North sitting profitably as 'Game of Thrones' film location

Tue, May 8, 2012, 01:00

Audits show a £1.6 million investment in the first series by NI Executive delivered £17 million and helped generate 800 jobs

WHO COULD have predicted that a medieval fantasy world where kings and queens battle good and evil to defend their honour and lands would one day create a real-life tourist buzz around Northern Ireland?

Not so long ago one of the major sightseeing destinations for tourists on their first trip to Belfast would have been a visit to one of the peace walls or a particular political mural in the west or the east of the city.

But today – especially for television fans of one fantasy epic – there is a growing list of must-see destinations helping to attract a new generation of tourists and spending power to the North.

There is no doubt that the newly opened Titanic Belfast building – which proved to be a sellout over the bank holiday weekend – is helping to generate a fresh source of desperately needed tourism revenue.

But hot on its heels is a completely different type of attraction and one that Northern Ireland has never had the chance to capitalise on before – the television show location.

This is all thanks to American cable network giant HBO, which decided in 2009 to part-film a series based on the best-selling fantasy book series by George RR Martin, Game of Thrones, in the North.

It has opened up a world of opportunities when it comes to location tourists because it has showcased Northern Ireland to millions across the globe. According to early research the Game of Thrones season two premiere last month attracted a gross audience of 8.3 million, while the season one average was 9.3 million viewers. This success is likely to give local communities in the North the opportunity to benefit from a potential tourist boost because fans are keen to visit the exact locations where the television series is shot.

The backdrops for the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning fantasy series have included the Mourne mountains (or Vaes Dothrak to fans) and Castle Ward in Co Down – which doubled up as Ned Stark’s ancestral home.

Fans might also be keen to experience Tollymore Forest and Ballintoy Harbour which have also made an appearance and are likely to feature in upcoming bus tours.

Northern Ireland Screen, the government-backed agency for the film, television and digital content industry, believes it “is not fanciful to see Game of Thrones as having a similar potential as Lord of the Rings had for the awareness of, and brand image of, New Zealand”.

HBO recently confirmed that production for the third season will be based in Belfast.

It will shoot chiefly in the Paint Hall film studio, a former Harland and Wolff facility where ships were once painted, but it will also use new sound stages in Belfast and a former linen-processing plant in Banbridge, the Linen Mill Film Studios.

The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness believes the return of HBO to Belfast to film sends out a powerful message about Northern Ireland’s creative industries.

“Production of this third series will create jobs and generate income for our local economy,” he said.

The North’s Executive has been keen to support the filming of Game of Thrones by helping to finance the series. It has received funding from the Northern Ireland Screen fund, which is supported by Invest NI, and part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

Financial audits show a £1.6 million (€1.9 million) investment in the first series by the Executive delivered an estimated £17 million return for the Northern Ireland economy and helped generate 800 jobs during production. Series two is expected to have delivered an economic boost of some £20 million and a similar jobs boost.

It has been estimated that if all eight books in Martin’s Game of Thrones series were to go into production in Northern Ireland, it could deliver a potential award-winning £140 million boost long term for the local economy.

But Moyra Lock, head of marketing with Northern Ireland Screen, says it is important to remember that Game of Thrones is not the only show in town. Lock says while the HBO series is a significant success – it represents the largest television inward investment in Europe during production – the economic figures are only part of the story.

She says the film/television sector in the North “is buzzing with confidence and positivity”, boosted in part by the recent Oscar win by Belfast-born Terry George for his Northern Ireland-based film The Shore and a host of other television and film projects in production and in the pipeline.

Lock believes the performance of the agency – halfway through a four-year “Driving Global Growth” strategy – shows the film, television and digital-content sectors have a vital role to play in growing the economy.

She says from the start of the strategy in 2010 until March this year the level of funding via its main production fund, the Screen Fund, is already estimated to be £9.8 million.

This in turn has supported a total spend over the same period in Northern Ireland of about £58.8 million – an estimated £25 million of this is on employment alone. This represents a spend to investment ratio of 6:1 in the North.

Overall, the total value of productions funded by Northern Ireland Screen from 2010 to March 2012 is estimated at about £117 million which, according to Lock, reflects how the local industry is maturing.

Lock says: “There is no doubt that Game of Thrones is not only helping to sustain but also to develop the industry in a lot of different ways. In terms of the impact it has had for indigenous companies – from production to transport it has been huge – they have been able to expand and create new jobs on the back of it which, for the Northern Ireland economy, is a great success.”