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Why did Amazon pay $300 million for five hours of Richard Madden?

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in Amazon's Citadel's ridiculously expensive spy series Photo: Prime Video

Back in 2005, HBO and the BBC collaborated on an outrageous venture, Rome, the most expensive TV show ever made. The costs were mind-boggling: $9 million per episode was spent on towering sets, detailed Roman villas, and sprawling shantytowns teeming with extras built at Rome's Cinecittà Studios, Ben-Hur's famous chariot race site. Covering Julius Caesar's civil war, the battles featured thousands of actors and virtually no CGI. It was a stunning sight, as grandiose as any film release. So when the pilot came out on HBO and only 3.8 million people watched it, HBO just kept showing the pilot — 11 times in total. Until, in the end, the first episode was seen by an audience of 9 million.

The BBC did more: only $800,000 of the total $9 million came from Auntie's treasury, but still the jolly $6.6 million that tuned in to it from the start is gone. As, after all, the BBC did. This entire ruin was jubilantly covered by the media on both sides of the Atlantic.

And when Rome went off the air, TV seemed to have learned a valuable lesson – you can spend too much on a show. Or was it? This week, Amazon is launching The Citadel, a show that makes Rome seem like a place to play with Lego sets. The first season of The Citadel cost a mind-boggling $300 million for six—yes, really—40-minute episodes. That works out to $50 million per episode. With this, you can shoot 40 episodes of Doctor Who with old money. (Although if recent reports are to be believed, now that Disney co-funding has given the new Doctor Russell T Davis $10 million per episode, the TARDIS will be as expensive as a Roman villa.)

However, no one seems concerned. The Citadel isn't even the most expensive show on television, after all. It's also from Amazon – the highly publicized but rarely finished Lord of the Rings prequel The Rings of Power, which cost $465 million to hit the jar and was released to general indifference. The show was completed by 37% in the US, which means the percentage of customers who started watching and watched to the end. The rest of the world was a little more committed, with a 45 percent completion rate. Streamers usually hope for a 50% plus.

So right now, TV production is clearly expensive. Stranger Things ($30 million per episode), most of the Marvel series ($35 million), House of the Dragon ($20 million), and the slightly larger $15 million club that includes The Mandalorian are somewhat sort of make sense. These shows feature giant monsters, space battles, and flying superheroes, all done in expensive CGI. But then there's The Morning Show on Apple TV, a workplace drama set primarily in the TV newsroom that somehow costs $150 million a season to produce.

No wonder industry insiders look back with warm nostalgia for Lloyd Brown's 2004 firing. Then ABC chairman Brown was fired after funding a two-part pilot for the detective thriller Lost for a total of $13 million. The pilot episode of “Lost” was an unprecedented TV story, creating the most furious TV storyline in the world. But $6.5 million won't even get Brown an episode of Jack Ryan on Amazon today.

How did spending get out of control? As always, Netflix is ​​to blame. “The big jump came when Netflix started offering a cost-plus model for its purchases,” explains Ed Waller, Editor-in-Chief of TV trade bible C21 Media. Cost plus means what is written on the bank. Netflix, in order to get the attention of the writers and producers, essentially offered them to pay the full cost of creating the show plus a little more – from 10 to 30 percent more depending on the show and writer.

“It attracted talent that didn't take Netflix seriously,” Waller explains. “Given that the typical model was that the broadcaster would offer the producer 70 percent of the budget and tell them to see if they could get the rest elsewhere. Netflix grabbed a lot of people's attention very quickly.”

HBO/BBC Rome production valued at $100 million in 2015 dollars. Photo: Shutterstock

And that attention was quickly converted into dollars. In 2013, when House of Cards hit the streaming service, the cable drama was priced at $3 million an hour. By 2017, it had reached $5-7 million. The first season of Stranger Things was filmed to look like a 1980s Steven Spielberg film and cost $6 million per episode, while the second season grew to $8 million. Meanwhile, Crown was battling for $10 million, rising to $13 million. (For context: Downton Abbey is one of the most expensive British TV shows ever made, costing just $1 million per episode.)

Along the way, some idiots were popping out of the studio in modern versions of the emperor's new clothes, except that they were bought and paid for. For his long-forgotten 2016 Netflix show The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann recreated the 1970s Bronx, virtually restoring it with period graffiti (cost: $16 million per episode). Apple TV's dystopian sci-fi series See, meanwhile, drained Canadian lakes, built villages, and then rebuilt it all at a cost of $15 million per episode.

Other shows are mostly the brainchild of Friends – by the time the sitcom came to an end, the six-person alliance formed by the Friends stars meant they were getting $1 million each, which meant that a cheap-looking sitcom cost $10 million for 20.-minute installments. Note that The Morning Show has Jennifer Aniston, Reece Witherspoon, multiple sets and a staggering budget. (Only Aniston gets $1.25 million per episode.)

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in Apple TV's Morning A show that somehow costs $150 million a season. Photo: Apple

It's not like you need tens of millions to make a hit TV show. Perhaps the best and most talked about streaming show of 2022 was the Hulu drama Bear, which takes place in a seedy Chicago restaurant that was definitely not worth the land.

But The Citadel, which is doing its best to become an unparalleled TV moment, is not Bear at all. It's a global spy drama created by the Russo Brothers, the team behind Marvel's mega-budget hits Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The result is a mixture of True Lies and the Bourne franchise, where Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Richard Madden wake up in the midst of their dreary lives to find they have an uncanny ability to kill people. As their former handler Stanley Tucci explains, they are the elite members of a global spy agency that has been destroyed by its enemies.

There are also local spin-offs in Italy and India that have their own storylines but cross paths with the mothership as they spy on various jets across the planet, solving and killing. A spy from an Italian show was able to miss an episode of their interaction featured in the plot of both shows. But that's not why Citadel is so expensive; The budget was inflated due to the Russos' insistence that several episodes be almost completely re-shot after unsatisfactory test screenings.

Netflix's Get Down, which costs $16 million per episode. Photo: Netflix

Amazon VP of Streaming James Farrell said that if the series is successful, it is “highly likely” that its non-US team will look for more scripted and non-scripted projects that allow for a similar approach – a main series in the US and spin-offs elsewhere. countries. countries.

For Amazon, which did run into something of a problem with Bond after Daniel Craig insisted the character take a bullet, the TV show spin-offs could get their money back on their $8.5 billion purchase of 007 MGM. (The upcoming Bond reality show Road to a Million, hosted by Brian Cox, is certainly just the first step.)

All this goes against the market. Disney is laying off employees from left to right and center, HBO is postponing some programs for tax reasons, including the just-finished Batgirl, and is throwing out archival shows to avoid paying leftovers (Westworld disappeared from the HBO archive so quickly that some fans never even saw him). last episode.) Netflix cut its programming budget by £690m and even the BBC snatched £100m out of the pockets of its programmers.

“The drama bubble has definitely popped,” agrees Waller, who says with some confidence that the golden age of streaming is over, with fewer popular shows to come and beloved archival treasures disappearing. Except Amazon and Apple.

“Amazon is under more scrutiny with fewer breakout hits than it should be,” says Tom Harrington of Enders Analysis. “It didn't help the industry that they didn't create an identity for their programs – they've never been so convincing in defining what an Amazon show is.”

But Harrington doesn't see it as a disaster. “You really can't compare Amazon to Netflix or Disney because Prime Video is completely different. It's not even that they want to put on some good shows to make the Prime membership a little tackier so that members buy more hats – Amazon is determined to be the top video marketplace where they charge everyone else for housing. their apps in the Amazon Fire user interface or sell their services through Prime Video. The main content should draw people in, but not overwhelm other services that Amazon charges rent for. It's an odd balance that only Apple tries to achieve on this scale.”

So perhaps it's more correct to view Citadel as a huge corporate kink. We may never know how many people have watched the series, but for Amazon it doesn't matter. And there are even more big bets ahead. The streamer is currently working on a Blade Runner reboot from original director Ridley Scott, who reportedly recently spent $50 million on a pilot called Sinking Spring for Apple. The Citadel, meanwhile, has already been booked for a second season…

Citadel on Amazon Prime Video April 28

Five amazingly expensive TV shows1. The Big Bang Theory ($9 million per episode)

Dave's dull main comedy channel, this low-powered sitcom about the antics of a group of “nerds” has steadily grown in price over 12 seasons. This was due to his increasingly famous and expensive stars, and also because the producers had to pay to keep the rights to his title song, written by Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies.

2. Friends ($10 million per episode)

Possibly the most famous sitcom of all time – and certainly the best example of why Hollywood bean counters always have to scrutinize actors' contracts. The huge success of “Friends” in its 10 years of existence has turned the unknown sextet into household names, capable in their final seasons to gross over $1 million per episode. Shows like ER also suffered similar inflation, with its main character George Clooney going from being a stunt double to being the work of, well, George Clooney.

3. The Morning Show ($15 million per episode)

Apple TV+ made big bets on their first major show, spending $300 million on the first two seasons – $50 million more per season than on the last episode of Game of Thrones. Despite the apparent lack of grandiose battle scenes and computer-generated dragons, the cost was largely borne by the cast. Starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon received $1.25 million per episode.

4. The Get Down ($16 million per episode)

Big Names, Licensed Music, Baz Luhrmann: No wonder Netflix's spectacular 11-episode miniseries about the origins of hip-hop turned out to be expensive. What boosted its budget from its planned $11 million per episode to a dizzying $16 million was a bunch of behind-the-scenes nightmares, including filming stoppages, staff changes and extensive rewrites.

5. The Black Adder (£1 million for the first season)

Of course, this is nothing compared to the generous American budgets, but in 1983, £1 million was a lot for the BBC to fork out for a hilarious six-part film . historical romp written by a couple of obscure comedians. Of course, their faith in Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson proved true, but only after subsequent seasons pared back the period's costly production values ​​and added surreal gags.

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