As one of the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones is naturally becoming one of the most expensive shows ever made as well. The adaptation from novel, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” to screen was never anticipated at being cheap. In Season Two, reports came in stating that each episode costs an average of $6 million to produce. Season Two premiered in April 2012 which means it was filmed in 2011.
Of course this astounding number has only grown as the television series has exploded in popularity. Game of Thrones has become a considerable portion of pop-culture around the world. In April 2014, the series achieved a new height when it became the most-watched single HBO episode since the finale of The Sopranos. When the show premiered in 2011, critics were skeptical of whether Game of Thrones would be able to find the non-nerd audience.
In Season Three, the series saw a 20-percent increase in viewership, much of which can be attributed to the Internet’s reaction to the Red Wedding episode. Season Four saw additional explosive growth with the premiere matching the viewership of the finale of the Sopranos. Interestingly enough, these viewership numbers are not completely accurate as they do not account for the pirates. Since Game of Thrones is the most illegally downloaded show in the past two years, the Season Four premiere was the most illegally downloaded episode of any series all-time.
In Season Five, the popularity was even more incredible. The finale roped in 8.11 million total viewers, this does not include the pirates, which was a record high for any subscription cable fantasy drama. The episode had a lot of nudity, intrigue, violence and excitement; three points that will make any show a top-viewing hit.
Cost of CGI
In Seasons Five and Six, the CGI has grown significantly to enhance the sweeping battle scenes and giant dragons flying around. The more CGI that makes the final cut into a television show or movie, the higher the cost of the production will become. The cost of CGI is significant for two reasons: the people and computer resources.
The CGI industry acts as an assembly line with a team of 10-12 who processes shots through several stages: Modeling, Tracking, Animation, Dust Busting, BgPrep, FX, Compositing, Lighting, etc. The average time for this process within the team is at least four weeks if not more. This equates to around 1,600 man hour at a minimum without overtime. At $50 per hour, per person, that equates to a minimum of $80K per shot. If a Game of Thrones episode has 10-minutes of CGI, which equates to $800,000.
CGI production is extremely computer resource-intensive. A single frame can take around 12-hours to render based on the complexity. With 45 frames per second, that equates to 540 compute hours for a single version of a single second. Most shots experience around 10,800 computer hours. A single hour on a datacenter at Amazon Web Services (AMS) is around $0.65 so the equivalent of 1-second costs $7,000. Extrapolate this based on the amount of time of CGI in the show and it can get into the millions. There are other additional factors that drive up the cost including computer storage space per episode, accounting, human resources, overhead and the multiple other departments that contribute to the successful launch of a show.
In the April 2016 print edition of Entertainment Weekly, James Hibberd, a reporter for the magazine, mentioned the cost for Season Six of Game of Thrones. He had estimated that the show (per episode) is running a little north of $10 million. This is a $4 million increase from the 2012 budget. The famous Blackwater battle scene in Season Two alone saw an increased cost of $2 million which brought that single episode to $8 million. The producers had to practically beg (on one knee) HBO executives for the additional $2 million to ensure the scene was exactly as they envisioned.
Comparison with Other Shows
Therefore, Season Six of Game of Thrones has 10 episodes at $10 million per episode which equates to $100 million for the entire season. This is extremely high when compared to other show budgets. In the final season of “Friends,” each episode cost $10 million without any of the CGI effects. Most of this budget went to the star’s $1 million per episode paychecks. When George Clooney starred on E.R. from Seasons Four to Six, NBC paid $13 million per episode. Again, these costly episodes can be attributed to Clooney's high salary to remain the star of the show.
With four years of incredible success, HBO has increased its already high budget without the need for producers to beg. The gigantic CGI dragon and huge battle scene occurring in Season Six, that rivals the Blackwater episode,” could be their highest priced episode ever. The battle is the show’s first attempt at performing a “proper battle.” In other words, there are hundreds of human soldiers on one side and an entire army on the other with a traditional engagement campaign that will be highly tactical from beginning to end. Again, to execute this scene properly and in unison, producers had to hire choreographers and consultants for multiple groups of soldiers. Of course this further drives up the cost of the episode.
Season Six is off to an excellent start and there are many areas in which HBO has added budgets, most of which are bigger and better versions of the aforementioned budget-swelling factors. With millions of people tuning in, their return on investment, which equates to ratings, is clearly worth the $10 million plus budget per episode.
With such a high growth in popularity over its last five seasons, the story is really beginning to unfold while the budgets continue to increase to make the story really come alive. CGI dragons, sweeping battlefield, beautifully rendered landscapes and backdrops and exceptional acting all contribute to the success of the show. It is exciting to anticipate what will come next on this blockbuster. Tune it to watch how the $10 million Game of Thrones budget converts into an epic television series.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker