HBO backed Northern Ireland to host its popular fantasy series Game Of Thrones, which shoots its third series in the country this summer.

When HBO first came to Northern Ireland in 2008, it intended to shoot only the pilot for its new medieval fantasy series Game Of Thrones.

Four years later, and having shot the bulk of the first two award-winning, big-budget series in the region, HBO is gearing up to shoot the third season in Belfast’s vast studio space The Paint Hall and surrounding locations this summer.

“When we first came to Belfast, the infrastructure was small but we really saw the potential and there was genuine enthusiasm on many levels,” says Jay Roewe, HBO’s senior vice-president, west coast production.

“As we’ve talked to the film community in Belfast about things that could help the production, they have listened and come up with things. That’s one reason why we are still there and why we will be there in the future,” he adds.

‘We really saw the potential in Belfast and there was genuine enthusiasm on many levels’

Jay Roewe, HBO

Support from the Northern Ireland government has also been a key factor. “Peter [Robinson, Northern Ireland’s first minister] and Martin [McGuinness, the deputy first minister] met with us at our HBO offices in Los Angeles to assure us they would be supportive and, given the history of Northern Ireland, they wanted to reassure us we would be safe, that it is a different environment now. That was quite evident from our scouting,” says Roewe. “The combination of having the highest level of government support and a world-class producer like Mark Huffam to convince us we could produce a world-class production right there in Belfast really made a difference.”

HBO made cost comparisons with other regions around the world and found Northern Ireland to be the most cost effective, thanks to investment from Northern Ireland Screen and the fact Belfast’s living costs, hotels and crew are all favourably priced. The production now uses as many local crew members as possible.

The majority of shooting takes place in The Paint Hall, though on the first two seasons the production also used the region’s other studio space, The Linen Mill, located 30 minutes outside Belfast. For season three, shooting will expand into the city’s two new sound stages which are adjacent to The Paint Hall.

For each season, the production decamps to Northern Ireland for up to nine months at a time, employing up to 400 people and having a tangible effect on the local economy, not to mention on all other areas of production.

“No other show will train people the way this show trains people,” says Huffam, who was a producer on the first series, and used several crew members who had worked on Game Of Thrones season two for his latest Generator project, Keith Lemon: The Film. “It just improves the whole crew base and builds up a local infrastructure.”

‘Raising our game’

Another local company to benefit from the presence of Game Of Thrones is post-production house Yellow Moon, which hosted some of the post on seasons one and two. Before Game Of Thrones, Yellow Moon had 10 cutting rooms, now numbering 19, as well as boasting a finishing suite and the only 5.1 Dolby dubbing theatre in Northern Ireland.

“Having to meet the expectations of a show like Game Of Thrones, and the quality control a show like that expects, has made us raise our game and has been a huge benefit to us,” says Yellow Moon MD Greg Darby, who is currently doing post-production on Belfast-based TV drama The Fall, produced by Artists Studio for the BBC.

The news the UK government is to introduce a tax credit for high-end TV drama by next April is likely to further firm up HBO’s commitment to the region. “We are optimistic about the TV incentive. If it passes it will help us to be able to stay in Northern Ireland potentially for the entire series,” says Roewe.

HBO’s faith in the region has caused other major studios and production companies to take note. Darby says: “It has put the spotlight on Northern Ireland because if we can deliver Game Of Thrones, we can deliver almost anything.”