HBO’s boss explains why he wouldn’t make a “Lord of the Rings” TV series

“We don’t need to make a bet.”
“We don’t need to make a bet.”
Image: AP Photo/Charles Sykes/Invision
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Everyone in prestige TV is looking for the next Game of Thrones—except its own network. HBO CEO Richard Plepler said the same chatter was alive a decade ago when its definitive hit The Sopranos ended.

“There is never going to be another Sopranos,” Plepler told audiences at Business Insider’s Ignition conference on Wednesday. “But what there is going to be is the next great creative idea.” That came in the form of True Blood, then Girls, Veep, Silicon Valley, and eventually Game of Thrones—which is its biggest show ever. The latest season repeatedly beat its own viewership records despite rampant piracy, leaks, and hacks.

His comments come as Amazon recently spent an estimated $200 million—one of the largest fees ever paid in history—to buy the TV rights to Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series was already brought to life in three films in the 2000s. And Warner Bros. explored the world of Middle Earth further in The Hobbit movies in the 2010s. No details have been released about the Amazon deal, but Deadline reported that there may be creative restrictions from the rights holders on what can and cannot be done in the TV series. HBO’s sister studio, Warner Bros., is also involved in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series.

But Plepler wouldn’t have made that bet.

Not because of the staggering price. HBO spends handsomely on programming, too. It’s dropping $15 million an episode on the final six-episode season of Game of Thrones, and the two most recent seasons were estimated to cost $100 million apiece. “I’d rather own our [intellectual property], 100%, like we do with Thrones,” said Plepler, of the series based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy books. “And I’d rather have the ability to work with a product that is inextricably linked to our brand.”

“But if I’m Jeff Bezos, that’s Monopoly money,” said Plepler, of the $200 million price tag and the founder of Amazon. He added:

He wants to make a bet on a great franchise… That’s a good bet. Why not make that bet? We don’t need to make a bet because we have something quite precious, which is a franchise called Game of Thrones… If I have to make a bet on a genre piece, I’m going to go with a Game of Thrones prequel that is part of our brand halo.

The network is developing five prequels from the show’s creative team. It’s also exploring new seasons of successful shows like True Detective, Big Little Lies, and The Night Of. And it has new series in the works like Succession, which Plepler described as “Dynasty, for smart people.” Jordan Peele, with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, is helping adapt the horror novel (paywall) Lovecraft Country for TV. And HBO is developing a show based on the comic book, Watchmen.

“No one knows when something is going to hit the zeitgeist in the way that Sopranos did and the way that Thrones did,” said Plepler. “Anyone who tells you we knew that Thrones was going to be Thrones is completely full of shit… You never know where the next great thing is, so what you want to do is work across the canvas with a wide range of talent and if you make enough bets you’re going to hit the kinds of gold that if you look at us over the last decade, we have a pretty good batting average.”