LOS ANGELES — George R.R. Martin has seen the comments, and he’s read the emails.
Ever since “Game of Thrones,” the groundbreaking HBO fantasy series, went off the air in May 2019, he has been well aware of the backlash against the show’s final season. Martin, the man who painstakingly created the “Thrones” universe over the last three decades through his many books, and who was mostly on the sidelines during the final seasons of the TV series, does wonder if there will be some viewers who skip “House of the Dragon,” the first “Thrones” spinoff. The series will make its much-anticipated debut on HBO and HBO Max on Aug. 21.
“People say, ‘I’m done with “Game of Thrones,” they burned me, I’m not even going to watch this new show — I’m not going to watch any of the new shows,’” Martin said in a recent interview.
The question, he said, is how much of the “Thrones” audience do the complainers represent?
“I mean, are we talking about a million people?” he asked. “Or are we talking about 1,000? People who have nothing to do except tweet all day over and over again? I don’t know.”
Martin and HBO are about to find out.
Three years after the most popular show in HBO’s history bowed out, the hunt for a successor is finally over. It took a lot of effort to get here. Numerous “Thrones” prequels were put into development, and a pilot episode for another spinoff was filmed before it was canceled. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into the winner of the bake-off, “House of the Dragon.”
The stakes are high. Success for “House of the Dragon” would reassure HBO executives that viewers are craving more “Thrones” stories and could lead to many more shows set in Westeros and beyond. In addition to this series, HBO has at least five other “Thrones” projects in active development.
“The trick here is, you don’t want to just remake the original show,” said Casey Bloys, the HBO chief content officer. “You want to make a show that feels related and honors the original, but also feels like its own.
“It is a very important franchise to us.”
But if the first one out of the gate fails to find an audience, it could raise questions about whether the Thrones Cinematic Universe is really the intellectual property gold mine that HBO executives hope it is.
HBO’s new corporate overlords, executives from Discovery, have a crushing $53 billion debt load, and they have been looking for savings — in other words, high-cost “Thrones” spinoffs had better pay off. “House of the Dragon” will also have plenty of competition in the would-be blockbuster space. Two weeks into the prequel’s run, Amazon will debut its enormously expensive and ambitious “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Will two splashy, big-budget fantasy series be too much for some viewers?
It will also have to overcome the stench of a final few episodes that left fans and critics scratching their heads at hairpin narrative turns as the series galloped well past the still-unfinished works of Martin’s series of books, “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
Return to Westeros in ‘House of the Dragon’
HBO’s long-awaited “Game of Thrones” spinoff will debut on Aug. 21.
But those are the challenges.
Here’s what “House of Dragon” has going for it: “Thrones,” which ran between 2011 and 2019, was the most-watched show in HBO’s history. That controversial finale drew nearly 20 million viewers the night it premiered — an astonishing figure in the fragmented streaming era. “Thrones” was also a delight to critics and won more Emmys than any series in TV history, including winning best drama four times.
The series changed television in so many ways — lavish budgets, technical wizardry, a cinematic scope that was once rare for the small screen — that it can be a little too easy to overlook the incredibly strong foundation it built for spinoffs.
“I do believe that is a little bit more of an online narrative than it is in real life,” Bloys said, of the final season backlash. “I mean, we have the data of who’s watching ‘Game of Thrones,’ and it is consistently in the Top 10 assets that people watch on HBO Max around the world. As we’re coming closer to the premiere of this show, we’ve seen people going back, and we’ve seen an uptick in the viewership on HBO Max for the flagship series.”
“House of the Dragon” takes place almost 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.” The series follows the Targaryen family — that would be the silver-haired, dragon-flying crew, the one that Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) made famous in the original series — just as it is about to rupture, with dire consequences for the realm.
And in the premiere episode, there are elements that will look familiar to “Thrones” viewers, including plenty of gore, multiple dragons and an Iron Throne. Also: nudity and an orgy.
It took more than five years to get to this point. In May 2017, with the penultimate season of “Game of Thrones” about to debut, the network announced that it had four potential spinoffs in the works. A year later, a candidate was chosen: a prequel that would take place some 1,000 years before the events of the original series.
It would not last. By 2019, after the pilot was shot, the network pulled the plug.
“Once I saw that first pilot, I knew that was not the series to launch,” Bob Greenblatt, the former chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment, where he oversaw HBO, wrote in an email. Greenblatt said the pilot didn’t feel “expansive or epic enough.”
At that time, the clock was also ticking. HBO had been very deliberate in developing spinoffs, and WarnerMedia, then owned by AT&T, was months away from debuting its new streaming service, HBO Max. Greenblatt was “desperate to get something — anything — from the ‘Game of Thrones’ I.P. into our pipelines,” he wrote.
“I understood Casey and the team’s reluctance to throw a new ‘Game of Thrones’ show into production (especially since the backlash from the final season of the original series),” he added. “However, while we all knew no sequel or prequel would probably ever rise to the level of the original, there was agreement we had to go forward with something.”
Luckily, the network had another project in development, one that Martin had been pushing for some time: his rise-and-fall tale of the Targaryens, which he had written about extensively in his books. “House of the Dragon” is adapted from Martin’s “Fire & Blood,” the first in a planned two-volume chronicle of the family’s exploits and clashes.
“He was very passionate about this particular story,” said Miguel Sapochnik, a veteran of the original series and a showrunner of “House of the Dragon.”
The network cycled through two writers before Martin asked for help from an old friend: The writer Ryan Condal, a creator of the USA science fiction show, “Colony.”
Condal caught up regularly with Martin over dinner and drinks and geeked out over the works of other fantasists like Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. Le Guin. “When we would get together we would, you know, talk like two fanboys do,” Martin said. Martin asked Condal to start writing a Targaryen prequel.
HBO executives liked what they saw in Condal, who signed on as a creator, with Martin, and as a showrunner. After Sapochnik, who directed some of the original’s biggest episodes, also agreed to be a showrunner, HBO ordered “House of the Dragon” straight to series.
“What appealed to me about it was it’s a family drama,” Bloys said. “Anybody who has stepparents or siblings or half siblings, or had warring factions of a family — I think every single family in America has dealt with some version of this.”
As Condal got to work on “House of the Dragon,” he leaned on Martin’s expertise a lot — the opposite of what had happened with Martin in the later seasons of “Game of Thrones.” In the early seasons, Martin wrote and read scripts, consulted on casting decisions and visited sets. Over time, however, as he stepped back to focus on his long-delayed next “Thrones” novel, “The Winds of Winter,” Martin grew estranged from the show, which was created by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff.
“By Season 5 and 6, and certainly 7 and 8, I was pretty much out of the loop,” Martin said.
When asked why, he said, “I don’t know — you have to ask Dan and David.” (A representative for Weiss and Benioff declined to comment.)
Martin also said that “The Winds of Winter” — which he conceded is “very, very late” but vowed to finish — diverges from where “Game of Thrones,” the series, went.
“My ending will be very different,” he said.
Martin said he wants from “Thrones” what Marvel has done — created a world that Disney continues to mine and that fans reliably show up to watch. Last year, he signed an overall deal with HBO, and he has been actively involved with the other spinoffs in development.
“George, for us, in this process has been a really valuable resource,” Bloys said. “He is literally the creator of this world. He is its historian, its creator, its keeper. And so I can’t imagine doing a show that he didn’t believe in or didn’t endorse.”
As for viewership totals, Bloys said he did not expect “House of the Dragon” to match the heights of “Game of Thrones.” But he was still hopeful that it will be a hit and lay the groundwork for future spinoffs.
“There’s no world in which we expect this to pick up where the original left off,” Bloys said. “I think the show will do really well. But it will have to do the work on its own to bring people in and to sustain the viewership.”