Somewhere in the vaults of Paramount Studios exists a copy of the never-aired pilot episode of Lenny & Squiggy, a mid-1970s attempt to create a spin-off series from the smash hit Laverne & Shirley.

By many accounts, it is the worst half-hour of television ever produced. Worse than Small Wonder (a straight-to-syndication series about a little girl who is a robot) and worse than your average episode of Webster. So bad, in fact, that it was shelved immediately.

But you have to give the then-president of Paramount Studios, Michael Eisner, credit. It was worth a try. Laverne & Shirley was an instant success, and Lenny and Squiggy, the two doofus neighbors—the original Kramers, the ur-Chandler and Joeys—were audience favorites.

That was the rule in the television business back then. If you had a successful show with a couple of breakout characters, you were under a fiduciary obligation to squeeze those opportunities dry. Laverne & Shirley was itself a spin-off of the 1970s-era juggernaut Happy Days, and while the Lenny and Squiggy project never saw an audience, Happy Days gave us Mork & Mindy and, for a brief moment, Joanie Loves Chachi. Think how bad that Lenny and Squiggy show must have been. They went ahead with Joanie Loves Chachi.

Back then, the industry lingo was frank and downscale. Happy Days was a “franchise” show that created successful “spin-offs.”

These days, show-business argot has gotten fancy. Happy Days, executives would say on earnings calls and Wall Street Journal interviews today, “is a piece of intellectual property that is at the center of the Happy Days Cinematic Universe.”

The search for intellectual property that can be exploited, multiplexed, and turned into a “universe” of its own is the engine that drives the entertainment business. Especially today, when margins are being squeezed up and down the show-business supply chain, a piece of intellectual property—a breakout character, a popular book or magazine article, even a title—is seen as a smart way to mitigate the risk of a new project.

It wasn’t too long ago, for instance, that MGM had a problem. When the studio was reorganized and recapitalized after many sleepy years as a second-tier producer, its executives were desperate to show the new investors some quick results.

But MGM, to use another phrase popular in Hollywood these days, was “resource constrained,” so the team did what you do when you’re hungry but too broke to buy food: You search the refrigerator to find a pickle, some mustard, and a slice of bread and ask yourself, Can I make something out of this?

But the company had been bought and sold so many times, with its library of movies strip-mined and sold off in complicated slices, that it was unclear where the new management was going to find its pickles and mustard and stale bread.

One morning, a longtime attorney in the studio’s business-affairs department came to work early and arranged on the floor of an unused office little piles of scripts, novels, old movie posters, and other artifacts to represent to the new studio chiefs what they had to work with.

The business-affairs lawyer guided the executives through the material like it was a stroll through a Garden of Intellectual Property.

Some of the titles—mostly the Westerns—didn’t spark dollar signs. Others, like Boris Karloff’s detective series in which he played the title character, Mr. Wong, seemed wrong for a lot of reasons.

But when the group got to the poster for The Silence of the Lambs, they got excited. The 1991 thriller made nearly $300 million and seemed like a juicy target for exploitation.

Not so fast, said the lawyer. MGM didn’t own the novel or the storylines written by the author of the series, Thomas Harris. It didn’t have the rights to the character of Hannibal Lecter—the terrifying psychopath at the heart of Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal—or any of the material that describes his origins or the events depicted in those two films.

All MGM owns from the Hannibal Lecter Cinematic Universe, the executives were told, were a few ancillary figures from the movie and the character of FBI agent Clarice Starling—Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning role in Silence of the Lambs.

Which was all the pickle they needed. The television division of the studio quickly sold a series based solely on these four words: Special Agent Clarice Starling. The series would tell a kind of parallel-universe story about the character, in which no mention could be made of her most famous case. The intellectual property had been stripped to its most essential—just a name, instantly recognizable to audiences.

The MGM investors were naturally thrilled, but that’s a tough act to repeat. It’s hard to find four words that you can spin into a big sale, unless you can somehow afford to buy Lord of the Rings.

Amazon Studios had a problem. It wasn’t money, of course. Amazon Studios’ parent company (and for that matter its actual parent, Jeff Bezos) has, to use a technical term, money out the yin yang. What Amazon needed was intellectual property with major nerd appeal. HBO has Game of Thrones, which is already being multiplexed into a Game of Thrones Cinematic Universe—a GOTCU, if you will—and Netflix has a reliable competitor in its Stranger Things series. They set their sights on The Lord of the Rings.

There’s a huge amount of published work by J.R.R. Tolkien—novels, maps, songs—and an even larger amount of unpublished material controlled by the Tolkien estate. Then there are the Peter Jackson–helmed movies, which together add up to about 47 hours of motion-picture content. (Could be less, but they sure seemed long to me…) All of that material is under the control of the Tolkien estate, which is run by the author’s heirs, who have tenaciously guarded the creative and subsidiary rights to their forbear’s body of work.

They’re not nuts, though. When Amazon offered $250 million for the rights to certain parts of the Lord of the Rings Extended Universe, they struck a deal. But the deal is as complicated and Byzantine as the endpaper maps on my (mostly unread) edition of The Lord of the Rings. Amazon Studios has the rights to produce a film version of the events in the appendices of the novels but is mostly restricted to those and whatever pieces of the unpublished material the estate wishes to share. The series, which premieres in September 2022 and will cost more than $1 billion to complete, has to stick to that material and the events of something called The Second Age, which takes the idea of “nerd appeal” to a new level of intensity.

Which is to say: The studio committed $1 billion to buy the rights to the bits and pieces of the story around the bigger, more well-known story. They spent $1 billion dollars for four very expensive words. Not exactly a leftover pickle and mustard sandwich.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will be the most expensive piece of filmed entertainment ever made. And while the total cost may seem like sofa change to the owner of the company, it represents an enormous reputational risk for the streaming service. All across Hollywood, studios are trimming budgets and pulling back from production slates. Amazon is producing an extremely expensive zig when everyone else is zagging.

It could work, of course. The Lord of the Rings has been a pretty lucrative universe. But IP isn’t always the best hedge against the risks inherent in every entertainment-industry product. When Clarice Starling finally made it to the screen, it lasted barely one season. And we all know what happened to poor Lenny & Squiggy.

If The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power wins over the nerds and expands the appeal of the Lord of the Rings Cinematic Universe, the team behind it will be the Kings of Hollywood. If it doesn’t, it will be the most expensive plate of leftovers ever made.

Image: Peter J. Yost

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