"Game of Thrones" boosts region's output

In Belfast, they’re calling “Game of Thrones” Northern Ireland’s “Lord of the Rings.”

Not since the Titanic slipped out of the Harland & Wolff shipyard in 1912 has something manufactured in Belfast launched to such fanfare. The acclaim for the new HBO fantasy series is sparking hopes that it will do for the province what Peter Jackson’s epic did for New Zealand.

The show’s success is a major boost for the economy and image of a region still recovering from its history of sectarian strife, known as the Troubles, which blighted its development for decades.

Shot at Belfast’s Paint Hall Studios and nearby moors, mountains, forests, castles and coastlines, “Thrones” is Northern Ireland’s biggest production ever.

The $60 million, 10-hour series spent an estimated $33 million there. Its second season is expected to start shooting on the giant sets in July, with potentially several more installments of George R.R. Martin’s novels to come.

Aside from the direct economic benefit of a returning $60 million series, “Thrones” is a showcase for the region’s locations and skills; it’s given local crews the chance to prove their mettle, sparked fresh investment in facilities, and fueled the confidence of the film and TV sector that it can compete on the global stage.

Its reflected prestige is also helping Northern Ireland’s wider efforts to rebrand itself as a creative hub, a tourist destination and a viable place to do business.

“The locations, and the quality of the craft work, that’s got to get a hell of buzz going,” says Mark Huffam, the Belfast producer who brought the show to the province. “That’s down to the quality control of HBO. If you can pass their standards, everyone’s got to look at you.”

In such a small film and TV community, even those not directly involved in the production can see its impact.

” ‘Game of Thrones’ puts to rest in a huge way any doubt about Northern Ireland being able to deliver on the highest level,” says gameshow producer Phil Morrow, whose Belfast-based Wild Rover has two formats in the pipeline with U.S. networks.

“As a company, we sell ourselves on merit, not on where we come from. But there’s no doubt, when a high-quality production originates from Northern Ireland, there’s a huge crossover benefit to everyone here. We’re building a talent pool, and potentially becoming one of the real centers of filmmaking in the U.K.”

Local politicians have identified film and TV production as a key industry in the regeneration of the province, and got directly involved in meetings with HBO.

Public agency Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) tempted HBO with low rates at the Paint Hall and a combined incentive of £3.2 million ($5.2 million) for the pilot and first season.

“Game of Thrones” is the third big U.S. production lured to Northern Ireland in recent years. Others include the features “Your Highness” and “City of Ember.” But whereas those two films came and went, the HBO series looks set to be a fixture for the foreseeable future.

With HBO likely to monopolize the Paint Hall for the forseeable future, NIS is in talks with the local government to build two new 20,000 square-foot soundstages this summer, to accommodate other local and international productions.

Post-production house Yellowmoon has made a significant investment in upgrading its facilities to handle its volume of offline work on “Thrones.”

“All the publicity, all the ratings and all the buzz has had a positive impact on everyone involved,” says Yellowmoon topper Greg Darby. “We spent a lot of money on series one, and if it hadn’t returned for a second series, it would have left us with a big hole.”

The labor base in Belfast is also expanding rapidly, with more than 80% of the 550-person crew for the first season hired locally.

“Everyone was a winner from (season) one,” he adds. “Northern Ireland Screen got this huge international recognition, we as a small facilities house grew our infrastructure, our expertise and our understanding of delivering to an international client, and HBO got 10 great hours that are doing really well for them. It blows out of the water the myth that you can only get top quality in London.”Although most of the senior department heads were imported, key locals included production manager Lisa McAtackney, construction manager Tom Martin and wardrobe mistress Rachael Webb Crozier, who made all the principal costumes in Belfast.

“The great thing with ‘Game of Thrones’ is the people are working up through the various crew grades, assisting and then deputizing and then doing the actual job. It means there’s a gradual professionalization of the industry here,” Morrow says.

But the greatest impact, he argues, is on reviving the province’s battered self-image.

“Northern Ireland, as a society emerging from the Troubles, has had to rediscover its self-belief,” he says. “Maybe we had it when we built the Titanic, but the Troubles reduced that sense of ourselves as a global player. Now there’s a whole new generation that doesn’t see any limitation to what they can do.”

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