Jeff Bezos’s Mount Doom – inside Amazon’s $200 million Citadel fiasco
In March 2021, a 100-strong film crew descended on Rewley Road fire station off Frideswide Square in Oxford. Among their ranks was Richard Madden, the Scottish actor who achieved fame in Game of Thrones and The Bodyguard and has been “in the conversation” as a potential next James Bond (he’s a British male actor aged between 30 and 45 who can wear a tuxedo and speak at the same time). At one point he was spotted in the vicinity of an old fire engine.
Why was the former Robb Stark sharing screen time with a fire engine in central Oxford? He and his colleagues were sworn to secrecy. But one did let slip they were making “an espionage sci-fi series on Amazon”.
Eighteen months on from that visit to a fire station, emergency sirens are blaring at Amazon. All hands are at the pump as the streaming service tries to rescue Citadel, a somewhat risky attempt at launching a global TV franchise in collaboration with Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joseph Russo.
From Muddled Earth to towering inferno, Amazon’s adventures on the small screen have gone distinctly subprime lately (meanwhile, it has cancelled its best new show – Stranger Things-esque time-travel caper Paper Girls). Because even as critics and Tolkien fans unite to pour derision on the $1 billion Lord of the Rings spin-off Rings Of Power, it is increasingly obvious the House of Bezos has a fresh calamity on its hands with Citadel.
Citadel could certainly rival Rings of Power in the damage it inflicts on Amazon coffers. The original season one budget of $160 million has now grown by at least $75 million as the Russos swoop in to rescue the project.
Such sums would once have sent TV executives into a dead faint. The original Game of Thrones – regarded as lavish for its time – came with a per-episode budget of $6 million. That’s one-fifth of what Citadel has already cost – before a minute has reached the eyeballs of Amazon Prime subscribers.
Yet this is not an anomaly. With Netflix, Amazon, Apple, HBO and others vying to win the “streaming wars”, these major players are chucking cash at the wall in the hope that, somewhere amid that blitz of dosh, they stumble upon the next Game of Thrones or Stranger Things.
The figures involved are brain-frying. Strange Things 4 had a per-episode budget of $30 million according to the Wall Street Journal. House of the Dragon costs $20 million per instalment.
But if those budgets are hard to comprehend those shows are, at least, successful. Stranger Things 4 brought in record viewership for Netflix. House of the Dragon has lived up to the Game of Thrones hype by growing its audience week by week. However, streamers are also lashing lolly into less successful projects. Did you enjoy Shining Girls, the Apple + thriller for which Elizabeth Moss trousered $1.1 million per episode? Were you even aware it existed?
Or what about Foundation, Apple’s lavish yet stonkingly unfaithful adaptation of the Isaac Asimov sci-fi series? Despite registering with absolutely nobody – not even Asimov fans – the first series has set Apple back by $45 million.
Foundation was clearly a flop – disdained by critics and sci-fi devotees alike (inevitably a second season is in production). Often, though, it is hard to ascertain whether or not these projects have been successful. While Stranger Things 4 captured the cultural conversation, Netflix nonetheless lost one million subscribers in the fiscal quarter in which the season began.
Good luck, by the way, in extracting meaningful viewership figures for these properties. In the world of “Big Streaming”, ratings are closely guarded secrets. Netflix says Stranger Things achieved 1.4 billion “viewer hours”. But what does that mean? Amazon meanwhile said that Rings of Power “broke all previous records” for Prime Video. However, as Variety pointed out, “there is no way of verifying this”.
Apple, it so happens, is one of the few companies in the world that can afford to write a blank cheque to the producers of a confused Isaac Asimov spin-off. After all, its net income in 2021 was $94 billion. Amazon is also arguably in that category – though it is reportedly maintaining a careful watch on the impact of the Rings of Power on its Amazon Prime subscriber numbers. If it doesn’t meaningfully boost that figure it could be so long to the Second Age of Middle Earth.
But the rest of the field will need to keep a closer eye on the bottom line. Even the mighty Walt Disney Company does not have bottomless coffers. In 2021 it poured $24.5 billion into new content; the latest Star Wars spin-off Andor comes with a reported $20 million per episode budget – an astronomical amount given that the series resembles a Ken Loach movie set in space. Over that same period, Netflix spent $17 billion. And HBO parent company Warner Brother-Discovery committed $20 billion to new content.
When will the gold rush end? Perhaps it already has. Following the merger of Warner and Discovery, there are indications the Great Belt Tightening has already begun at that new conglomerate. That was the painful lesson received by super-producer JJ Abrams, who was informed in June his new HBO project Demimonde was “no longer moving forward”. HBO also canned Wonder Twins – a DC comic books spin-off – and then announced it would not be releasing its already completed Batgirl movie.
Netflix may have caught the jitters, too. It’s been cancelling shows with gusto – most recently its guilty pleasure adaptation of the video game Resident Evil and The Chair, the Sandra Oh comedy produced by Games of Thrones’s David Benioff and DB Weiss as part of their exclusive deal with the streamer. It has also “pulled a Batgirl” by yanking the superhero series, Grendel, based on the Dark Horse comic, despite the completion of filming of its first season. That whooshing sound is the tide potentially going out on streaming budgets.
In the case of Citadel, the big problem may be that it has attempted to run before it could walk. Starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Stanley Tucci alongside Madden it is the brainchild of Amazon studio head Jennifer Salke. But did she know what she was getting herself – and Amazon – into?
Salke's idea was for an international thriller that would lend itself to “local” spin-offs in markets such as India, Mexico and Italy. That was as far as her vision went. So she contacted the Russos and asked them to brainstorm. “She called us one day and said, 'Hey, I have this idea that I want for a show.' And she goes, I don’t know what it’s about – but this would be the concept,” Anthony Russo revealed at a recent panel discussion.
He and his brother cooked up the concept of a spy agency locked in a game of cat and mouse with a nemesis organisation inspired by Spectre from Bond or Hydra in the Marvel universe.
“This agency ends up coming in conflict with a new rival agency that has been developed by the world’s elite to sort of protect their self-interests,” Anthony Russo elaborated. “So it’s a global struggle between these two competing points of view about what humanity should be.”
The Russos were too busy to take a hands-on role in Citadel (among other undertakings they were making the $200 million action movie The Gray Man for Netflix). So they handed it off to Alias writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, with Game of Thrones veteran Brian Kirk directing five of the seven episodes of the first season.
Which is where the trouble started. Amazon is said to have had “reservations” about early footage presented by Appelbaum and Nemec. One source of contention was an ambitious – and expensive – “ski and hand-gliding sequence” with which the pilot was to open.
With Applebaum and Nemec in a stand-off with Amazon, the Russos returned and agreed to kill the set-piece (which was to have been followed by a five-year time jump). They were just getting started: Appelbaum was let go before Christmas and Kirk and producer Sarah Bradshaw exited soon afterwards.
“What should have happened was Joe turning to Josh and saying, 'Let's get together and fix this instead of going solo',” one source connected to the series says. “That's not what partners are supposed to do.”
The Russos have now taken charge and, according to reports, are rebuilding Citadel from the ground up. They’ve brought in cinematographer Thomas Sigel for reshoots and David Weil – writer of the Al Pacino Nazi drama Hunters – to re-work the scripts. Meanwhile, the budget continues to balloon.
The $1 billion question is how much longer Jeff Bezos will allow his minions to pour money into the furnaces of Amazon’s overweening ambition. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings ends with the One Ring coming a cropper in Mount Doom. Judging by the conflagration around Rings of Power and Citadel, Amazon’s streaming ambitions are likewise set to go up in flames.