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.