Why HBO's Game of Thrones is the show even Netflix can't kill

Night's King: Game of Thrones is HBO's most valuable programming asset, breaking records for audience numbers – and piracy.
Night's King: Game of Thrones is HBO's most valuable programming asset, breaking records for audience numbers – and piracy.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the premiere of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, HBO's indestructible drama juggernaut, comes on the 20th anniversary of the channel's first groundbreaking drama, Oz.

That series, which used a maximum security men's prison as its backdrop, set a high benchmark for ambitious storytelling and was at the time the walking, talking personification of HBO's founding philosophy: "It's not television, it's HBO."

Two decades later Game of Thrones, the political fantasy drama based on George R. R. Martin's book series A Song of Fire and Ice, has become the heir to that mantle, doing what Oz but few other shows did, by building its momentum year on year.

In its final chapters, like Oz, it has become greater than the sum of its parts and in purely commercial terms it is a machine, connecting program sales, record-breaking downloads and a department store's worth of licensed products.

For fantastical worlds such as Star Wars and Star Trek, that may seem the norm; for a critically acclaimed television drama on a premium cable channel, which counts The Wire and The Sopranos as its kin, it is a rare thing.

Indeed you could probably hear the ker-ching of the cash registers were they not drowned out by the clash of swords and the screams of the show's growing body count: Khal Drogo, Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark and Joffrey Baratheon among them.

For the actors who inhabit this machine, their artistic endeavour is insulated by virtue of distance: the series is filmed in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, in a studio complex just outside of town but many thousands of miles away from the echo chamber of Hollywood.

Expect the final season to raise the bar in what's possible for action and spectacle on TV. Photo: Showcase

Expect the final season to raise the bar in what's possible for action and spectacle on TV. Photo: Showcase

"We're not hugely aware of it," actress Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, tells Fairfax Media of the cyclone of media and fandom which presently surrounds us at the show's seventh season premiere in Los Angeles.

"It doesn't feel like a huge mammoth operation until you come to something like this," she says, gesturing to the crowds of fans outside the auditorium, clamouring to get a glimpse of the show's stars. "You couldn't do your job if you were really aware of how huge it was."

So just how huge is it?

Most television programs in Los Angeles get their season premiere at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The seventh season of Game of Thrones is taking its bow at the much larger Walt Disney Concert Theatre in downtown.

In addition to the screening of the season premiere episode, directed by Canadian Jeremy Podeswa, the audience is to be treated to a full orchestra concert performance of its music conducted by the show's composer Ramin Djawadi.

In terms of the bigger picture, Game of Thrones is HBO's most valuable programming asset. In addition to breaking audience records it also breaks piracy records, a peculiar honour but one which Hollywood's marketing machine will, from time to time, lay claim to.

It has won cabinets full of awards, but notably 38 Emmy Awards, holding the record for the most decorated scripted television series.

And in a broadcast market where streaming has become a powerful disrupter, hacking into pay television price points and sinking billions – literally, billions – into content to lure the most talented creatives to its stable.

HBO's Game of Thrones remains the show that even Netflix cannot kill.

It is the biggest show in the world, explains actor John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly, because it is a truly international show: owned by an American company, filmed in Northern Ireland (and Spain, Croatia, Malta and Iceland) and populated, in crew and cast, by all nationalities.

"Because it's not set anywhere that you readily recognise everybody has to take an intellectual leap to invest in the show," Bradley tells Fairfax Media.

"Shows that are set in contemporary USA, for people living in the contemporary USA, have an advantage because it's their reality and they can plug into it," he adds.

"The thing about Game of Thrones that I love is the fact that it's nobody's reality. Therefore, everybody has to travel intellectually to that place. It kind of unifies everybody in that way."

One of the most impactful elements of the Game of Thrones narrative is the scale of its storytelling; perhaps the only contemporary comparison is JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings which was rendered magnificently for the cinema a decade ago by director Peter Jackson.

Like Tolkien's masterwork, Game of Thrones is set a vast fantasy world where mortal politics and supernatural power blend to create a cocktail of dragons, blood and betrayal. Here there are seven kingdoms in Westeros, each jockeying for dominance.

In purely visual terms, Game of Thrones is cinematic in its ambition.

"People have asked many times, did you know it was going to be this big? Nobody knew it was going to be this big," says Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth.

"If anybody knew it was going to be as big as it was, they'd be the richest person on the planet," he adds. "The only thing you can do is, as they said, if you build it, they will come."

Another natural comparison should be modern blockbuster cinema, though that – at least in its American expression – is presently focused on the dual identity origin stories of comic book superheroes, such as Batman, Iron Man and Wonder Woman.

"They're wonderful popcorn movies, great rollercoaster rides, but when you're home in the evening you want something than doesn't treat you like an idiot," Cunningham adds.

"People are really, really trying to at this stage now, to finish this with grace and walk away from it and be proud of it, [and say] that we did the very best that we could. That's all we're trying to do."

The show's penultimate season is seven hours long, though the production retained the budget and schedule that it had previously used to produce 10 one-hour episodes.

The net effect is that more time, and more detail, were invested in the individual episodes.

"We normally spend about three weeks shooting an entire episode of one hour, but last year the battle sequence was about five weeks spent on a 20-minute sequence alone with about 700 extras," reveals Cunningham.

"Not cheap, not easy, incredibly difficult to do and that attention to detail, that scale, is incredibly important to the show," he says.

And, he adds, it's "a level where you could, theoretically, sit back at and go, we're popular now, we don't need to work as hard, we've created the brand, but they don't do that, they're pushing themselves every year to leave behind something that everybody's incredibly proud of."

This season will be followed by the last, though like all astonishingly successful commercial properties its shelf life will not likely end there. Talks are underway for spin-offs or prequels, so it seems unlikely that when Game of Thrones ends the rabid fandom will go with it.

They make odd bedfellows – the passionate fans and the assortment of artistic professionals engaged in the making of the series.

In purely narrative terms the show has, in many ways, overtaken the books, with co-creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss now sending their notes to author George R. R. Martin.

The juxtaposition is incredible, says Cunningham. "This level of weirdness ... I've had woman faint in front of me and I'm not even in One Direction," he adds, laughing.

The key, he says, is that Game of Thrones takes its audience as seriously as they do it. "This is a beautiful show, it doesn't patronise, it doesn't treat its audience as numbers," Cunningham says.

"The last thing that anybody wants on this show is to let the audience down," he adds. "There's a real feeling of responsibility, to keep the quality up, and I think people recognise that by the quality of the storytelling and the effort that goes into making it."

The seventh season of Game of Thrones will premiere on Monday, July 17 on Foxtel.