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A Budget to be Reckoned With

When HBO announced that it was ordering a season of George R.R. Martin‘s Game of Thrones on March 2nd, the news was greeted with jubilation across fandom, on the internet and off. But the green light provided a host of new questions, such as when new cast members would be announced, when new production stills might be seen, and the like. And among them, a fairly significant question: what would the budget be?

We received answers pretty quickly. Nelson McCausland, a government minister, shared that the per-season budget was expected to be circa £30 million, equivalent to $45 million U.S. With a ten episode order, this would average at $4.5m an episode, a significant amount of money by most standards in the industry. On top of this, we had additional reports that the production was estimated to inject as much as £20m ($30m) into the economy, an interesting figure that has provided one of our own estimates regarding just what this budget means.

The thing that has to be realized when trying to decide what the budget means in terms of the production is that a host of factors make this production different than other, comaparably-budgetted HBO productions such as Carnivàle and Deadwood. Chief among them? A foreign location, Northern Ireland, which has only recently pushed to become a major location for international film production. With this fledgling industry comes a great deal of opportunity as far as production costs go. The Northern Ireland government has made many efforts entice productions through generous tax breaks, cash incentives, and other support.

So, what’s the purchasing power of a $45 million production in Northern Ireland, compared to a show in the United States? Good question, and one we’re going to try our best to answer. We welcome comments, additional analysis, and any relevant facts and figures that can help develop our first try further.

Production Costs

After much searching, we came across a U.K. Film Council 2007 economic report that is very illuminating. Some caveats first: it’s three years out of date, we’re not absolutely sure of the situation regarding the Film Tax Relief program that it focuses on (we believe it’s still in place), and obviously it’s generalizing the whole of the U.K. rather than just Northern Ireland where a good portion of the budget will be spent.

That £20m/$30m figure is useful. While “economic impact” can be an incredibly complex calculation when economists try to size up what amount of economic activity a given event, business, or production might lead to (see p. 72 of the above PDF), we’ve reason to believe that this particular statement is straightforward:£20m/$30m of the budget will be spent in the U.K. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s a pretty “round” figure—it’s exactly 2/3rds of the budget. It also happens to very closely match a figure in the Film Council report, from p. 72 again: “Production spend on inward investment films accounted for 68% of total production spend in 2006.” Given this, we’re guessing that this estimate is based on the same sort of statistics Oxford Economics presented to the U.K. Film Council.

It’s Cheaper

An important thing to keep in mind is that Northern Ireland is a cheaper location to shoot in than the United States, at least as of 2007, and according to the report om p. 71, by 2010 they projected the U.K. to be as much as 15% cheaper to film in than in the U.S. before additional tax incentives were considered. Yet they make another note that suggests there’s a bit more benefit than that on p. 69: production costs closely relate to average wages. Northern Ireland, where a majority of the production budget is expected to be spent, has the lowest average wages of any region in the United Kingdom, approximately 7-8% less than the U.K. average.

It seems to us that this could mean that the purchasing power of that £20m/$30m spent in Northern Ireland might be worth nearer to £23.8m/$35.7m in terms of what it can purchase in Northern Ireland compared to the United States. And this is before we factor in Film Tax Relief. What would that be worth to the production? Again, the £20m figure helps.

Northern Ireland Screen provides the basic formula, indicating that for a production over £20m, “divide by 5 to calculate the amount of tax relief.” £20m spent in Northern Ireland means a £4m/$6m tax credit. The credit doesn’t directly correspond to actual pounds/dollars that could be spent, we suspect, but the offset on taxes applied to the production could have a nearly similar effect. For the sake of simplicity, then, lets suppose that the production is more nearly equivalent to a £42.8/$64.2 million production, with the additional purchasing power having to do with the major production costs (filming, sets, costumes and props, possibly visual effects when shots are sourced to U.K.-based VFX companies, and wages) that eat up 2/3rds of the budget.

Wait, There’s More

But there’s more to consider. Northern Ireland sweetened the deal, we’re told, by giving a cash incentive of £1.6/$2.4m. After some research, we’re speculating that this means that Northern Ireland Screen has twice awarded its maximum award out of its television production fund, listed as a maximum of £800,000/$1.2m for a production of this size. How do they arrive at that? At a guess, their first award was for the pilot, and their second is for the rest of the series. Whether this money is to be considered a part of the already-stated budget,  or if the HBO production is putting it on top of it, is anyone’s guess. If the latter? Now the production is nearer the £44.4m/$66.6m mark in terms of equivalence to a production shout in the U.S. just a few years ago.

There’s something else interesting about this cash incentive. If we’re right about how they came to this figure, it potentially tells us something about the cost of the pilot: it cost a bare minimum of £3.2m/$4.8m. Given that pilots are generally disproportionately more expensive than the regular episodes due to the high starting cost investments, it seems probable that the pilot was significantly more expensive than that mark—perhaps as much as twice as effective, given the estimate that the pilot alone was “worth” as much as £10 million.

Wait, There’s MORE

There’s another factor to consider, namely the cost of leasing studio space. The bulk of the production is going to center on the Paint Hall, a massive studio facility. Initial reports implied that part of the deal to land the pilot in Northern Ireland was having the space heavil subsidized. Whether this continues to be the case now that the series is going into production is a question. As the Northern Ireland Screen brochure for the hall suggests, rental rates are negotiated on a production-by-production basis, and we’re going to be optimistic and suppose that Northern Ireland Screen has helped the production land a lower-than-usual rate for the facility.

How much that helps with the below-the-line costs is a mystery to us (if anyone can offer a ballpark estimate, we’d be keen to hear it), but every penny counts.

How Does It Compare?

The big question, then. How does this amount of purchasing power compare to past television programs?

The Russian fan site, 7 Kingdoms, has made a handy chart comparing the raw, reported budget to that of past and current series. Deadwood has always struck us as being just about the right budget level for this series, with an extensive cast of regulars, a significant set build, and a great need for period props and clothing. As you can see, the raw budget is only slightly lower than that of Deadwood. On top of that, Deadwood‘s budget covered a 12 episode season, with reports that the average episode was $5m, only half a million dollars higher than the raw $4.5m per episode of Game of Thrones. On the other hand, factoring in inflation, Deadwood‘s budget is closer to $5.7m an episode.

But when you factor tax incentives… When Deadwood was filmed, very few states had any significant tax incentives in place. California, where the series was filmed, did not have any notable incentives at the time of filming. So, the $5m per episode budget is fairly representative of the actual purchasing power they had. In this case, Game of Thrones could be said to have a significantly higher per-episode purchasing capability, as much as $6+ million, which is higher than even the inflation-adjusted budget. Much the same can be said for the early 20th century fantasy of Carnivàle, which had extensive location shooting and a very large cast by any standard. That show was budgeted in its first season at $4 million an episode ($4.7 inflationed adjusted) at a time when there were no noteworthy tax breaks for production in the U.S.

On the other hand, the costly Rome had a rumored $8.7m budget per episode ($9.6m inflation-adjusted), about twice that of Game of Thrones. But besides the expensive shooting location, at the time Italy had no significant tax incentives applicable to the television production—that raw budget was very close to their actual working budget. And on top of all that, part of the cost entailed a huge permanent set (with the intention of being able to lease it out for future productions to defray costs), a cost which Game of Thrones is not likely to entail. Last but not least, there’s signs that in its first season, Rome did not use its budget wisely. VFX producers for the show remarked that they were surprised by how little they were used in the first season, suggesting that they felt the show would have been more cost-effective if less money had been devoted to the lavish sets and more money was used to digitally render and composite such backgrounds. If Game of Thrones uses its budget wisely—and with experienced personnel like Thomas McCarthy, Julia Frey, Robert Stromberg, and Mark Huffam, they’re certainly capable of it—it could close the monetary gap between it and Rome with more effecient, quality production values.

As to current productions, consider The Tudors, set in a similar sort of milieu with lavish period costuming. Filming in the Republic of Ireland, where tax incentives are roughly similar to that of Northern Ireland, the show was touted to have a $35 million budget for its first season of ten episodes. That’s a 22% lower per-episode raw budget than Game of Thrones, money which will doubtless be well-spent in all parts of the production to match the epic scope of a series which is likely to need more in the way of VFX, sets, and location shoots to represent the many different locales which the story shows. After adjusting for tax relief and other incentives, we would suppose that Game of Thrones likely has a little bit nearer 25% greater purchasing power on a per-episode basis.

Or how about True Blood, HBO’s major modern-day horror/fantasy? It’s been a huge hit, and may well have led to HBO’s interest in Game of Thrones. Rumor placed its first season per-episode budget at about $3 million. Of course, it needs much less in the way of original costuming and props, and probably rather more modest costs for sets and locations. Yet again, though, Game of Thrones is comparing very favorably with modern hour-long series for the most part. There’s just one exception for a regular series which is significantly more expensive: Boardwalk Empire. Its pilot—that’s just the first episode—cost $18 million dollars. A jaw-dropping figure, especially compared to a pilot for Game of Thrones that was perhaps a third of that, or less. However, that upfront cost had a lot to do with the massive set they built, a cost which will be amortized across the first season, giving the show something nearer to a $5 million per episode budget. That’s perfectly on par with Game of Thrones (whose purchasing power may, in fact, be even greater).

The Elephants in the Attic

But lets keep some perspective: like Rome, a huge and costly permanent set was built from scratch, proof that HBO never had any doubts about picking up this show. Produced by Martin Scorsese, who directed the first episode, this is a prestige production, squarely aimed at capturing the same acclaim, subscribers, and DVD sales that The Sopranos or Band of Brothers brought them. After the huge initial spend, it’s very probable that the rest of the first season will be rather less costly, bringing the budget down to less stratospheric height when looked across the season. A $75m-$80m tally seems likely, and the following seasons may be notably lower if the series goes forward (which it’s almost certainly set to do).

The chart does show that the incredible John Adams miniseries was extraordinarily costly. Every penny was on the screen. But it does go to show that, while the lavish production values are something to aim for (as we’ve discussed in our visual effects article), the reality is that with something between a third and half of the per-episode budget (nearer a third, as we expect that by the time John Adams filmed the state(s) in which it was shot had nearly-comparable tax incentives on hand) there’s only going to be so much that Game of Thrones can do in comparison. John Adams is an ideal, and it gives some useful ideas for how greenscreen and rendered elements may play a role in the show, but it’s not our best comparison. The same could be said for Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the latter of which is the most expensive mini-series ever with a rumored per-episode budget near the $20 million mark. These mini-series are in a class all of their own, and HBO is investing accordingly.

To Sum Up

Those are huge, prestigious productions. Game of Thrones is lavish by any reasonable standard, up there with acclaimed period programs such as Deadwood. Consider the networks: HBO’s productions are positively extravagant compared to their shows. Heroes was considered very expensive at $4 million per episode, and has had cutbacks since. Lost in its first season was rumored to cost about $5 million an episode, and that with quite a large cast and extensive location shooting.

Game of Thrones has an extraordinary budget, its reported £30m/$45m budget potentially equivalent to a budget 18-45% higher elsewhere in the world. We think 20-25% higher is the most solid calculation we can support, making fewer assumptions regarding the Paint Hall facility lease, the application of the Film Tax Relief and cash incentive, and simply looking at it primarily in terms of lower production costs due to average wages and such other figures the economic report hints at.

Using this middle-of-the-road, safe estimate, it means the £30/$45m production is equivalent to one that’s as expensive as one that osts $5.4-$5.6m per hour in the U.S. In which case, it’s absolutely among the “A-list” of regular series television productions in the U.S.  and around the world. The series is being hailed as the most expensive hour-long regular television series to ever be filmed in Europe, something which we haven’t verified but so far we’ve not found anything to contradict it as of yet.

So if you’re worried about the budget? Don’t be. HBO’s investing major funds into this, making the show its second-most expensive regular hour-long series on the air, and its third-most richly budgeted regular hour-long once the cheaper, foreign shooting location, the tax relief, and other production breaks are factored in.