Belfast’s Paint Hall studios are a hive of activity, with hundreds of production staff busily preparing movie sets for the start of filming this month on the third series of HBO’s hugely popular fantasy television epic Game of Thrones.
The lavishly shot tale of knights, sorcerers and dragons costs more than $60m to shoot a series and the US television network’s decision to base production in Northern Ireland is providing a financial boost to the region’s audiovisual industry.
“The series has been a major game-changer for us and provided a financial boom for the wider economy,” says Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, a state agency tasked with developing the film, television and digital content industries.
“For a very long time we were told there wasn’t the skills base or capacity in Northern Ireland to attract standard UK public service drama production,” he says. “Well, we blew that out of the water by bringing the biggest show being filmed in Europe to Belfast.”
During The Troubles, the industry survived on a staple diet of local productions commissioned by the BBC and UTV and films or documentaries about the conflict.
But since the peace process has bedded down, the Northern Ireland executive has targeted the audiovisual sector as a growth industry that can help wean the region off its traditional reliance on the public sector.
Game of Thrones is the biggest TV production to locate in Belfast. HBO shot a pilot in the city in autumn 2009 and has since completed two series in an investment that Northern Ireland Screen says has provided a €43m economic boost to the region.
Several Hollywood studios, including Universal Studios and Tom Hanks’ company Playtone, have also been attracted to the region by a combination of factors including grants from Northern Ireland Screen, the UK’s tax relief scheme for film and the development of the Paint Hall studios.
The massive Paint Hall complex is located next to the slipways that launched the Titanic in Belfast harbour and was initially used to paint ships constructed by Harland & Wolff. It was recently converted into film studios, which can be split into four separate cells, each 16,000 square feet in size and 95 feet high.
“Playtone came to us in late 2006 looking to build a really large 65ft high set of an underground city for their movie City of Ember.
The Paint Hall was one of very few locations in Europe that could accommodate them,” says Michael Graham, director of corporate real estate at Titanic Quarter Limited, the company redeveloping Belfast’s waterfront.
“We have since made a statement of faith and belief in the opportunity for Belfast in the sector by investing £10m in two new sound stages.”
HBO took a gamble by choosing Northern Ireland as its base, given the region’s history of political instability and relatively small film and television industry.
“What has been very impressive about Belfast is the calmness, the peacefulness and the openness of the people,” says Jay Roewe, senior vice president production at HBO.
The wide variety of scenery in Northern Ireland in a relatively small area was also an important factor for HBO.
Mr Roewe says the region is benefiting significantly from Game of Thrones through the employment and training opportunities it offers in high-end television production and spin-off opportunities for a range of companies and suppliers.
“There is a very good crew base here but it has been enhanced and educated through this process,” he says.
Since 2007 Northern Ireland Screen has provided £19m production grants for film and television projects, which it says has generated £103m spending in the local economy.
Mr Williams says this huge economic return justifies the public subsidies. “For tourism, Game of Thrones has the potential to do for Northern Ireland what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand,” he says.
The Northern Ireland executive is also continuing to support the sector. After “persistent lobbying”, the UK Treasury launched a consultation to help design the new tax break for TV productions in Northern Ireland, according to Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s enterprise minister.
“This means we can plan for the expansion of the industry,” says Ms Foster.