What has Game of Thrones done for Northern Ireland?

It has been five years since the epic fantasy drama first hit our screens—but as the chief filming location for the series, how has Northern Ireland benefited from  the show’s global success?

In April of 2009, America’s leading cable network, HBO, confirmed that filming for a pilot episode of their new television series ‘Game of Thrones’ would take place in Northern Ireland later that year.

The announcement followed a trip to Los Angeles taken by then First Minister, Peter Robinson, and Deputy First Minister, Martin Mc Guinness, where the MP’s met with senior executives from the HBO network to help finalise the production deal for Northern Ireland.

HBO meeting
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin Mc Guinness with HBO executive Jay Roewe .

Discussing the significance of the meeting at the time, Mr McGuiness said: “At a time of economic downturn, we have sought to bring a new and diverse range of investments here to create jobs and build experience. The creative industries are one area.” Negotiations around the HBO series were already ongoing with Northern Ireland Screen, which was able to offer finance to the exciting new production with support from Invest Northern Ireland.

Filming for the pilot episode of the first season, which is based on George R Martin’s novel ‘A Game of Thrones’ from the book series ‘A song of Ice and Fire’, took place between October 24th and November 19th in 2009. Various locations throughout Northern Ireland were used in the shooting of the episode, including a huge custom built set at Titanic Studio’s Paint Hall in Belfast.  However, despite filming taking place two years prior, the first episode of the epic fantasy series was not officially aired in the UK and Ireland until April 18th, 2011. This was reportedly due to some re-shooting and re-working of the original episode.

HBO committed to filming another ten episodes of the series in Northern Ireland in March 2010, and since then, both the network and the show’s connection  with the region has grown from strength to strength. Arlene Foster, speaking as Enterprise Minister in 2010, said that the commitment by HBO to film another ten episodes was ‘A development which will deliver major economic benefits, not only by utilising our growing film and television expertise but also in profiling our unique and attractive landscape to potential visitors around the world.”

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Tourism Ireland CEO Niall Gibbons and former NI Tourism Minister Arlene Foster at the launch of the 2015 Game of Thrones campaign. Source: The Irish Post

Five years on from its first airing and the series has garnered both a global audience and critical acclaim. 2015 saw Game of Thrones win a record-breaking 12 Emmys, receiving more awards in a single year than any other show. And as the chief filming location for the Game of Thrones series, Northern Ireland has, as foretold by Arlene foster in 2010, reaped substantial benefits from its connections with the show—namely those for tourism, employment, and the economy.

Tourism

In 2014, Tourism Ireland teamed up with Publicis London to create a global social media campaign which would run during the fourth series of Game of Thrones. Using the dramatic landscapes of Northern Ireland that feature in the hit HBO series, the promotion encouraged social discussion and drove fans to learn more about the real locations where the series was filmed.

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Source: Tourism Ireland & Publicis London

Aimed at the show’s fourteen million viewers, the campaign was unrolled on Twitter and Facebook in North America and Europe. Running for just eleven weeks between April and June of that year, it received over one hundred million hits online. “It was the most successful Twitter Campaign that we have ever run,” said Niall Gibbons, Chief executive of Tourism Ireland. “The Campaign cost us £200,000. If we were to buy that publicity, it would have cost us 8.6 million.”

Source: Tourism Ireland & Publicis London
Source: Tourism Ireland & Publicis London

Interest from fans across the globe soared, and the first scheduled day trips linked to Game of Thrones began operating on April 5th  2014. This tour, set up by Mc Combs travel, (the same Belfast coach company who worked on 5 seasons of the series, providing cast and crew with transport to and from all filming locations), offers fans of the show a chance to explore some of its most iconic and breathtaking filming locations. Among the most recognisable of these are The Cushendun Caves, Ballintoy Harbour, and the now world famous Dark Hedges.

And it wasn’t long before entrepreneurs across Northern Ireland began to recognise and harness the huge marketing potential of the series.Game of Thrones Tours, a company solely dedicated to bringing the programme’s famous scenes to life for die-hard fanatics, was established by 2015.

Britain Northern Ireland Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones Tours offer a range of itineraries from Belfast and Dublin, many of which include a visit to The National Trust’s Castle Ward in Strangford, Co. Down, where a replica of the Winterfell Castle archery range has been masterfully recreated. Instagram @GameOfThronesTours

Operated by Clearsky Adventure Centre, the experience offered here is just another example of how Northern Ireland has been able to take full advantage of the so-called “Game of Thrones affect” to attract visitors from across the world to our shores.

As word of these unique experiences began to spread, foreign tourist searches for County Antrim on TripAdvisor increased by 65% in 2015, with an additional 47% increase from domestic travellers. With twenty Game of Thrones activities now on offer, these are one of the most searched for items on Discover Northern Ireland’s website.

For more information about Game of Thrones Tours,  visit their Website or Facebook Page. If you are interested in developing your business into a Game of Thrones visitor experience,  you can find further information and guidelines here.

Employment

The positive impact of Game of Thrones extends far beyond Northern Ireland’s tourist industry. Many local companies have profited from providing services during the production of the show, and it is estimated that the series has created more than 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs in the process. Among those who have provided their services to the production are Glenarm Jewellers, The Steensons, who provide distinctive one-off pieces for the show, and even a Taxidermist, Ingrid Houwers, who provides stuffed creatures and furs created in her Belfast studio.

Local company Extras NI have provided casting services for all six seasons of the show, securing not only full-time jobs for Northern Ireland, but also opening doors to thousands of casual employment opportunities. For example, an extra on Game of Thrones can earn up to £500 a day, in addition to the invaluable experience of spending a day on a world class production set.

A Film and Media student at Ulster University in Coleraine, Liam Scott’s story illustrates just what Game of Thrones could mean for young creative people in Northern Ireland.

Liam uploaded a profile onto the Extras NI website in early 2015. Months later, the twenty-one-year old received a phone call from the company, enquiring about his availability to work as an extra on the HBO series. Liam jumped at this opportunity and took full advantage of his newly acquired contacts by distributing his business card, which advertised his photography and film-making skills. He told me: “I approached Tanya, one of the top dog’s at Extras NI, and gave her my business card. The next day she got back to me with a job offer.” Liam was offered a position as a crew member on the HBO production, something he described as “astounding.”  This experience has only cemented Liam’s future career plans: “Working on Game of Throne has solidified my decision to work in the TV/film industry, at my doorstep. I didn’t have to travel to LA to find out if it was worth doing. I’m grateful and proud of NI stepping in this positive direction.”

Game of Thrones has not just paved the way for future careers in Northern Ireland, but has also provided some businesses with greater financial security.

Demonstrating Ireland’s ability to cater for even the most unique markets, Tandragee farmer Kenny Gracey provides many of the rare pigs, sheep, chickens and horses seen on the show. When his farming business faced an uncertain future, a lifeline came from the most unlikely of places. “Farming has taken a downturn,” he said. “Costs are too high and we’re not getting enough for our produce.” Kenny has described the phone call he received about the production as a ‘godsend,’ and believes the use of his rare animals in the series has salvaged his farming business. “Where I would be today if it hadn’t been for the filming I just don’t know.”

Although, the value of Game of Thrones lies not just in its financial worth, but also in its impact on skills development. A report from Northern Ireland Screen commented that:

“Game of Thrones has so far proved unrivalled in its impact on skills development. A single season can be sufficient for a talented individual to advance one step up the career ladder, with many of the trainees from season one employed on subsequent seasons on full-time contracts.”

The unparalleled success of the series has put Northern Ireland on the map as a world-class production host for both film and TV. The executive vice-president of HBO, Jay Roewe, said that other studios have been attracted here because of their success: “People want to replicate that.”

Economy

Recently audited figures for Game of Thrones show that the production of season five injected a massive £26.3 million into the Northern Ireland economy, bringing the total amount across seasons 1-5 (including the pilot episode) to £115 million, with an investment of £12.45m from Northern Ireland Screen.

With the much anticipated sixth season set to premier in the UK on April 25th, Northern Ireland can only expect further boosts to its tourism, employment, and economy.

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