since the end of Thrones, viewers have grown accustomed to streaming a series at their convenience.
So finding “the next Game of Thrones” could be a journey like finding the next Michael Jordan Amazon, HBO, Netflix, and eventually Apple may be chasing ghosts at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. However, perhaps Wheel of Time could be the LeBron James to Thrones‘ Jordan?