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November 11, 2008

HBO orders fantasy pilot 'Thrones'

Game HBO has given a pilot order to fantasy project "Game of Thrones."

The program is based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling series of novels "A Song of Fire & Ice" and executive produced by David Benioff ("Troy"), D.B. Weiss ("Halo") and Guymon Casady ("Hope & Faith"). The title “Game of Thrones” is from the first novel in the series.

If greenlit, “Thrones” would represent the rarest of TV genres: a full-fledged fantasy series.

Though broadcasters have embraced sci-fi-tinged shows in recent years following the success of ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes,” and supernatural themes have been given a spin by CW’s “Supernatural” and HBO’s own “True Blood,” high fantasy is nearly nonexistent in primetime TV history -- and “Thrones” is an unabashed member of the genre. The books have swords, dragons, magic, the works.

“Fantasy is the most successful genre in terms of feature films given the incredible popularity of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Harry Potter movies,” Benioff said. “High fantasy has never been done on TV before and if anybody can do it, it’s HBO. They’ve taken tired genres and reinvented them -- mobsters in ‘The Sopranos’ and Westerns with ‘Deadwood.’”

The cost of producing a fantasy series is usually a big factor that deters networks. The producers note “Thrones” is written as a character drama and major battles often take place off stage.

“It’s not a story with a million orcs charging across the plains,” Weiss said. “The most expensive effects are creature effects and there’s not much of that.”

Martin plans seven books in the series. The producers intend for each season to span one novel.

But before the series can get on the air, the producers first have to slay a more formidable threat than any dragon: pilot competitors. HBO has 10 other pilots in contention for series orders. Though the network declines to project how many shows will receive an order since HBO doesn’t need to fill a specific number of time-periods like broadcasters, at least six are expected to get a pickup.

Also, the success of “True Blood” may work in “Thrones'” favor. HBO has always sought to defy any sort of specific genre branding for their network, emphasizing that each project is judged on its own merits. Yet given how the vampire drama continues to gain viewers, and how Showtime’s swords-and-monarchy historical drama “The Tudors” has performed strongly, it’s not unreasonable to believe the network may see “Thrones” as a good fit.

Previous fantasy titles on TV are few and far between. ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” might qualify as a member of the genre, though its fantastical elements are wrapped in a modern day crime procedural. ABC Family’s “Kyle XY” could fit. Some would consider the WB’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fantasy, though supernatural drama is probably a more appropriate term. Former syndicated program “Xena Warrior Princess,” however, is firmly in the genre. NBC’s upcoming “Kings” also qualifies.

"Swords and sorcerers are more the province of movies -- and kid's TV cartoons -- than of prime time series," said TV historian Tim Brooks. "There are occasional attempts, such as the syndicated 'Conan: The Television Series' and 'The Adventures of Sinbad,' and the various revivals of Robin Hood sometimes included magic. But none of TV's big hits, that I can think of, fall into this category. Adult viewers prefer characters they can relate to."

Some thoughts: I suspect a fair number of viewers are going to love this idea -- a high fantasy series with a grown-up budget and no content restrictions? Not even the hugely popular movie franchises cited by the producers have offered such a prospect, because no studio greenlights a fantasy budget without the promise of a PG-13 rating. Combined with "True Blood," this also suggests an interesting, AintItCoolNews-targeted direction for the network. Less edgy-PBS, more R-rated Comic Con.


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