Searching for the next ‘water cooler moment’

An interview with Oliver Butler, the Lead Producer of Games of Thrones.

“Producers are always looking for the next ‘water cooler moment’ of television,” explains Oliver Butler from his Belfast based office. I caught up with the producer of hit HBO series Games of Thrones over Skypea man who definitely knows a thing or two about ‘water cooler moments’.

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 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 the most talked about show 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?

“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.”

And is there a particular character that epitomises the moral conflict of the Game of Thrones world?

“Tyrion Lannister. He’s obviously caught by his family relations and his past, and with the politics of things. But he’s got a strong belief for the world, and he’s willing to fight for it. And I think many of the characters share that characteristic. Almost all of them know that they’re fighting for what they believe in, with a few exceptions of evil and whatnot. But Tyrion sums that up in the best way.”

Oliver got his big break in the industry shortly after graduating from Westminster University in London, where he studied Digital and Photographic Imaging Science.

“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.”

He then “went down the old fashioned route” working as a runner on the HBO feature film The Special Relationship,

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: “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.”

The title ‘producer’ can mean several different things within the industry, but what does it mean in relation to Oliver’s work on Game of Thrones?

“We all specialize in different areas, and mine is mainly cast-related. Working with Nina Gold, our fantastic casting director. So from casting to the cast deals and the overall scheduling of the show, and making it all come together.

We have over 800 cast members on the show now. And we shoot two units simultaneously, usually in two different countries. My job is trying to figure out how we juggle those actors, along with all their other commitments, to achieve a shooting schedule that works. “

And does he have any advice for novices starting out in the industry, what does is take to be a successful producer?

“A lot of hard work, and some luck too. For me, I took the old fashioned route of working on the floor and working my way up. “

But I think that depending on which type of producing you’d like to go into — whether that’s a world of developmental creative side or the more organizational or financial or business affairs side of producing — the key (thing) is that you have to be willing to work some pretty long hours, and put your life on hold for a bit.“

It’s been eight years since the first episode of Game of Thrones aired, since then 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 broadcasters face? “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.”

I worked with Oliver as part of the Shoot the Future contest with Skype. Where aspiring producers and content creators could win development funding and be provided with the expert advice needed to get their ideas off the ground. You can find out more about the project here.

Music, pop culture, and media business writer.

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