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MCN Executive of the Year: He's GoT That

David Benioff and D.B Weiss are near household names today – particularly in homes with well-worn and extensive fantasy novel libraries – but it wasn’t always that way. The two, co-creators and showrunners of HBO’s blockbuster Game of Thrones were just two guys with an idea when they pitched their version of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire to the premium network nearly a decade ago.

Today, GoT has won more Emmy Awards than any other scripted series and in its seventh season attracted an average of 33 million viewers, making it the most popular show in HBO history. Benioff and Weiss, on location in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as they film the final year of the fantasy saga, took some time out to answer a few questions from Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell via e-mail about the man who helped make it all happen, MCN's Executive of the Year, HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler.

MCN: What is it about HBO that made you want to do your show there? What was your first pitch meeting like?
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss: Well, HBO was the home of our favorite dramas: The Sopranos,Deadwood, The Wire. For most of television’s history it has been considered the bastard younger brother of film, but HBO began to change that perception by attracting top-notch actors, directors and writers, and providing big enough budgets to allow for cinematic production values.

So once we realized the story of Game of Thrones could only be told in the multi-season format of a television program, HBO felt like the best choice by far.

We pitched the show to [former HBO Entertainment president] Carolyn Strauss and [former HBO Entertainment SVP] Gina Balian. We had been warned that Carolyn was a tough pitch and we shouldn’t expect her to laugh at any of our jokes. So when she cracked a smile midway through the meeting we felt like we’d won the golden ticket.

MCN: How supportive is the environment at HBO and is it a company you’d like to continue working for?
Benioff and Weiss: For both of us this has been the best experience of our working lives. Our show started out expensive and has gotten more expensive every year. But while each new season brings some creative haggling, HBO has always provided us with the resources we need to tell the story we want to tell.

Even in the early seasons when the show was more of a niche offering, we were able to communicate with leadership and explain our needs. An example: at the end of Season 2 we shot our first big battle, the Battle of Blackwater Bay. We knew it was going to be expensive, with hundreds of extras, a ship that needed to be built, and a great deal of VFX shots. We didn’t have the money for it so we called the home office and explained why we needed the extra money and how we planned on spending it.

It was a big ask but they listened. They never hung up the phone; they never said, “The budget is the budget.” It took some persuasion, but ultimately they said, “We trust you.”

As to the second part of the question— we’ve said this before but it remains the truth: HBO is the New York Yankees of television. If you have a chance to play in Yankee Stadium, you wear the pinstripes until you can’t play anymore.

MCN: Many entertainment CEOs don’t have relationships with talent. How much interaction do you have with Richard Plepler?
Benioff and Weiss: We talk to Richard a lot, and we see him a lot. One of the reasons he's so good at what he does is that he's in his element with such a broad range of people, including people like us. It's an honest impulse that comes from his genuine and voracious curiosity about the world.

If you're making one of his shows, he wants to know the details. If you're making policy in Washington, he wants to know the details. If you're making his sandwich, he wants to know the details. There's a warmth and ease there that makes you look forward to spending time with him. Conversations with him are energizing, not enervating.

MCN: What about him do you admire?
Benioff and Weiss: Aside from the above? In a business full of smiling windsocks, he is not a windsock. He doesn't focus test his decisions, he doesn't crowdsource his decisions. Richard's decisions come from Richard, and he stands by them.

Our show... It's worked out pretty well so far, but we try to avoid the hindsight fallacy here. In 2010, he ordered a very expensive show set in a genre alien to pay TV, from two guys who had never written or run a show before, and whose first attempts at writing and producing the Game of Thrones pilot had fallen well short of expectations. And knowing all those things, he supported our show, and took a serious, potentially ruinous risk in doing so. Because he believed in it.

It's hard not to admire someone who takes a risk like that. Especially when the risk he took is the reason we're talking to you in the first place.