While the worlds most successful TV-show Game of Thrones is coming to an end, the changes and developments it brought to Northern Ireland might stay.
“The common media perception around the world about Northern Ireland was the Titanic which sank, cities on fire, rioting, political violence and people getting killed.”
This is how William Mulhall saw the reputation of his home country before Game of Thrones changed his life. The 26-year-old tour company owner started to travel the world right after his school graduation. When he met other people being proud of their countries, he had the wish to feel the same. Today, 10 years later, he managed to show already a half million tourists what he loves on Northern Ireland.
An unexpected journey
10 years ago, his dad took him and his two brothers Caelan and Ross to a casting. HBOwas looking for extras for the pilot of Game of Thrones. Today they would fit in perfectly in the cast with their long hair and their beards. But on that day the boys were too young and it was their father who ended up in the show as a Dothraki slave master.
Shortly afterward William Mulhall got a phone call from the breeder of his two Northern Inuit dogs Odin and Thor. The producers of Game of Thrones were interested in the wolflike huskies and they started to play the Direwolves Summer and Greywind since they are small puppies.
Big changes and big money
William Mulhall and his father are two from 5,000 citizens of Northern Ireland who were hired from HBOfor that single show. The production influenced the local economy massively over the eight seasons in total.
According toNorthern Ireland Screen, the film industry in the country is now estimated to be worth £ 270 million. Game of Thronesalone is estimated to have brought more than £ 206 million. The company promotes the film and television production in the country.
“Our filmmaking industry has gone from a sleepy dog to a powerhouse”, says their chief Richard Williams. “We are relevant. It is basically night and day.” Since debuting as an expensive curiosity in 2011, Game of Throneshas gone on to become one of the world’s most influential pop culture franchises, leaving a dragon-size footprint on everything it touches.
A country became a theme park
Nowhere is that dynamic more visible and tangible than the production’s former home. As the home of not only the production, in Belfast’s Titanic Studios, but also 63 filming locations itself, Northern Ireland has been transformed in fact and figment. As the series altered the TV landscape, it also altered actual landscapes: for millions of viewers all over the world, this country has been redefined and remade in the show’s image.
The region has built a tourism economy on the back of the show, especially on the coast, which provided much of the outdoor scenery. All the locations are reachable in less than two hours from Belfast. The small county became literally a Game of Thrones theme park, where hundreds of tourists are coming daily to find the traces of the show and to talk to extras who played in the show.
New opportunities for young people
William Mulhall was one of the first who jumped on board. Once his dogs played an important role in the show, today they are the main characters of William Mulhall’s tours. Everyone who is working for his tour company GoT Direwolves played a role for the show and has personal stories to tell and experiences with the famous actors.
His dogs are enjoying the attention of the tourists and William Mulhall enjoys their reactions on his country. He is pleasured every time, they tell him how surprised they are about the beauty of the landscape and the historical stories he is telling them.
From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the Troubles, which pit Protestant paramilitary groups loyal to the crown against Catholic ones in favour of a unified, independent Ireland, claimed 3,500 lives in bombings, sniper attacks and bloody street battles that ripped Belfast apart.
They are coming for Game of Thrones and they are finding more
“When Game of Thrones came on TV, people said look at that CGI. That’s not CGI, that’s Northern Ireland! Welcome to Westeros!”, says William Mulhall.Game of Thrones helped to redefine a place once known as one of the most dangerous places on Earth and it gave William Mulhall what he missed the most: Pride. “It was a big sign to the citizens of Northern Ireland to get the risk and chose this place as the main destination for the production. It gave a lot of people a new self-confidence.”
Everyone in Northern Ireland knows someone who worked for Game of Thrones. As an extra, filmmaker, make-up artist or cook. There are people who borrowed their houses or animals and people working in the tourism sector. William Mulhall thinks that Northern Ireland was the perfect location for the show.
New opportunities for in an old country
“We have a lot of talented people in the country who got an opportunity to improve their business with the success of Game of Thrones”, he says. Most of the production material needed, armours, medieval weapons, elaborate costumes and jewellery, meshed well with the area’s long-standing traditions and they were also producing in Northern Ireland. Even when a fight was filmed in a place like Morocco, the spears were almost always built in Belfast.
Most of his gratitude goes go to Jeff Peters: “He is the reason everything has the name of the show on it. As the head of licensing and retail of HBO he opened the door for other people to benefit from the attention the show gained.” Jeff Peters had big plans for the country from early beginning on. “It’s going to be an immersive experience where fans will feel like they are inside their favorite sets from the show,” he says.
Screen tourist are overrunning the country
Tourism Northern Irelandhas aggressively courted Game of Thronesset-jetters, creating a locations app and outfitting filming sites with information plaques for self-guided pilgrims, while keeping the many different “Thrones” tours from running afoul of HBO’scopyright lawyers.
HBOis turning one of the show’s former studios in Northern Ireland into a 110,000-square-foot tourist attraction. The Game of ThronesStudio Tour will be an interactive exhibition of the show’s sets, costumes, weapons, and other props, and include exhibits that break down how the technically ambitious fantasy blockbuster was made. It will open in spring 2020.
The future is in the stars
Of course, two big questions hang over all the success. One involves how Brexit might affect the industry, although Richard Williams notes that for the large-scale productions that are Belfast’s bread and butter, significantly more production spending comes from the United States than the European Union. The bigger question is, what happens now that Game of Thrones is over?
The most common analogy holds that Game of Thrones is to Northern Ireland what The Lord of the Rings movies were to New Zealand. A pop culture phenomenon that showcased a wondrous land for a global audience.
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