The ScreenSkills Game of Thrones story

HBO saw the promise of developing a TV series based on George RR Martin’s bestselling book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and fully supported the proposal of creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The rest is history. Game of Thrones has become a TV phenomenon. In 2018 alone, it was nominated for 22 Emmys. Now, a decade after filming began, HBO is broadcasting the eight, and final, season.

The ScreenSkills Game of Thrones story
Image: © Helen Sloan/HBO

Jay Roewe, Senior Vice-President (SVP) Production at HBO, says, “The shooting of Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland has been such a positive story for both HBO and the local community. The art industry is a catalyst for economic expansion. In Northern Ireland, its impact goes way beyond the creative industries. All sorts of businesses are relocating to Northern Ireland in the wake of the success of Game of Thrones, and it’s transformed Northern Ireland into a destination of choice for producing high-end TV drama.”

HBO likes to train people. It’s a big part of what we do on all our shows. It makes sense on every level

Jay Roewe, Senior Vice-President (SVP) Production at HBO

Jay continues, “A production like Game of Thrones mobilises a hundred plus different jobs - not just a production assistant, a director or actor. Hundreds of people are employed. So that’s hundreds of different jobs to fill. Any one of those jobs are entry points into our industry. You could be a truck driver, you could be an accountant, you could be a seamstress – but you might not know what opportunities there are to apply those skills to a major TV production.”

He adds, ‘Whenever we come into a new territory to shoot – we want to know what programmes are available for us to work with to enhance the depth of the local infrastructure and crew. HBO likes to train people. It’s a big part of what we do on all our shows. It makes sense on every level.

"Number one, it’s more cost effective to employ local crew, because you’re not having to pay airfares, housing costs. Number two, local people know how to get things done in their own neighbourhood quicker than people that come in from the outside.  They know where the best deals are, they know where to find the people, the equipment, the materials. You know your own neighbourhood much better than somebody who doesn’t live there.” 

Read the stories of Game of Thrones crew:

Northern Ireland Screen’s Head of Production, Andrew Reid, says, “From the start, when the pilot for Game of Thrones was first being talked about, we could see what a massive thing it would be for the Northern Ireland economy and our TV and film industry, if we could persuade HBO to base the bulk of the production in Northern Ireland. A returning series is how you build depth of crew and construction skills, to provide lasting infrastructure for the future. It’s what guided our strategy from day one and in Game of Thrones we got extremely lucky. We were always looking for a returning series and ended up with the biggest show in the world”

He adds, “The benefits to Northern Ireland were clear, but the reality is you can’t rest on your laurels. Every country in the world now understands the vast economic potential offered by being home to a production like Game of Thrones – and almost all provide incentives that recognise this. Not so in the UK in 2008, not during the first three seasons of the production, but with the help of HBO and Warner we worked on showing the logic behind tax-relief for high-end TV drama. Game of Thrones provided a powerful case study, and the government was convinced. The tax credit became a reality.”

Kaye Elliott, Director of High-end TV at ScreenSkills, says, “The UK as a whole owes a real debt to HBO, Northern Ireland Screen and all of the members of the industry lobbying group who successfully made the case for tax relief for high-end TV drama. It also enabled the introduction of the High-end TV Skills Fund, which was set up to invest in the next generation of talent behind every high-end drama production made in the UK. It was wonderful for ScreenSkills to become part of the Game of Thrones story in Season 4 through our skills investments. It’s been very rewarding working with HBO and Northern Ireland Screen to support the development of the skills of the production crew in such a thriving production centre.”

Jay Roewe, Senior Vice-President (SVP) Production at HBO

Jay Roewe says, “What makes a production like Game of Thrones unique, is its craft skills base. To build that kind of infrastructure you need an apprentice style of training and learning - the type of training schemes that Northern Ireland Screen and ScreenSkills support.

It’s easy to grow the infrastructure in that way because the people that take part in on-the-job training are motivated to learn and to learn quickly. With that sort of attitude, the rewards are also quick – trainees are hired and given the opportunity to work at a more senior level and earn higher wages. Careers can develop at a real pace – it’s a characteristic of our industry. On the heels of it, in Northern Ireland, as Game of Thrones draws to a close, we are leaving behind one of the top infrastructures in the world for drama production - one with which the local community has engaged."

Sabrina Sloan, was appointed Human Resources Consultant for Game of Thrones. Her role has been wide-ranging and demanding. It included liaising with the training schemes in Northern Ireland and the UK. As Jay says, “Wherever we’re shooting, we want to make whatever training schemes are available, work most efficiently. So we often hire a consultant locally, who knows how things work, to interface with the production and the organisation steering the schemes. For a production on the scale of Game of Thrones, it took someone like Sabrina, to get involved with the minutia and help deliver the best for everyone.”

Game of Thrones has supported 19 traineeships through the High-end TV levy since Season 4, using ScreenSkills’ schemes known as Stepping Up, Make a Move (which succeeded it) and Trainee Finder. Sabrina says, “It’s been really rewarding being involved with the trainees and the stepped-up people that we put through the programmes. To develop a crew, trained on the job, in a bespoke way that meets the production’s needs, is something in which the producers are really interested.

"As the show has got bigger and more established in Northern Ireland, training and developing the local crew here has been a massive thing for the whole team - from our producers, the production team, to our Heads of Department and they guys on the ground. We are all really appreciative of the training and development support that allows us to do this. We’ve always had support from Northern Ireland Screen, and then during Season 4, ScreenSkills’ high-end TV division was set-up, offering yet more fabulous investment in crew and craft skills.”

The way we’ve been able to work with ScreenSkills and influence the schemes to match the production’s need for bespoke training has so many success stories

Sabrina Sloan, Human Resources Consultant for Game of Thrones

Areas of high priority to fill skills gaps for Game of Thrones included engineers, electricians, and plumbers. Sabrina says, “We received lots of CVs from people wanting to work in special effects (SFX) on prosthetics – but what we really needed was people to make snow, wind and rain. Our electrical department had a real challenge in recruiting electricians. There are plenty of people in Northern Ireland with great trade qualifications, but a real shortage of experience in applying those skills to the type of temporary installations involved in productions.”

The production managed its own recruitment. It identified the skills it needed, researched the schemes available, and made the case to ScreenSkills for bespoke training. Crew calls were advertised on Northern Ireland Screen’s website, and news spread fast by word of mouth. It was the production that determined who was suitable for Trainee Finder, and who, amongst those already working on the show, demonstrated the promise to Make a Move up to the next step in their career.

The Heads of Department had to be on board to make it work. They were clear about what they wanted from the candidates and interviewed them themselves. The schemes were run in a structured way, with objectives being set, and monitoring and assessment along the way. “It would take time, but it all came together,” says Sabrina “the recruitment, training, admin and accounting – and it was worth it!”

Sabrina says, “One of the great things we’ve got out of the process, is standing back and watching our crew flourish and develop over the years, to produce a show on the scale of Game of Thrones.  It’s the best show in the world and they have done it through hard work and the desire to train and learn. That’s what’s got us where we are today, with the show.” She adds, “From our point of view we’re very, very proud of all of those that took part in the schemes. It’s a bit like watching your children grow up and work their way through the ranks. HBO is very passionate about training and development – and that was clear to me from the very beginning.”

On its impact on production in Northern Ireland, Sabrina adds, “The industry is still pretty young here but without a doubt it’s benefitted hugely from Game of Thrones. We have an increasingly large pool of talent here with the experience and qualifications to tackle another major recurring drama series. It’s put us on the map and we’re ready.”

There were challenges along the way. The high-end TV levy was new towards the end of Season 4, and the schemes it funded had to evolve fast. Sabrina says, “Probably the biggest challenge has been tracking how the schemes change year on year, what’s available, how we can tweak them to suit the needs of such a major production, and the application and reporting procedures. Sometimes that can feel a little overwhelming but we always got there in the end.”  She adds, “The way we’ve been able to work with ScreenSkills and influence the schemes to match the production’s need for bespoke training has so many success stories."

The legacy we’ve built with HBO here is something of which we’re incredibly proud... We’ve shown over the last four seasons how we can work together to adapt schemes from a one-size-fits-all approach to bespoke training that meets the needs of the particular type of production

Andrew Reid, Northern Ireland Screen’s Head of Production

“It’s nearly 10 years since shooting on Game of Thrones began in Northern Ireland,” says Andrew Reid. “The legacy we’ve built with HBO here is something of which we’re incredibly proud. The investment in crew training that ScreenSkills dedicated to us after the introduction of the high-end TV tax relief and the levy on high-end TV productions, has been really welcome. We’ve shown over the last four seasons how we can work together to adapt schemes from a one-size-fits-all approach to bespoke training that meets the needs of the particular type of production.”

“After all” he adds “the needs of a six-part high-end TV series broadcast on a terrestrial TV channel are very different to those of a major US studio-produced returning drama series. I hope in future that

ScreenSkills’ High-end TV Council will be more active in setting training priorities with the UK nations and regions and coming up with flexible and innovative training schemes that support the very different types of broadcasters shooting in the UK. It would be wonderful if the US studios could join us as well!“

Jay Roewe says: “It’s been a great experience for HBO. Focused investment in the skills of a local production force is important to us. Anything that enhances our productions is an integral part of our decision-making about where we’re going locate. No question, we’d love to come back to Northern Ireland in the future.”

Back to case studies