An Inside Look at the Finances Behind ‘Game of Thrones’
A Lannister always pays his debts. And so does “Game of Thrones,” the wildly popular series that has cost HBO a fortune but has clearly paid off. And a show as epic as GoT doesn’t come cheap — the series has used thousands of crew members, thousands of buckets of blood and millions of dollars for the show’s sets and stars. From the salary of Jon Snow to the how much you need to buy your very own dire wolf (sort of), this is an inside look at the finances behind “Game of Thrones.” (And don’t worry — there are no season 8 spoilers.)
The Original Budget
GoT has never been cheap, but as the series has expanded (and has seen the cast grow and shrink), the budget has increased. It’s estimated that the pilot episode cost between $5 and $10 million, while the entire first season 10-episode run cost $60-$70 million. On average, that’s around $6 -$7 million an episode. Oh, how cheap that was.
“It’s funny how small and kind of rinky-dink the scene is,” said “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor, recalling Ned Stark’s final scene from season one in a Vanity Fair interview.
The New Budget
Up until season six, episodes cost about $6 million each. But as the show demanded even more money, HBO allowed a budget of $10 million per episode for seasons six and seven. And by 2019, that budget would balloon up to $90 million for the final season, or about $15 million per episode.
The First Expensive Battle
The first full-scale depiction of warfare was the Battle of the Blackwater, which required an additional $2 million from HBO. The battle included a full-sized battleship be built, a custom water tank to douse flaming stuntmen, 250 extras and their fight training, and tons of visual effects. Plus, we got this line from Tyrion:
“Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.” Priceless.
‘The Battle of the B*stards’ Cost Millions, Too
The Blackwater battle was epic, but the epic face-off between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton in season six was bigger, bloodier and more expensive. The massive onslaught between the warring factions took 500 extras, 70 horses, 160 tons of gravel (the ground was too muddy for the horses), 25 stunt people, 600 crewmembers and 25 days to shoot, according to Entertainment Weekly. It cost over $10 million, and is believed to have siphoned money from other episodes from season six
The Most Expensive Battle
We’re not going to spoil it, but season eight features an even bigger bloodbath. Here’s all you need to know: this one required filming for 11 weeks of nighttime shooting and, at 80 minutes long, is the longest battle sequence ever put on film — twice as long as the Helm’s Deep battle from “Lord of the Rings.” No word yet on how much it cost, but the average cost per episode in season 8 is $15 million, so it's at least that much.
The ‘A-List’ Paychecks
The “Game of Thrones” cast members are pulling in more than ever, but they worked their way up. TV Guide reported Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) and Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) were making $150,000 per episode as of season four. By season five they, Kit Harington (Jon Snow) and Emilia Clark (Daenerys Targaryen) were rumored to be making around $300,000. By season seven, those frontrunners, including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister), made at least $500,000 an episode.
For the final season, they are making about $1.2 million per show, according to Hollywood Reporter. Which appears to be accurate. Court documents from a lawsuit involving Coster-Waldau and his ex-manager revealed that the actor was paid $1.06 million per episode.
The ‘B-List’ Paychecks
We don’t consider these GoT actors — or their characters — B-listers, but Hollywood is cruel. The show’s lesser-paid stars include Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark), who are said to be paid $175,000 per episode for season eight. There are only six episodes, but that’s still a $1.05 million payday.
How Much Did All Those Extras Get?
GoT has had a lot of extras through its eight-season run, from background warriors to background nudists. Belfast Live reported in 2014 that some extras could make up to £500 (about $650) a day. That may have been for “The Battle of the B*stards,” as extras would have to work 17 hours, from past midnight until evening the next day (and they had to do some fighting). Another person Belfast Live interviewed said they were paid 25 euros, or about $28, for one day’s worth of work during the “Purple Wedding” episode, which was filmed in Croatia.
It Boosted Northern Ireland’s Economy
Many GoT scenes and episodes were filmed in Northern Ireland, resulting in millions of dollars in revenue for the country. Because of the show, each year an estimated 120,000 tourists head over to Northern Ireland in order to visit one of the show’s famous locations, like Winterfell, Overall, GoT has pumped about $240 million into the economy since 2010.
Jon Snow, Is That Ikea You’re Wearing?
Dressing all these characters isn’t cheap or easy. Michelle Clapton, lead costume designer for the show, estimated she oversaw the creation of about 120 costumes a season, working with up to 100 people at a time. But Clapton found creative ways to stay on budget, especially in the earlier seasons. In an interview at the Getty Museum, she revealed that Jon Snow's famous wooly cape was really just an IKEA rug. Estimated cost: $39 to $79.
It Takes a Village of (Very) Specific Jobs
The budget may be bonkers for a TV show, but creating an entire fantasy universe doesn't come cheap, and it takes a lot of high-value and high-priced talent to pull it off. Beyond the directors, producers, CGI developers and actors, the show also employs a host of unusual workers you might not expect to find on the set of a TV show. For example, a master embroider, Michele Carragher, worked on the show between 2011 and 2016, carefully weaving the literal story of the show into some of the costumes. (Sansa Stark's dress in one scene featured images from The House of Tully, a stark Direwolf and the Lannister lion.) The costume department also employed a team of designers who are just there to make the newly created costumes look old and worn.
We Don't See the Dire Wolves Because They're Too Expensive
With a budget that size, you wouldn't think “Game of Thrones” had to make a lot of sacrifices, but they do — and viewers aren't terribly happy about it. In the first season, the Stark children's dire wolf pups appeared frequently, but as the show progressed we saw less and less of the now-giant fluff balls. Turns out, making the transition from reality to CGI is to blame. At first, the show's producers used Northern Inuit dogs to play the pups, but as the dogs grew to massive proportions in the fictional storyline, the real-life dogs remained small, so the show switched to CGI. Unfortunately, shooting a dire wolf scene takes a ton of CGI and post-production editing, so their on-screen time is limited.
You Can Buy Your Own Dire Wolf (Kind Of)
While adopting a Northern Inuit isn't a good idea unless you actually live at the North Pole where the cold-loving dogs are happiest, you can buy yourself a dire wolf dog. Sort of. While true dire wolves haven't existed for thousands of years, an Oregon-based breeder has been working on a selective breeding process to create a dire wolf-esqe pup. Called the Dire Wolf Project, the dogs are huge, fluffy, shaggy breeds that look surprisingly like the CGI versions. Actually getting a dire wolf could cost $3,000 or more (and the waitlist is long), but you can visit the Dire Wolf Project now for a day full of petting.
It’s the Most Licensed Show in HBO History
There’s GoT-branded beers, whiskeys, wines, cups, mugs, puzzles, models, board games, plushes, Funko pops, jewelry, video games, $50,000 pens, candles, blankets, makeup, bags, sneakers and cookbooks. Worldwide, HBO has handed out over 100 licenses for GoT-branded merchandise, the most out of any show in the network’s history.
Buckets of Blood and Thousands of Hotel Rooms
You can buy a lot with a cumulative budget that has stretched into several hundred million dollars. With the beloved series coming to an end, HBO shared some interesting tidbits about what it took to film GoT:
- 4,000 gallons of fake blood
- 50 miles of costume fabric
- 20,907 candles
- 105,846 extras
- 1.5 tons of metal
- 13,000 shields
- 3,748 pounds of rubber
- 52,000 bags of fake snow
- 163 tons of propane
- 68,143 hotel rooms booked
How Much Money Does GoT Make HBO?
While HBO hasn’t disclosed the true numbers, third parties have researched just how much GoT means to the premium cable company. When season seven aired in 2017, HBO subscriptions spiked by 91 percent in the U.S., but six months later, only 26 percent of them remained subscribers, according to the tech data company Second Measure. The Los Angeles Times calculated that subscriptions have grown to about 140 million since season one debuted in 2011 until 2018, and revenue has increased by 47 percent during that same time frame.
But even if the majority of new signups for the final season leave, GoT has elevated HBO to new heights, critically and commercially.