Needless to say, Game of Thrones is a very, very expensive show. It looks top-notch, and every episode feels like a movie in and of itself.
You’ve probably heard reports of how Game of Thrones splashes the cash, from big fight scenes to huge pay checks for their actors. But where does all the money go? What really drives up the costs? And do they even break even?
With the season finale coming next Monday, PEDESTRIAN.TV has taken a deep dive into the finances of one of the most popular shows in the world right now.
THE RAW COST
Although the true cost of the current seventh season of Game of Thrones has yet to be revealed, we can infer a few things. First, last season cost a whopping US$10 Million (AUD$12.59 million) per episode for its ten-episode season. Second, cinematographer Robert McLachlan has said in interviews that this season’s budget is “around the same” as last season, despite being three episodes shorter.
So we can infer that 1) this season will probably cost around $100 million (AUD$125.9 Million) and 2) that cost will be divided over seven episodes instead of ten. So the cost could potentially be around $14 million per episode. Which would make it, possibly, the most expensive show on TV.
IT DIDN’T USE TO COST THIS MUCH
The cost per episode has been rising dramatically since the pilot episode aired in 2011. Originally, the cost was a measly (yet still impressive) $5 million (AUD$6.29 million) per episode. Back then, spending $8 million (AUD$10 million) on the Season 2 penultimate episode Blackwater was considered big bucks for HBO. Showrunners DB Weiss and David Beinoff had to personally beg HBO executives for the extra production money.
WHERE DOES IT ALL GO?
In short: raw manpower. Almost everything on the show, from costumes to sets and props, is made by hand. Which means a proverbial army needs to be hired to make everything. In addition, Weiss and Beioff have taken to using large casts of extras, as opposed to CGI, for large battle scenes such as ‘The Battle Of The Bastards’. Filming some of their biggest scenes could involve thousands of people being on-set at any given time, all whom need to be paid and catered for.
Even the direwolf pups used in the early episodes of Season 1 were expensive. In their infancy the show used Northern Inuit pups as stand-ins, costing them $730 (AUD$919.5) per pup. Now that the remaining direwolves are fully grown, they’ve become too expensive to use even in episodes that should require them. Director Miguel Sapochnik famously attributed Ghost’s absence in last season’s ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ to cost. “[Ghost] was there in spades originally, but it’s also an incredibly time consuming and expensive character to bring to life. Ultimately we had to choose between Wun-Wun and the direwolf, so the dog bit the dust,” he said to Business Insider.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Game of Thrones is famously shot on-location, with locales like Croatia, Spain, Malta, Iceland, and Northern Ireland (which acts as their main hub for studio shooting) acting as stand-ins for the likes of King’s Landing, Winterfell and The Wall. HBO tries to keep costs down by hiring extras locally where possible and taking advantage of tax exemptions. That said, it’s purported that a large chunk of the running costs comes from moving, housing and feeding people, including key crew and cast members, between each locale.
CGI: COMPUTER GENERATED INCOMES
Even when there isn’t a large cast involved, Game of Thrones‘ costs can still spiral out of control due to CGI. While it may not seem like much to the naked eye, each scene involving computer generated characters or visual effects involves teams of hundreds. And much like their movie-based counterparts, they’re charged with animating and rendering everything so that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
Even simpler scenes that involve CGI can drive costs through the roof. Arya Stark’s murder of Meryn Trant in Season 5, for example, utilised a mixture of CGI and prosthetics to achieve Trant’s unique death, making it one of the most expensive scenes of the series. Speaking with website Radio Times, Beinoff said the high costs was simply because, “She couldn’t really poke out his eyes.”
HOW MUCH DOES THE CAST MAKE?
The short answer: a lot.
The long answer is that we might not know for years. See, normally in film and tv, casts are paid a set fee for their work during production and then go on with their lives once production ends. But with the rising popularity of Game of Thrones, key actors including Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, and Lena Heady have successfully renegotiated their contracts so they get a small percentage of royalties from syndication. This means that, on top of their current per-episode salary, reported by Hollywood Reporter to be roughly $1.1 million (AUD$1.38 million), they could potentially make millions more as the show is aired, sold on DVD, and repeated on networks worldwide.
IT’S (CURRENTLY) NOT THE MOST EXPENSIVE TV SHOW EVER
That award goes to the Netflix drama The Crown, which costs a whopping $13 million (AUD$16.4 Million) per episode. Likewise, it doesn’t even compare to Friends, which by its final season was producing a 22-episode season, paying each of the six main actors $1 million (AUD$1.26million) per half-hour episode.
Again, this all may change once the official costs of Season 7 are revealed. But for now, it sits below some of the other big hitters of TV.
WHAT’S THE PAYOFF?
As the business blog Jobs and Hire writes, Game of Thrones is estimated to make around $1 billion (AUD$1.26 billion) per season. This profit mostly comes from the influx in subscribers to HBO, while a large chunk also comes from the sale of international screening rights. Advertising makes up a small amount of the overall revenue, which in part explains why HBO tries to crack down so hard on piracy – to them, these count as lost sales in the larger scheme of things.
On top of that, HBO still makes even more cash from other outlets, such as DVD and merchandise sales. Reportedly, DVD sales alone account for a profit of over $50 million since the show’s launch.
Considering the cost per season, it makes Game of Thrones a better investment than cinema. To put it in comparison, last year’s highest grossing movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, made roughly the same revenue in ticket sales that Game of Thrones did. But with a production cost at $200 million (AUD$251.9 million), it ultimately made less money dollar-for-dollar.
There’s some valid complaints to be made about this show, but the high production value absolutely isn’t one of them.