Game of Thrones, which concluded its sixth season this week on HBO, is firmly cemented as the cable network’s programming cornerstone. As the cultural clout of the fight for the throne in fictional Westeros has grown, the show’s budget has kept pace. “There’s nothing like it on TV” is oft-uttered enthusiast praise, but “Game of Thrones” has the numbers to back up the claim.
Each 10-episode season adapting George R.R. Martin’s epic novel series has the scale and cost of a sizable studio movie. And even though HBO shies away from reporting detailed numbers, it has confirmed this season’s budget was set at $100 million for the 10 hours. That pays for three major camera units (and an occasional fourth) working in five countries under five directors, each of whom is responsible for two consecutive episodes.
Ten million dollars is a good working per-episode cost average, but individual episodes may cost more or less as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss shift resources to prioritize big moments.
The ninth episode of this season, “Battle of the Bastards,” was a big moment by any metric. Even against the backdrop of the show’s grand landscapes and battles featuring mammoths and undead wights, “Battle of the Bastards,” stands at the forefront of the show’s achievements. A fighting force led by Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) masses outside Winterfell, the Stark family home held by pathologically evil Lord Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Together, the opposing forces number in the thousands, with large cavalry regiments and archers. There’s even a giant.
When the armies clash, their pitched battle is larger by far than any of the show’s previous conflicts. Complicating the situation for producers, the battle was set in daylight, so there are no shadows in which to conceal the line between real actors and digital soldiers.
The tally of resources for “Battle of the Bastards” reads like the roll call for a small army:
Six hundred crew members; 500 extras; 70 horses and riders (each of which was re-dressed multiple times to play three different forces); and 25 stunt people. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Miguel Sapochnik revealed that the fight he choreographed took inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” which at $12 million was the most expensive film ever produced in Japan when it began shooting in 1983 — that same price tag is likely close to the final cost of “Battle of the Bastards,” which ran over the Season 6 average.
At one point in pre-production, Sapochnik calculated the battle at Winterfell would require 42 shooting days. In the end, creative problem solving allowed Sapochnik and four camera crews to get the episode in the can in 25 days, more than double a long schedule for most hour-long episodes. Those 25 days don’t account for the episode’s opening segment, featuring Daenerys Targaryen attacking a naval force while riding dragonback.
Previous “Game of Thrones” battle episodes, each of which was a benchmark in its time, demanded fewer resources.
“Blackwater” (2012): Directed by Neil Marshall, who took charge of the episode late in pre-production, “Blackwater” depicts the series’ first major battle, shot in a Belfast, Northern Ireland, quarry over what Benioff described as “pretty much a month straight of night shoots” in 40-degree wind and rain. Over 200 extras filled out armies in the battle that takes place on ships, a beachhead, and the walls surrounding fictional King’s Landing. The hour cost $8 million, a hefty increase over the $6 million allotted to episodes at the time. Producers constructed an 80-foot-high set wall; a full-sized ship based on 14th-century designs; and a 4-foot-deep water tank. Digital effects multiplied 13 horses into over 100.
“Watchers on the Wall” (2014): Marshall returned to the quarry location to oversee the Wildling attack on the Wall separating the Seven Kingdoms from the frozen North, saying he spent “about four weeks overall” on the battle, with one of those weeks devoted to green-screen filming on stages. Two 7-foot tall men played the show’s fictional giants, and extensive digital effects helped multiply the cast into tens of thousands of fighting men and women. HBO has not released an official budget tally for the episode, but Harington referred to it at the time as “the most expensive episode they’ve ever made,” leading to speculation of a price tag of $9 million to $10 million.
“Hardhome” (2015): Sapochnik helmed the snowy massacre of Wildling forces by the White Walkers and their undead army. Four hundred extras and 50 stunt people were digitally multiplied into more than 100,000 combatants, with shooting over three weeks producing less than a minute of footage per day. Harington explained that each of his fights was shot three times, alone, against a stunt person in full makeup, and fighting the same enemy wearing a green-screen suit.
These special episodes make demands that are unusual even by the epic standards of “Game of Thrones,” but even more routine episodes require heavy investment, setting the series apart from other productions.
Modern television series are regularly budgeted between $2 million and $4 million per hour; “Mad Men” ended its run costing $3 million per episode; “The Walking Dead” is more expensive, edging toward $3.5 million an episode, and Netflix series such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards” begin with a $4-million price tag per episode. HBO regularly outspends networks, with $5-million price tags for individual episodes of “True Blood” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
Yet “Game of Thrones” isn’t yet the most expensive show ever broadcast. NBC paid a $13-million license fee to Warner Bros. Television for the fourth season of “E.R.” based not on production cost, but on backstage negotiations that had little to do with the show’s budget. And HBO’s “The Pacific,” which had a price tag north of $200 million for 10 episodes, holds the throne for all-time television expenditure.
HBO isn’t yet finished with “Game of Thrones,” however, and with the story moving toward a showdown between whatever players remain after the end of this season, we’re all but guaranteed at least one more blockbuster episode before the Iron Throne is ultimately claimed.