House of the Dragon and Hollywood conspiracies


Fun fact: This is the third WiC Club article I’ve written this month. First, I wrote one titled, “Is Bloodmoon in trouble?” It ends up that it was. In fact, the show that would have been about the first time the White Walkers invaded Westeros is dead. Then I wrote an article wondering what would happen to the prequels now. We found out immediately: HBO has ordered a series called House of the Dragon, about the Targaryen civil war that tore Westeros apart some hundred-odd years before the original show began.

There’s no point to this introduction. I just want you to know my pain.

Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. HBO.

Now the question becomes why. Why did HBO order House of the Dragon straight to series while it made the Bloodmoon crew submit a pilot just so it could be rejected? If it was confident enough to order a season of Targaryen murder and mayhem, why didn’t it just do it to start with?

The short answer is that we don’t know. Michael Ausiello of TV Line writes that Bloodmoon had a “troubled” production, complete with budget excess, personnel problems and that old Hollywood standby: creative differences. Apparently, the execs didn’t like the pilot they were shown, asked showrunner Jane Goldman and her team to make some changes, they did, the execs still didn’t like it, and down came the axe. That’s reasonable enough. Pilots don’t get picked up in Hollywood all the time, but presumably Ryan Condal, Miguel Sapochnik and the rest of the House of the Dragon team have nothing to show for themselves and they still got picked up to series. What gives?

Again, I don’t know, but I love a good conspiracy theory. One, suggested to me by former WiC writer Ani Bundel, is that it has to do with HBO’s new management. You see, back when HBO first started talking to George R.R. Martin and others about potential Game of Thrones successor shows back in 2016 — apparently Martin pitched a form of this idea that summer — executives like Richard Plepler were still with the company and calling the shots. Plepler is the guy who believed in Game of Thrones when David Benioff and Dan Weiss pitched it way back when, and who gave them a chance to reshoot scenes after they turned in a pilot that was a “complete piece of shit,” as their friend and fellow filmmaker Craig Mazin so memorably put it.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 06: (L-R) HBO CEO Richard Plepler and writer/producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff attend the 17th annual AFI Awards at Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 6, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI)

Plepler has since left the company after 28 years of building it into an entertainment powerhouse. Why? It may well have something to do with HBO’s new owner, AT&T. Under AT&T’s management, HBO has been consolidated into a group called Warner Media, which is managed by executive John Stankey, who you may have noticed kind of has a funny name. In 2018, shortly after the acquisition but before the new guard had established itself within the organization, Stankey addressed 150-odd HBO employees at a town hall meeting. “We need hours a day,” he said. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”

Then there was this awkward on-stage between Plepler and Stankey:

"Stankey: “[W]e’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?”Plepler: “We do that.”Stankey: “Yes, you do. Just not enough.”"

Basically, I think Plepler left because he wasn’t comfortable with Stankey and his team changing how HBO makes content, for pushing quantity over quality, for prioritizing money above all else. I mean, don’t get me wrong: HBO obviously always wanted to make money, but they were just small enough to maintain an outsider’s grasp on creativity, and took chances that other networks didn’t. That’s harder to do when you’re subsumed by a company the size of AT&T.

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 28: CEO of AT&T Entertainment Group John Stankey speaks onstage during AT&T’s celebration of the Launch of DIRECTV NOW at Venue 57 on November 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for DirecTV)

It’s Ani’s theory that this new philosophy was at work both when opting not to go ahead with Bloodmoon and in ordering House of the DragonBloodmoon, the theory goes, would be too different from Game of Thrones, without any of the trappings we’re familiar with: no dragons, no Iron Throne, no King’s Landing, no Wall. It was too risky for Plepler and company, although it wouldn’t have been for HBO. But House of the Dragon is safer and more familiar. It has dragons, the Iron Throne, King’s Landing, and the Wall. It has Targaryens and Starks and Lannisters (in theory, anyway; the Lannisters don’t play a big part in the Dance, although they’re around). The safer option appealed more to HBO’s new masters.

That and they needed a big announcement to top off their HBO Max presentation. That could explain why the network jumped right to a series order.

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO

I’m not as cynical as Ani, or at least, I don’t think this theory quite holds up under examination. For one thing, while it was missing a lot of the trappings we’d come to associate with Game of ThronesBloodmoon did follow the basic arc of that show, with geographically disparate characters fighting for supremacy while the threat of the White Walkers loomed in the background. House of the Dragon has more GoT signifiers, but the shape of the overall story is quite different; it’s more intimate, a tale of family drama writ large in fire and blood. I think there’s a good argument that it’s more risky than Bloodmoon, not less.

And if I’m being perfectly honest, the Dance was the story I was hoping to see adapted from the beginning. I just can’t bring myself to get worried about it when my instinct is to start fan-casting Rhaenyra Targaryen.

And of course, let’s remember that this is all speculation. Maybe the Bloodmoon pilot was just really, really bad, although I have trouble conceiving of anything starring Naomi Watts to be that dire. Could we get her a role in House of the Dragon, by the way? Surely there’s an imperious Targaryen she could play.

I do think the note about AT&T’s new oversight is worth taking, though. HBO has survived and thrived by zigging when competitors zagged, by taking risks on shows audiences didn’t know they wanted to see until they saw them. Stankey seems after a more traditional kind of success. Let’s hope we can have both.