For sheer spectacle, nothing on television comes close to “Game of Thrones.”
The show’s budget is nearly three times that of a typical network drama series, hovering around $10 million per episode. The production of each season is executed like a military campaign, spanning four countries, a cast of hundreds, months of location shooting and post-production vfx to create the cinematic fantasy realm of Westeros and related lands.
HBO’s investment has generated a rabid following of viewers around the world. But for all its success, one prize eluded the army led by creators/showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss: respect from the creative community. All that changed this month when Television Academy voters, as if by delayed reaction, showered the show’s fifth season with a record-setting 12 trophies, including the drama series win at the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 20.
“From very early on, we knew that if we were going to do this show, we had to somehow deliver feature-film quality production on a non-feature-film budget, and on a weekly basis,” says Michael Lombardo, HBO original programming president. “We knew that if the production value didn’t match the storytelling, it would denigrate the whole quality of the show.”
“Thrones’ ” wins for drama series writing (for Benioff and Weiss) and directing (for David Nutter) was almost more meaningful because it recognized the skill it takes to produce the show. Even with the HBO pedigree, “Thrones” was handicapped with Emmy voters because of its fantasy-supernatural themes. Lombardo has never been a fantasy buff, but Benioff and Weiss won him over with the strength of their characters.
“The writing has been so outstanding that for the first couple of years it was disheartening to hear people marginalize the show as a genre show that was somehow lacking in creative integrity,” Lombardo says.
The Emmy victory marked a full-circle moment for another key player in the “Thrones” saga, executive producer Carolyn Strauss. Strauss was HBO’s president of entertainment when Benioff and Weiss first pitched the project. She’d never heard of George R.R. Martin’s book series, on which “Thrones” is based, but was quickly drawn to the world.
After leaving HBO in early 2008, Strauss stayed connected to “Thrones” during its lengthy development process. As Benioff and Weiss were new to TV, she knew she could be helpful in guiding them through the process. But nothing in her years of experience prepared her for the ride that was in store once the show was greenlit for premiere in 2011.
“The work and the ambition on this show has always been immense,” Strauss says. “You can’t buy the kind of enthusiasm and the camaraderie and the team spirit that drives this enormous machine.”
“Thrones” has faced criticism from the start that it has raised the stakes for depictions of violence on the small screen. That factor had been seen as a handicap for the show in previous Emmy races. Strauss says the show is uncompromising in its storytelling but never cavalier about violence.
“Sexual violence has been and continues to be a tool of war,” Strauss says. She notes that at the time “Thrones” was under scrutiny for sexual violence this past spring, the extremist group Boko Haram was making headlines for kidnapping more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls.
“Thrones” depicts a war-torn world where violence is inescapable but not glorified. Graphic scenes are always presented with clear context for the characters and their stories. “It should be horrible to watch,” Strauss says. “It should not be a comfortable experience.”
Moreover, “Thrones” offers “more powerful roles for women than almost anything else I can think of. There are complex people — good, bad, powerful interesting characters that populate this world,” Strauss says.
Lombardo calls the show “as creatively excellent as anything we’ve ever put on the air,” and notes that the show brings in a balanced audience of women and men in “almost every demo that you can imagine.”
“Thrones” has been a dynamic calling card for HBO at a time when the brand is extending its reach beyond traditional MVPDs through digital-only distribution. Interest in “Thrones” and its world also drives in a huge amount of traffic to HBO’s web platforms around the world. “There is such a sticky quality to this world, it makes people want to consume more information about the characters and the stories,” Lombardo says. “In a (TV) environment this competitive this is what you pray for.”
Strauss adds that “Thrones’ ” long wait for high-level Emmy recognition makes this year’s big score that much sweeter.
“In a weird way the fact that the show was really established before it got the award makes it even more special for everybody,” Strauss says. “There’s not a chance (the Emmy win) going to be taken for granted.”