What happens to Northern Ireland’s film industry now Game of Thrones is over?
HBO show’s success has invigorated the region and allowed its best talent to flourish
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO
That’s the assessment of Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, the North’s national film agency. Along with the currently dormant Northern Ireland Executive, Williams’s organisation was integral to the intensive lobbying that persuaded American cable giant HBO to anchor its adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin’s sweeping, colossal and still unfinished series of fantasy novels , in Belfast almost a decade ago.
The city and region were no strangers to Hollywood, having previously hosted the likes of dystopian blockbuster City of Ember (starring Saoirse Ronan) in 2007 and stoner comedy Your Highness two years later.
Lavery talks of the ‘phenomenal evolution of this place from a backwater with a bad reputation into somewhere with a global reputation, punching way above its weight’
But the arrival of a major global name like HBO was a welcome development for a film industry steadily building its brand. However, the presence of such a project, for all its magnitude, initially passed by the attention of the average local punter.
That was nine years ago. Subsequent events have been game changing.
“Before Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland was not taken seriously as a screen industry hub in the UK. Now it’s taken seriously as a screen industry hub globally. It’s stratospherically different,” says Williams.
That sentiment is echoed by Dermot Lavery, managing director of DoubleBand Films, one of Northern Ireland’s leading independent film companies. A respected figure at the coalface of producing high-quality content for international and domestic networks, he praises HBO for having faith in the North from the beginning.
“They felt confident enough to come here, to set up here and find the talent to work on Game of Thrones,” he says.
Lavery talks of the “phenomenal evolution of this place from a backwater with a bad reputation into somewhere with a global reputation, punching way above its weight”. He cites New Zealand, home of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, as another example of a place invigorated by its association with a crowd-pleasing franchise.
Game of Thrones has dominated the zeitgeist since it first appeared on screen, changing the industry’s understandings of what content audiences wanted, and the manner in which they consumed it.
According to Williams, these new trends are here to stay. “There’s no end in sight to the demand for high-end, high-cost content, particularly for TV,” he says.
With last week’s finale closing this chapter of Northern Ireland’s ongoing post-conflict story, the Game of Thrones effect, and the future prospects for a swiftly evolving film sector, should be viewed in a positive light.
“It is the most extraordinary kind of success story,” says Belfast-based critic and director Brian Henry Martin. “We didn’t have a lot of confidence in ourselves and what we could achieve. That’s completely transformed. Now the rest of the world wants to come here.”
As a prospective headquarters for other big-budget activities, the North retains the characteristics that first attracted HBO. The company centred all of its studio requirements, and most of its exterior shooting, in the region, though Croatia, Iceland, Morocco and Spain were called upon to provide more exotic backdrops. A skilled labour force and lower costs was allied with a geographically diverse, easy-to-access natural canvas onto which show runners David Benioff and DB Weiss painted many of Westeros’s myriad locations.
Belfast gives itself a significant edge in boasting two massive sound stages. Titanic Studios loom large within the once thriving shipyards on the city’s east side, and it was from here that HBO ran its eight-year operation. Across the choppy waters of Belfast Lough, nestled in the vast docklands on its northern edge, the newer, purpose-built Harbour Studios offer similar scope for investment. Syfy’s Superman-themed Krypton is a current tenant.
It is reasonable to ask how such a major driver of economic activity can be replaced. In Williams’s view, there’s every chance that nothing as sizeable as Game of Thrones, its considerable heft multiplied by longevity, will be replicated anywhere.
“Nothing is going to have the same resonance worldwide,” he says. “It will be quite a while before there’s anything that has the same scale of impact. It would be wrong not to acknowledge that Game of Thrones, as a cultural phenomenon, is kind of irreplaceable, but the industry will continue to grow. Maybe it’ll take two projects to fill the industry gap but it will be filled.”
Business continues to boom and the results are evident at a logistical level across the sector
The economic jolt is undeniable. The £30 million, and growing, Game of Thrones-themed tourism trade sits alongside the £250 million pumped directly into the region by the series, an enviable return on the £16 million in grants awarded to HBO by Northern Ireland Screen.
The show has highlighted local talent, too, both in front of the camera and behind. Widely considered one of the finest actors in the North, Ballycastle’s Conleth Hill has, from the start, been on outstanding, career-defining form as the urbane spymaster, Varys. Meanwhile, Belfast casting director Carla Stronge established Extras NI, raising an army of background performers and securing herself two Emmy Awards for her efforts. In the seaside town of Holywood, 10 minutes away from Titanic Studios, post-production house Yellow Moon formed the centre of the Game of Thrones editing process.
Referencing the workforce developed to meet HBO’s needs, Martin believes that the Game of Thrones set served as an incubator, allowing Northern Ireland’s next generation of technicians and filmmakers to hone their skills in an especially demanding environment.
“That’s what’s going to set them apart from other people. They have this world-class skill base to bring to their own projects and that’s going to make a huge difference,” he says.
Martin references one such product: Ryan Tohill, a graduate of the Game of Thrones art department. His debut feature The Dig, directed in concert with twin brother Andrew, was screened at Toronto last September and went on release across Ireland in May.
This talent pool is now realising indigenous artistic visions while also crewing several high-profile projects dotted throughout Northern Ireland, from ITV crime drama Marcella to Channel 4’s lightning-in-a-bottle comedy, Derry Girls. BBC heavy-hitter Line of Duty, replete with Belfast backdrops, will return for at least one more season. The Dublin Murders is another literary adaptation filmed for the BBC in the North, as well as in its eponymous city, and it is due to be broadcast later this year.
Business continues to boom and the results are evident at a logistical level across the sector. “We’re finding that when we go looking for those cameramen, designers or grips, they’re hard to get because there is so much work here,” says Lavery. “Our assessment is that this is soaking up the available talent. That’s where we need to look now to develop. We need to keep making sure that the pipeline of training and expertise continues.”
For Conan McIvor, one of a number of a rising auteurs operating in this busy environment, the influence of HBO is a “mixed blessing.” McIvor’s latest short, Forgive Me Not, debuted last year but he recalls some obstacles in putting it together.
“I was finding that once people got into Game of Thrones, even if they were free, they just weren’t interested in the low-budget money and those smaller figures. They wanted Game of Thrones rates.”
That the show has enhanced native workers’ reputational value cannot be denied, he says. “It was a perception thing. Game of Thrones acts now as a shorthand for people to say we can produce high quality.”
In Lavery’s estimation, Northern Ireland’s current status as a gathering point for such creative endeavours should not be regarded in isolation. Instead, it speaks to a fundamental, and potentially definitive, change in a part of the world routinely viewed through the prism of its industrial heritage.
“The highest levels of government acknowledged that this is a serious industry, it could be a replacement for the ship-building industry. This is the equivalent of heavy engineering or IT. This is global.”