The average Game of Thrones episode costs $6 million to make. That's two to three times what a typical network or cable show costs per episode (Breaking Bad episodes cost around $3 million, early Big Bang Theory cost $2 million). But when you consider what the HBO team is packing in for those bucks, it's a bit of a marvel. TV shows that spend more than average are usually shelling out the dough for one of two things: big sets or big names. Though we love the actors now, Game of Thrones went for the former.
Zoom in a little on the Game of Thrones costs and you can see where the cash is going. With period costumes and epic battle sequences, not to mention the expenses of moving the cast and crew to shoot locations like Ireland, Iceland and Croatia, the money trail isn't too hard to follow.
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The series has had two episodes so far that cost more than average. The pilot reportedly cost between $5 and $10 million — not entirely unexpected, as shows tend to uber-invest in their pilot in the hopes of a series pick-up. Season 2's "Blackwater," the second-to-last episode, cost $8 million to produce; it included a massive battle and required the construction of a 14th-century-inspired ship. The extra $2 million on "Blackwater" were well spent, with critics calling it the series' "best episode," a cinema-quality hour of HBO.
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Considering what $8 million turned "Blackwater" into, it's interesting to see what similar sums have done at other studios. In its last season, Friends paid its six leads $1 million per episode, so that's $6 million right there. The total costs for the final season were $7 million per episode, meaning that for roughly the same price as an all-out Westerosi brawl you could get the gang hanging out and gabbing at Central Perk.
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Looking deeper into TV history, this production value vs. cast cost comes up repeatedly. On the production side, Boardwalk Empire's pilot cost $18 million to make (they had to recreate that boardwalk), while Lost's first two episodes reportedly cost between $10-$14 million (there was that plane crash). On the opposite side of the table, in 1998 NBC shelled out $13 million per episode to keep the long-running and highly-rated medical drama ER on the network. In essence, they were paying for the show's popularity.
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When shows are spending mega-millions on single episodes, the big names pull big ratings, and the hope is that the big effects will too. If you take business out of the equation and look at things from a purely visual perspective, it's kind of amazing that Game of Thrones is delivering big screen level visuals with a Friends equivalent budget. That said there's apparently an even bigger battle coming at the end of season 4. As David Beinoff, the show's co-creator, told GQ, "We're preparing our speeches for how we're gonna ask for more money."