Game of Thrones has made headlines as the most expensive TV show of all time. The six-episode Season 8 had a budget of $90m (£70m) – an average of $15m (£11.5m) per episode. And it’s fair to assume that the $90m was not evenly spread across episodes. Episode two, after all, was essentially comprised of quiet, character moments. Episode three’s battle for Winterfell, meanwhile, brought blockbuster scale to the small screen.
There were cavalry charges; CGI dragons; swarms of zombie hordes. The battle of Winterfell took eleven weeks of night shoots to film. Huge, elaborate sets were built from scratch; hundreds of extras were employed. An estimated 750 crew members worked on production each night, battling the elements and extreme temperatures to get the necessary footage. At 80 minutes, episode three was the longest battle sequence ever made – double the famous Lord of the Rings’ 40-minute battle for Helm’s Deep.
Compare this production value with some of the other most expensive TV shows of all time. Friends, for example, reached an average cost of $10m (£7.7m) per episode, while The Big Bang Theory has reached $9m. As studio sitcoms, Friends and The Big Bang Theory do not have sweeping fantasy landscapes and gruelling, CGI-enhanced battle scenes. The $10m for each Friends episode went, largely, to actors’ salaries.
In the last two seasons of Friends, the main cast members were each paid $1m (£767k) per episode. The Game of Thrones cast also bring home some hefty paychecks – though not for quite as much. The highest paid Game of Thrones actors – Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister), and Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) each took home an estimated £537,000 per episode for Season 8. Other lead actors, including Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) earned a reported £158,000 per episode.
Bear in mind that not all actors appear in each episode, with Lena Headey completely absent from The Long Night. It is worth also considering the amount of work the actors must put into each episode – compare 11 weeks of night shoots, stunt training, and time spent around the world on location to the six hours taken to film each episode of Friends.
$90m is a lot of money. But the huge production value is one of the qualities which has won Game of Thrones such a global fanbase, and therefore is part of why the Game of Thrones franchise is now worth an estimated $1bn (£766,504m).
In this golden age of TV, audience expectations are increasingly high and production budgets must grow in tandem. Jon Favreau’s upcoming live-action Star Wars series has been confirmed to cost $100m (£76.7m), averaging $10m per episode. Viewers must hope the Star Wars TV series will follow Game of Thrones’ example and milk every penny of its astronomical budget.