'Lord of the Rings': Amazon Taps 'Star Trek 4' Duo to Develop TV Series

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)- Photofest-h 2016
New Line Cinema/Photofest

Amazon has found its Lord of the Rings duo.

Following an extensive search, Amazon Studios has tapped JD Payne and Patrick McKay (Star Trek 4, Jungle Cruise) to develop its forthcoming big-budget take on The Lord of the Rings. Jennifer Salke, who made the announcement Saturday during her debut as Amazon Studios' head of TV and film at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, stopped short of saying Payne and McKay would serve as writers or showrunners. 

"The rich world that J.R.R. Tolkien created is filled with majesty and heart, wisdom and complexity," longtime friends and writing partners Payne and McKay said in a joint statement. "We are absolutely thrilled to be partnering with Amazon to bring it to life anew. We feel like Frodo, setting out from the Shire, with a great responsibility in our care — it is the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime.”
McKay and Payne met on the debate team in high school more than two decades ago. They wrote Paramount's Star Trek 4 for producer J.J. Abrams and adapted the Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt feature Jungle Cruise for Disney. The duo also set up their original 2017 Blacklist drama script Escape with Oscar-nominated producer Michael De Luca.

Amazon landed global rights to the Lord of the Rings series for the small screen in November in what sources estimate is a deal worth $250 million with the Tolkien estate. Under the terms of the pact, a Lord of the Rings series must be in production within two years. When casting, set building and visual effects are factored in, the project is expected to cost more than $1 billion.  

The megadeal is said to be for five seasons plus a potential spinoff. Amazon previously described the LOTR series as being set in Middle-Earth and exploring new storylines preceding Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. Amazon will produce in cooperation with the Tolkien Estate and Trust, HarperCollins and Warner Bros. Entertainment's New Line.

Lord of the Rings is the cornerstone of a big genre push for Amazon, which has been a top mandate from CEO Jeff Bezos. Amazon's head of genre programming Sharon Tal Yguado (who helped close the LOTR deal following Roy Price's ouster) has been on a larger mission to bulk up the retail giant/streamer's programming of late. As part of the larger push, Amazon signed The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman to an overall deal (and ordered an animated take on his Invincible comics to series), while also reviving The Expanse following Syfy's cancellation, among other high-end sci-fi plays.

In her first interview since moving from NBC to run Amazon, Salke told The Hollywood Reporter that the LOTR series would be "in production in two years," and added that she hoped to have it on the air in 2021, despite wishes from other camps that it would make it by 2020.

"All of us would love a big, addictive show that is executed at the top of its game. We're really excited about Lord of the Rings," Salke told THR in June. "We've been talking to writers. We have an estate that's very active. I've spent three hours with [Tolkien's grandson] Simon Tolkien. There's a lot of moving parts with it. We'll have some game plan to move forward with very soon." 

Still to be determined is LOTR feature film mastermind Peter Jackson's role in the Amazon series. Salke said Amazon was in talks with Jackson to determine his level of involvement. "He may say he is involved or he's not involved. We're still very much in conversation with him about what kind of involvement he would propose," she said.

Still, landing writers for LOTR was no small task for Amazon. Salke noted that she met with three or four different groups of writers, while Yguado spent time with "many more" than that. "When we announced it, many agents called and with clients and British writers have come calling," Salke said. "There have been a lot of informational meetings about the material and about the scope of what we can do. My hope would be to put together a group of talented people, which will obviously have a leader who can embark on this big ambitious endeavor."

Payne and McKay are repped by Verve, Kaplan Perone and Hansen Jacobson.