“Game of Thrones,” a globally acclaimed television series, faced its fair share of twists and turns throughout its eight-season run. It emerged as one of the most successful TV series in history, captivating audiences worldwide and even spawning a slew of enticing spin-offs like “House of the Dragon.” However, the intriguing tale of how “Game of Thrones” came to be is steeped in a lie—a lie that proved to be the catalyst for its creation and success.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the ingenious minds behind “Game of Thrones,” embarked on a daring journey to bring the epic tale of Westeros to life. During the series’ nascent stages, they had to pitch it to HBO in a way that now seems incredibly audacious.
They made a promise, a promise that turned out to be a colossal deception: they assured HBO executives that “Game of Thrones” would be far more budget-friendly than it ultimately became. Their audacious gamble would pay off in a big way, but at the time, it was a daring move that left many in disbelief.
Early Promise: Pitching ‘Game of Thrones’ as a Cost-Effective Drama
In the late 2000s, HBO, renowned for delivering top-tier content, was at a crossroads. Having produced costly series such as the historical drama “Rome” and classics like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” they were on the hunt for their next major hit. Unfortunately, they had missed out on iconic series like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” increasing the pressure to discover the next big thing.
Compounding this quest was the need for a budget-friendly endeavor—a series that wouldn’t strain their finances. This is where Benioff and Weiss entered the scene, and their pitch, as revealed in James Hibberd’s book “Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon,” was a bold one.
At the time, HBO had vivid memories of the exorbitant costs associated with “Rome,” which had a budget of a staggering $100 million for its first season. Despite its grandeur, “Rome” failed to deliver the expected ratings, leading to its cancellation before the release of the second season.
Benioff and Weiss were well aware of the financial aspect, and to secure the series’ approval, they made an audacious assurance to HBO executives: “Game of Thrones” would be significantly cheaper to produce than “Rome.” However, this was far from the truth.
In reality, “Game of Thrones” was destined to be an even more significant financial endeavor than “Rome.” At the time, producing a television series of such grand scale was virtually unheard of. Weiss acknowledges this, stating, “Nowadays it’s economically viable to make a television show at this scale. Back then, it just wasn’t done.”
The Lie that Launched an Epic: Pitching ‘Game of Thrones’ as Character-Driven
To make their deception work, Benioff and Weiss altered their pitch drastically. They presented “Game of Thrones” as a series that focused primarily on character development, a far cry from the action-packed spectacle it would eventually become.
Benioff concedes, “The lie we told was that the show was ‘contained’ and it was about the characters.” Despite being ardent fans of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, they recognized that the executives responsible for the decision wouldn’t delve into the intricate 4,000-page narratives featuring dragons and monumental battles.
The show, as they portrayed it, was entirely different from what it eventually turned out to be, and they gambled on the executives’ ignorance. They hoped the truth wouldn’t surface until it was too late.
An Uncertain Gamble: HBO’s Initial Skepticism
HBO’s then-programming president, Michael Lombardo, wasn’t entirely convinced by Benioff and Weiss’s bold promise. Lombardo expressed his doubts, stating, “I’m not sure I ever really believed that.”
The executives at HBO were keenly aware that they were taking a significant gamble. They grappled with budgetary concerns and the impending production challenges.
“Game of Thrones” Takes Flight: A Financial Marvel and Emmy Darling
Despite the initial budgetary commitments made by Benioff and Weiss, “Game of Thrones” left an indelible mark on television. It adhered to its initial promise by focusing on character development in its early seasons, setting the stage for heart-wrenching character deaths and the gradual unfolding of its heroes.
The series, in its formative years, placed a greater emphasis on characters rather than visual effects and colossal battle sequences, which would become more prevalent in later seasons.
The financial scale of “Game of Thrones” grew considerably as the series progressed. By the time Season 8 premiered, a single episode was rumored to cost approximately $15 million. However, it’s worth noting that the series maintained the integrity of its initial promise to HBO—character-driven storytelling remained a hallmark of the show, despite its escalating budget.
This dedication to characters and storytelling led to the series’ success, and it quickly established itself as an Emmy favorite. The show amassed 13 Emmy nominations in its first year, ultimately winning two Emmys, including Peter Dinklage’s Outstanding Supporting Actor In a Drama Series for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister.
Benioff and Weiss: A Risk Worth Taking
While deception is generally frowned upon, Benioff and Weiss’s audacious gamble paid off. “Game of Thrones” made its mark as a television landmark, even with its divisive and tumultuous ending.
The lie they told ultimately led to the creation of a global phenomenon that forever changed the television landscape. “Game of Thrones” emerged as a risk worth taking, proving that some of the most iconic moments in entertainment history begin with bold gambles.