Game of Thrones: Why you Should be Grateful for Ten Hours a Year
At home, at work, outdoors, all I hear is “did you see Game of Thrones this week?” Firstly, I love the permeation of the fantasy genre into mainstream culture – I walked past a construction site to hear a worker ask another “how was the dragon burning that guys face off!” The series has given a common ground to people from all walks of life, at least those who can afford cable or a strong internet connection. But I invariably hear from people I know or read in online communities, ‘why are there only ten episodes a year?‘ There are so many answers to this question, and by the end of this article hopefully you will understand the limitations of television production.
Game of Thrones is adapted from a series of novels collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R Martin. Five of seven books have been published since 1996, with a cumulative page count of 4273. To put that in perspective, it’s already longer than the Harry Potter series, with two books to go. Adapting the series is a tremendous task, being tackled by showrunners (and friends since college) David Benioff and D.B Weiss, who both started out as novelists. Each season of Game of Thrones roughly adapts one of Martin’s books, though starting with the third season the book was divided in two. After pitching to HBO in March 2006, it wasn’t until October 2009 that the series went into production – for a pilot only.
An average schedule for the Game of Thrones production team is as follows (although in very simple terms): scripts are completed usually around May, followed by casting of new characters during the June period. Locations are also picked, and sets are constructed. Filming commences in late July and wraps late November/early December. Marketing commences early in the New Year, before the April airing date. Then the production team starts all over again – rinse and repeat.
This seems an alarmingly large schedule for only ten hours of television, but then Game of Thrones is an alarmingly large series. Across the three seasons, the production has reached Ireland, Scotland, Malta, Morocco, Croatia, Iceland and most recently the United States (the bear, Little Bart couldn’t leave the country for his recent battle with Brienne. Apparently bears struggle to get working visas too.) Obviously this is necessary to capture the various climates of the fantasy world, from Jon Snow beyond the wall (shot in Iceland) to Daenerys travelling across the arid continent of Essos (Morocco, Croatia). To pull off a production like this it requires multiple units shooting in various countries simultaneously, spreading producers and directors extremely thin. It’s incredible that a production team could have so many balls in the air at once without dropping any occasionally.
At its smallest the main cast of Game of Thrones numbers eighteen, at its largest it reaches twenty-eight. Statistically it is the largest main cast on television, plus hundreds of featured actors, plus thousands of extras. This is a monumental number of people to manage for the production team, particular those responsible for scheduling. Its understandable that principal photography stretches to nearly six months considering the scheduling required to get all those elements to come together. (An obvious example for television with an ensemble cast that noticeably struggled to get the schedules of the cast to align was the recent fourth season of Arrested Development – the green screening of cast members to digitally insert them into scenes was clear, and the series suffered for it.)
The financing of Game of Thrones is also a key point in this study. Approximate budget figures for first season have been reported around $50 million, whilst the second season saw a 15% increase. The budget of the third season is undisclosed. This is a tremendous amount of money in anyone’s book, but especially for television (although HBO does have the distinct bonus that they had 29 million paying subscribers in 2012.) More so, it’s easy to see where HBO’s money goes. Having hundreds of actors (including extras) on a constructed set on an Icelandic glacier, with nearly as many crew members isn’t a cheap exercise. Similarly, the special effects take a large chunk of that money. A VFX breakdown for each season is easily available online, and I encourage anyone with a behind-the-scenes interest in television to watch it. It’s astounding to see the amount of work that goes into creating not only obvious effects like the dragons, but also entire cities and landscapes. So when I hear people say “they should do twelve episodes a year”, I want to explain the choice is quite literally, more episodes and no dragons, or fewer episodes and more dragons. I don’t even know what to say to the people who suggest a twenty-four episode network-sized order. In order to pull off such a large run, Game of Thrones would likely need to be shot entirely using interiors on a sound stage, which doesn’t even sound like the same show. When it comes down to it, I would rather have the tremendous scenes shot on location with the added dragon VFX such as the Sack of Astapor, than have the narrative extend for additional episodes.
But perhaps the greatest reason for the limited number of episodes (and the most absurd) is that the current production schedule is actually already too fast, in relation to the speed that Martin completes his novels. It took the author six years to complete his most recent addition, A Dance with Dragons. With Benioff and Weiss planning for eight seasons of Game of Thrones, it would suggest the HBO series looks to wrap by 2018. Though a speculative release date for the next book The Winds of Winter is late 2013, it wouldn’t be unusual for Martin to delay the release, not only for months, but for years. I imagine one of the scariest concepts for Benioff and Weiss is what to do if they overtake Martin – delaying the series is not an option, with aging child actors and hesitant to stop the cultural juggernaut, HBO will be unlikely to wait for Martin to publish his books. Some suggestions have been that Benioff and Weiss will have to construct an ending for the series themselves (an unwanted position by both parties.)
Perhaps this article has given you a greater insight to the extraordinary task launching a series of this scope. From writing, to locations, actors, sets, financing and narrative structure, you should have a bit more of an idea what goes on to get that ten hours a year onto your screen. So, next time you hear someone say “why do they only make ten a year?” you might be able to give them the answer they didn’t expect.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
The greatest show of all time? Heey why not, I will go that far. Yes, this is my favorite TVShow, and i have seen a lot of series such as Lost, Breaking Bad, White Collar, Greys Anatomy and many others, but still this is my favorite one.
I often find myself giving up on the hour long network shows that end up having the 22-24 episodes per season. I very much prefer the 10-13 hour schedule. I think if they added too many more episodes to a season of Game of Thrones the pacing may become an issue and the seemingly drawn out parts (i.e. this year with the Theon Greyjoy plot line) would become an even bigger eyesore than they are at times in the series already. I absolutely love the show, but I think they’re definitely doing the right thing with the 10 episode per year schedule.
You’re right, 10-13 episodes gives more quality content, and less filler. It seems it might be a trend networks will pick up in the future – an example being NBC’s Hannibal’s 13 episode order. If you’ve seen that show, the writing has been very tight and seems to be benefiting from the short order.
As long as I am getting one season a year I am happy. I will take quality over quantity and this is a quality series typical of premium network television. Fingers crossed that the next book comes out soon though!
You have certainly explained the enormous amount of background going into the ten hours a year, which we avid viewers gobble up and want more. It also speaks to the critics who always complain, “It wasn’t as good as the books – they left so much out!” Keep up the insightful journalism Marlon, in an attempt to improve the knowledge and attitude of the sommetimes ignorant viewing public!
Yes Rhonda, you’re right about the book thing, and having read them all, I have to say they are doing an impressive job (its definitely not an easy task).
I worry about the calls for MORE EPISODES MORE OFTEN, as it almost always results in a significant drop in quality. It works for shows like Bones or SVU because they don’t have these extreme sets, rather they have three or four main settings and then use the shooting city to provide variety. GOT needs that pedantic focus on quality and texture, otherwise the gore and nudity of the show hasn’t a rational explanation!
I don’t know why people are so whiny. Adapting a novel is hard enough…. not to mention the episodes being an hour long means its the equivilant of 3 20minute episodes… so 3 times the work…. i think my head would explode if we got episodes more often!
Being a huge fan of the books and a chronic cynic; I had many concerns when I heard they were making the series; how would they bring these books to film and do them justice. My largest concern was the difficult task the actors were handed. The books are written from the POV’s of numerous characters; each chapter having a designated character. So you are inside the head of a character for all the events in the books. You learn the character’s traits and motivations through his or her thoughts. This obviously cannot be done on film, so it comes down to the actors to portray what these characters are going through without the audience being able to hear their thoughts. I cannot name a single actor that fails at this. Did they succeed, yes they did. Great article on the production!
Comparing TV and movie budgets really interesting. With Game of Thrones, you get 10 hours of content for $50 mill compared to The Hobbit where you get 3 hours for $200 million (or more accourding to some). It’s pretty easy to figure out the box office return for movies and see how the investment pays off. But with somethng like HBO where it’s all subscription divided over tons of content, I’m really curious how they determine their cost/benefit for different shows. Any insight into that?
Where it’s divided over content like that, its much harder to say which series is giving them their returns, but obviously higher rating shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones are more likely to be bringing in the dollars. Maybe give this article a read (http://www.economist.com/node/21526314) – it doesn’t directly answer your question, but it certainly covers a lot about HBO’s situation including viewership and financial turnover, although the info is a little dated.
Thank you for writing this article, lately I’ve become disillusioned with the Game of Thrones TV show. I’ve found it dipping in quality this past season, to the extent where I haven’t watched the past few episodes – they’re still on record on my planner.
This article has given me the motivation to grit my teeth and stick it out, because the culmination of this series is set to be an explosive one as the books suggest.
Great article on a more or less great show!
A very smart response to the overwhelming demand for this show! I think the main reason many (myself included) long for more content is because it’s such a well-designed world, both in the writing and the actual production design, and it’s filled with such memorable characters. Personally I just want more. But your practical argument is very valid; trying to cram more episodes into the show’s budget would lead to suffering quality, and might even spread the action of the series too thin.
I agree whole heartedly. If these novels were made into three hour movies per book. It would still not be enough to tell the tale properly. I wonder if he GRRM sold his soul to Satan to achieve this type of literary genius?
Great article, I enjoyed reading all of the detailed information – that must have taken a while to compile. I am a new game of thrones fan, I watched the entire series in about a week, then felt an extreme depression as the list of unwatched episodes quickly became nonexistent. I suppose I don’t really mind the ten episodes per year as long as the quality continues to remain great. I especially liked the point you made that it is possible that Martin could still be working on the last book when it is needed for the series. I recently heard that he already shared with the production team who would be sitting on the iron throne in the end, but I’m sure they have thought of countless contingency plans for this scenario. Great read, thanks for posting!
I know, and I completely agree with you. I’m on episode 2 of season 2, and I still have a long ways to go, but I’m dreading when it ends. Hopefully, season 5 will be out before I run out of season 4. However, the quality is great and I’d rather have much fewer episodes than one long, never ending season of what amounts to, in the end, bull feces.
So kudos to the producers of game of thrones not being like everyone else in the film and tv industry, and actually focusing on creating something amazing and of a good quality.