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Westeros Blog: Game of Thrones Budget

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Those Northern Ireland ministers are a talkative bunch, to say the least! After recently being quoted discussing the boost the Game of Thrones production can provide to the local economy, the minister Nelson McCausland offers this tidbit:

“...it is expected that each series [british term used for season] will be one year in production, with an overall budget for each series of around £30m.”

That’s about $45 million U.S., or roughly $4.5 million an episode. This is slightly less than the $5 million per episode rumored for Deadwood, and significantly less than the $9 million or so per episode of Rome in the first season (but it was a significant outlier as one of the most expensive television programs, filming in one of the most expensive locations in the world). However, it’s also significantly higher than the budget of many hour-long dramas on network television, and seems to make it more expensive than Showtime’s The Tudors. It should be remembered, however, that certain significant tax breaks, matching funds, and other support were offered to the production if they based themselves in Belfast.

A 1:1 comparison may not work very well, in that light, since the $4.5 million an episode in Belfast may easily equal $5 million or more spent in the U.S. Given that still image, and given the highly talented crew (especially in terms of visual effects), I suspect this is more than sufficient to set some jaw droppings when the show airs.

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To follow up a bit, as we've been told that the production is expected to inject £20 million into the local economy, it reminded me of the tax incentive for productions. While they talk about film in cinemas, I suspect that the NI ministers extended the same or a very similar offer to HBO.

So, what does that means? Well, with a ~$45 million budget and a $30 million local expenditure, the tax credit would be $6 million or so. So just from that, the show is nearer to the purchasing parity of a $50 million budget without the benefit of such incentives. Of course, perhaps Rome, Deadwood, etc. get incentives as well, in which case this all rather cancels out.

And since I tweeted this, I''ll share here: discussion of the whys and wherefors of how Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire hour-long pilot cost a reported $50 million all on its lonesome.

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Even if it would be a little cheap for a "big hbo show", this would not be without it's advantages. It might help the show survive if it does not get the huge ratings we are all hoping for.

Not to mention the fact that the show is nevertheless chock full of talent in regards to the people involved, witch is the most important thing anyway. Great actors, direction, script etc is just stuff thats more important, i'd say. It'll probably look good anyway - if not necessarily amazing.

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I agree that a moderate budget might be a good thing. On the one hand it increases the show’s chances of being renewed for more seasons. On the other, a limited budget forces the creators to center their attention into what really matters: the writing and the acting.

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i always felt the production costs would be alot cheaper then some people expected (those associating it with Rome) because instead of having to build sets from scratch like Rome did, most of the settings are there in the British Isles. Just some interior redesign in some of the castles and cgi the outside and yoru good to go. the rest of the show is done outside

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Yes, the major cost for the first season of Rome was the massive set. The second season had a considerable budget cut, especially in terms of VFX ("less than half the money"). I think it may well be that Rome's second season wasn't much higher than $50-$60 million. It's fascinating reading, actually, how much more care they took to not waste money in the second season, to squeeze the most out of their budget. Imagine what they would have achieved that first season if they had taken the same approach.

One of the most important things Game of Thrones can have on hand is going to be production supervisors (including VFX supervisors like Julia Frey -- though I guess it's not clear whether she'll continue in that capacity for the whole of the series) who really work that schedule and budget to cut waste everywhere they see it. Careful planning of the shooting schedule, on-set VFX people to shoot green or bluescreen on the spot when there's time, and so on can, apparently, go a long way.

So, too, with the $50 million bill for Boardwalk Empire's pilot -- that was because they built a massive recreation of the Atlantic City boardwalk over three months before filming began. Obviously, that was a sign that HBO was already sure they were going to pick it up, and the rest of the seasons should be rather cheaper. How much cheaper, I can't say. I can imagine it being in the $75-$100 million range, but ... you know, this is a major prestige launch for them, aiming squarely at the Sopranos popular acclaim. And it's Martin Scorsese. So...

Game of Thrones will fill two of the four massive cells at the Paint Hall, according to all reports, but yeah, it looks like they're going to work as much as possible to use extant locations. The one thing I'm curious about is King's Landing, and to what degree they show us the city and people travelling through it. They can do a _lot_ with CGI these days, so maybe that'll be sufficient to give the sense of a thriving, massive, thronged medieval city.

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Post going up shortly with this information, but will also tack it onto here:

On top of the low rate for the Paint Hall and the tax credit that may be worth as much as $6 million, it seems the North Ireland government gave the production roughly $2.4 million in cash as an incentive to base their production there, with more promised.

So now we're looking at something like a $54 million budget, in terms of purchasing power, or roughly $5.4 million an episode (higher, by nearly half a million, than the reported average for Deadwood). Excellent.

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I'm curious about the role that actors' salaries play in the budget.

Obviously television shows aren't going to be giving their cast the $10-20M that some of the biggest stars get per movie and HBO cast a fair number of relative unknowns in the series, but I wonder if, as the show becomes a hit how that affects the salaries they can command.

Take James Gandolfini from the Sopranos as an example- when he started his role as Tony Soprano he wasn't all that well known and had mostly supporting actor type credits. By the time the show came to an end he was arguable one of the most recognized actors out there. I imagine he could command more pay from HBO by that time.

With the size of the cast and the number of folks who will have BIG roles, that could add quite a bit to the show's production cost.

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In general, the salaries of actors rise each season, and the amount it goes up can be determined to some degree by how valuable the show is to the network. If Game of Thrones became a run-away hit, and someone like Richard Madden or Kit Harrington became breakout stars, you'd expect the budget to go up quite a bit, yes -- but then, its value would have gone up a commiserate amount, so it evens out.

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In general, the salaries of actors rise each season, and the amount it goes up can be determined to some degree by how valuable the show is to the network. If Game of Thrones became a run-away hit, and someone like Richard Madden or Kit Harrington became breakout stars, you'd expect the budget to go up quite a bit, yes -- but then, its value would have gone up a commiserate amount, so it evens out.

and they only need to pay Sean Bean for 8 or 9 episodes!

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and they only need to pay Sean Bean for 8 or 9 episodes!

I'll be very surprised if he doesn't get killed in the beginning of the 10th episode, or is if his death isn't the last scene of the 9th. Not saving much. I also agree with an idea that someone had (it may have been me) a while back that each season should have its "special star" (who doesn't return for later seasons), and when we broke it down, it was: Season 2 has Balon Grayjoy (who may return for a short flashback during the 4th season), and season 3 has Oberyn Martell.

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I'll be very surprised if he doesn't get killed in the beginning of the 10th episode, or is if his death isn't the last scene of the 9th. Not saving much. I also agree with an idea that someone had (it may have been me) a while back that each season should have its "special star" (who doesn't return for later seasons), and when we broke it down, it was: Season 2 has Balon Grayjoy (who may return for a short flashback during the 4th season), and season 3 has Oberyn Martell.

Sorry, I forgot people new to the series might be reading about the tv show!

It's possible they'd get another recognizable face to play Davos too, who, especially in ACOK, I feel is kind of the replacement for Ned as "the good guy"

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I suspect Sean Bean is getting a few million to play Eddard. I haven't been able to find what his normal quote is for a movie, but whatever they are paying him for this it would have to be pretty good because of the time commitment when shooting a series. My guess is he's getting several million $ for this ($3 million would be my guess, but I really am not too sure). Lena Headey probably has the second biggest fee - if I had to guess, probably around $100,000 an episode. A lot depends on what her quote for Sarah Connor Chronicles was after Season 2.

When these shows really get huge, the lead actors can receive a good $1 million an episode, that's what James Gandolfini was making by the end of the Sopranos run, same for all the leads on top shows like ER.

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I dunno about Bean and Headey being the largest money makers here - Peter Dinklage is an award winning actor who has around two or three movies a year, in big supporting roles, almost all of them critical successes if not financial ones. I'd think he would be the guy with the biggest salary demands.

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I think there is a serious risk that the series is going to be much less impressive than many expect for budgetary reasons.

There so many desirable things that are expensive compared to your average contemporary show

* Magical creatures (dragons, Others)

* Animals (very well trained wolves including an albino, hordes of horses for the Dothraki)

* Massive battle scenes (Whispering Wood)

* Many smaller scenes requiring more work than talk scenes (duels, small scale fights, ravaging the Lhazareen town, Bran climbing, pouring molten gold over Viserys, Daenerys's weddimg, Drogo's pyre, wights attacking Mormont, Eddard's execution, and so on)

* Epic scenery (Winterfell, the Wall, KL, the Red Keep, the Eyrie, Pentos, Vaes Dothrak)

* Generally often changing locations so you cannot reuse, for example, the same room often

* Medieval costumes and props (If your want it to look good like in the Tudors and there are many more widely different cultures here)

* A very large cast

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Breaking it down, $5.3 million per episode is $400,000 an episode more than Lost, and easily way more than twice what Caprica and Heroes (after its massive budget cut for Season 4) are on at the moment. I suspect it's also significantly more than what True Blood is on (I suspect that show would be $3-4 million per episode).

One concern I do have is that HBO have been somewhat conservative in the past on what can be done with CGI and effects. It took them 19 episodes and until halfway through Season 2 of Rome before they felt confident enough to give us a proper epic battle sequence, and whilst the Battle of Philippi was decent it was still short and choppy compared to what the BBC's accompanying factual documentary series was doing with recreating battles that looked even more impressive on a tiny fraction of the budget. Game of Thrones is definitely about the drama and character relationships more than the battles, but still if all we get of the Blackwater is Sansa looking out a window in horror, that will be cheap and unconvincing.

Simply put, if SyFy can give us the Battle of New Caprica in BSG on $2 million or less an episode, I'm expecting HBO to do something impressive for the Battle of the Blackwater in the second season or the Battle of the Wall in the third.

I dunno about Bean and Headey being the largest money makers here - Peter Dinklage is an award winning actor who has around two or three movies a year, in big supporting roles, almost all of them critical successes if not financial ones. I'd think he would be the guy with the biggest salary demands.

Not even remotely a chance. Dinklage is a very good, very well-respected actor, but not a household name at all. Compared to Sean Bean's credits as the leading man in a very long-running, very successul TV series (Sharpe) and major roles in many huge movies (GoldenEye, Ronin, the new Percy Jackson film etc), not to mention a supporting role in the biggest-grossing film trilogy of all time, he will easily command the biggest fee of the series.

Headey or NCW would probably command the next-biggest fee (NCW is probably about evens with Dinklage for profile, but he was also the lead in two TV shows, albeit both cancelled, which gives him more cachet), then I suspect Dinklage and Ehle would be next.

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A lot of people have extraordinarily inflated ideas of how it will look. It's a TV show, not Lord of the Rings -- the production values will obviously be lower.

That said, the budget is quite high compared to your average network hour-long, and I'm going to guess that filming an hour-long in Belfast is cheaper than filming it in California(see Deadwood and a lot of other shows), much less Italy (where Rome was shot; it's regarded as one of the most expensive places in the world to film). So, more bang for the buck.

At ~$4.5-$5 million per episode, I think it's got the resources to look very good, provided they use it wisely.

ETA: I don't know if it was HBO that was conservative with Rome, as it was Rome's producers. I linked, somewhere or other, an interesting article looking at the second season of Rome, and there the VFX guy interviewed basically said that he was a bit surprised that their talents weren't used more.

But HBO has certainly gone a long way from being conservative with this stuff, as we know from John Adams and now Boardwalk Empire, where digital compositing will be very important to filling out the massive Boardwalk set.

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Rome's producers seemed very much to be the build it do it real kind of people, at lest that is what I got from the extras on the disks.

I suspect the the GoT producers will be more willing to use CGI for things Rome wouldn't because they are already excepting that they need CG for stuff like dragons, the wall, etc.

Also knowing where all the big battles fall, will allow them to put money towards those episodes and compensate for it in others. Somebody mentioned the battle of New Caprica in BSG, those four episodes took a huge amount of the entire seasons budget, and they were forced to compensate the rest of the season for it. So we might see a slower season two, so that they can blow us away with the Blackwater.

The wall probably won't be the breaker, because it's a lot of people hunched shooting arrows, and most of the whildling army can be CG etc.

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With the LotR comparisons, LotR was ten years ago now, so it's not out of order that we should be expecting to see material at least of the same quality on screen. Not the sheer number of shots of course - the biggest difference between TV and film effects is that film can simply afford vastly more effects shots than TV - but certainly in quality it should be on the same batting order. The few effects shots in Rome in the Philippi battle were certainly batting on the same level as LotR, there just weren't anywhere near as many of them (maybe a dozen in that one episode compared to 500-odd in FotR and 1,400 in RotK). By comparison, BSG was producing CGI that easily equalled anything in the Star Wars prequel trilogy just a few years later (again, limited by the number of shots they could create, not the individual quality of each shot).

GoT will also have a higher budget than Doctor Who, which frequently has jaw-dropping CGI (such as the giant steampunk robot with automatic field cannons that shoots up a vast recreated 3D model of Victorian London), so I will be unimpressed if the Battle of the Wall consists of Jon Snow peering offscreen and going, "Wildlings...there's thousands of 'em," (possibly in a Michael Caine accent) and then not showing them to us.

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See, as I recall, Phillipi was very static and not very impressive at all. I'm sure they tried their best, but to say it was at the same level as LotR ... I don't know about that.

But production values are more than CG. It's practical effects, it's the amount of extras you have, the budget you have for costuming and set dressing, etc. They're going to have (a lot less) money to put on screen than LotR had. Or to look at something comparable in the TV world, a lot less money than The Pacific or John Adams.

I'm sure they'll do a lot to make it look as good as possible. But I don't think it'll be so good that it'll look like it was a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.

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