Game of Thrones producer Oliver Butler on broadcasting, the making of a classic and Skype’s Shoot the Future contest
“Producers are always looking for the next ‘water cooler moment’ of television,” explains Oliver Butler from his Belfast based office. We caught up with the co-producer of hit HBO series Games of Thrones over Skype — a man who definitely knows a thing or two about ‘water cooler moments’.
When we launched the editorial iteration of Skype.com/media little over a year ago, our goal was to provide a resource for broadcasters and content creators to create water cooler moments of their own. And it’s with a twist of fate that we’re here with Oliver, less than four days before our Shoot the Future contest closes.
But it could all have been very different for Oliver and the much loved television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy novel A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, HBO insisted on a reshoot after seeing the GoT pilot, as Oliver explains:
“There were concerns that Game of Thrones would potentially be a niche market, because no one had ever made a big, fantasy series with a real following. There are the seven kingdoms; it’s just such a huge amount to try to create in a pilot. We were adamant that we weren’t creating something that was ‘medieval’ in nature. And that’s what is tricky—getting those worlds believable, and not taking it in the direction of a historical earth as we know it, or go into medieval clichés.”
The rest is of course small screen history, brutal and beautiful in equal measure Game of Thrones has become one of the most talked about shows on television and a cultural event in its own right. But did the cast and crew ever anticipate the show being such a huge success?
“No I don’t think that anybody on any show could. There’s no science to film and television show production. Especially when you put together a pilot like we did. It was an unknown market for HBO, an imperfect pilot, and a leap of faith. No one expected success, and we’re very lucky.“
“It was an unknown market for HBO, an imperfect pilot, and a leap of faith. No one expected success, and we’re very lucky.”
“It’s a compliment to our cast members who are, without exception, all incredibly brilliant. And also our writers Dave (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss) and the voices that they give to those characters. That, alongside the casting of those actors, produces these phenomenally strong characters that people can fall in love with, or hate and love to hate.“
Oliver got his big break in the industry, shortly after graduating from Westminster University in London where he studied Digital and Photographic Imaging Science. He then “went down the old fashioned route” working as a runner on the HBO feature film The Special Relationship, “At the end of my degree I was offered various jobs on the scientific side of cinematography, and I just said ‘no, I’m sorry,’ I came into this for creative reasons. I wanted to tell stories, not sit in a lab.”
One of the senior producers on the film asked if he wanted to work as an assistant producer on a pilot in Belfast for 5-6 weeks. Oliver didn’t look back: “That was about six and a half years ago now. I got more and more responsibility given to me, and by the second season they asked if I’d return as associate producer, and then co-producer.” And for an early contender of understatement of the year, he adds – “It kind of went from strength to strength.”
Even in that relatively short period of time, the television industry has undergone seismic changes—from the way footage is captured, through to the distribution and consumption of content. And despite a golden age for TV shows, are we seeing the end of television as a traditional viewing format?
“Yes and no. I think that people have busier lives these days and do prefer the on-demand services—just being able to sit down at 9:36 and say ‘right I’m going to watch whatever I want to watch right now, and however much of it I want to watch.’”
And what are some of the biggest challenges broadcasting faces? “Market share.” Oliver is quick to answer: “It’s an exciting time for viewers, for the amount of incredible content out there. For distributors, it’s always about trying to find the next, big exciting thing. And to put them at the forefront of the market and to keep their revenue streams up. In a market place that’s getting saturated with such amazing quality, somehow standing out from the crowd.”
“Chuck us your ideas, whoever you are and however off-the-wall it is—just chuck it in there. And if there’s something in it, let’s support that and see how we can take it forward.”
Finally, what is it that attracted Oliver to our Shoot the Future contest and what is he looking for from the entries?
“For me it’s an excitingly broad term and competition, in the way in which there are SO many different platforms for distribution of material and so many technologies now as well. You take the lowest end, financially or production wise—shooting on someone’s iPhone. Or you go to the standard drama side of things where you’re shooting on an ARRI Alexa. Or you’re shooting 3D content or maybe further down the line, VR content. So there’s now such a wide gamut for storytelling, that’s when Shoot the Future becomes really exciting.
I would love it if it was a more traditional drama, that’s obviously where my expertise lies. And if I was able to work as a mentoring role, taking it into its development and to market—ultimately that’s what would excite me. Chuck us your ideas, whoever you are and however off-the-wall it is—just chuck it in there. And if there’s something in it, let’s support that and see how we can take it forward. “
Head to Skype Blogs to read Oliver’s response to a selection of questions asked by readers on social media.
The Shoot the Future contest closes midnight PT Monday 11th July. If you have a content idea that could be the next big thing, you could win $20,000 development funding, and expert advice from the likes of Oliver Butler, to turn it into a reality.