HBO just wrapped its epic series Game of Thrones on Sunday with a finale that broke the premium network’s ratings records and divided fans over how the eighth and final season played out. With discussion about Sunday’s capper far from slowing, we talked with HBO programming president Casey Bloys about the polarizing finale and alternate endings for the show created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the possibility of overall deals for them and J.J. Abrams, the coffee cup that became a pop culture phenom, the status of GoT‘s prospective prequels, and why it’s likely not even Arya Stark can make a spinoff happen right now.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised by fans’ reaction to the finale?
BLOYS: No. To tell you the truth, for a show this big and this sprawling and for a show that has this passionate a fan base, I don’t think there is any way that all fans would’ve been happy. I think based on online reaction, which you do have to take with a grain of salt, it does seem split and I think that’s about right — some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it. But the point is, everybody is feeling really passionate about it.
I think everybody had hopes for where the characters might go or should go. But Dan and David have had a plan for how they wanted the show to go for a long time, and they did it the way they thought fit as creators. I think they did a spectacular job. They landed a big plane, which was not easy. You are never going to keep everybody happy, but I don’t think that’s what they were trying to do.
DEADLINE: You made comments in 2017 that Game of Thrones would film multiple endings to protect the finale. Did you shoot multiple endings?
BLOYS: No. I think that was something at an appearance, and I said it something like anecdotally, and it caught on. I don’t think they actually shot multiple endings. But putting that in the water supply wasn’t a bad thing to protect against leaks. They always had a little bit of edge of doubt because you couldn’t be totally sure.
DEADLINE: How did you protect the ending from leaking in a big way?
BLOYS: I think there was somebody who was posting. … You could’ve found it if you wanted to but most people want to experience and go on a ride — I think it’s a testament to the show. By the last season we had so many security measures in place for how the show was distributed internationally, many safeguards. Even with that, because you are dealing with humans, there always is going to be the potential that someone leaks or tells somebody or does something so you can’t safe guard 100%. Ultimately, there was speculation about the ending — some of it correct as it turns out — but most people wanted to experience it as fans.
DEADLINE: Did you discuss any other alternate endings with Dan and David?
BLOYS: No. They are very smart, very bright, very methodical. They’ve had this in their heads for a long time. So there weren’t big debates about, should it end this way or not end this way, this is what they had planned.
DEADLINE: Did you get money from Starbucks after the coffee cup incident?
BLOYS: No. (laughs).
DEADLINE: What do you think about fans’ fascination with the cup and the water bottle in the finale?
BLOYS: The fascination with that, the divisive reaction to the finale, all of it is a testament to how much people were invested and engaged with the show. Some people have very strong negative options and obviously some have positive opinions. But I take all of this as a really great sign of what the show has been able to do to stay in the cultural conversation to have people passionately debate the characters and the storylines. That’s what you want a show to do.
DEADLINE: Has the big turnout for the final season and fans’ passion for the show’s end game changed the timeline for the prequel pilot?
BLOYS: I think this is the last thing you want to do with any show — prequel or not — you try not to rush it. So the last thing I want to do is put that sort of pressure on the prequel because George [R.R. Martin] has created this massive universe. It is within that universe, but Jane [Goldman] has created a different show — it’s not the same show, it’s not the same characters, it’s not the same time frame, it’s not the same dynamic. It’s a tough line to walk, but you want to do a show that is of that world but not a replica.
I think [Goldman] has done a great job on the script and SJ Clarkson, the director, is prepping an amazing pilot. We are going to do that pilot and take our time and do it right. Hopefully, I expect we will love it and we will move forward, but I don’t want anything that happened with this final season to dictate anything that is happening in that process.
DEADLINE: If everything with the pilot goes smoothly, could the prequel series premiere next year?
BLOYS: I don’t know. I have to get a sense from production when we see scripts for a season, how big and involved it is. Shooting a pilot in June and having it on the air a year later feels a little rushed, but it’s too soon to tell.
DEADLINE: Author George R.R. Martin recently said that three of the Game of Thrones offshoots, including the prequel pilot, are moving “nicely” at HBO. Can you tell us which the other two are?
BLOYS: Here is what I will tell you. I wanted to get through the final season and let that stand as a cultural moment. We have the pilot starting in June and then we will decide whether to want to do another one or not. I’m letting those things happen before we decide whether to do another one or not.
DEADLINE: Could there be more than one beyond the prequel starring Naomi Watts?
BLOYS: I doubt it, I don’t think so. I certainly do not want to overdo it. We have so many varied shows coming up in 2019 and ’20 and even into ’21. I think Game of Thrones is a fantastic property but I don’t want to just be the home of prequels and sequels and all that stuff. I think you want to be really careful about how you do it. That’s why we’ve been working on the Jane pilot for a long time, because we want to do it right. I think the last thing fans would want is something that was rushed out just to make it to air.
DEADLINE: Any update on the pilot?
BLOYS: The casting was completed a couple of weeks ago. They are busy in Belfast prepping and getting ready to start shooting in a couple of weeks.
DEADLINE: I know you’d ruled out direct spinoffs from Game of Thrones in the past but there is a groundswell among fans for one with Arya Stark. Any chance you can revisit the no-spinoffs policy?
BLOYS: I understand where that comes from, I totally get it. But in terms of wanting to be careful not overdoing it or not killing the goose that lays the golden egg, Dan and David’s show as it stands in eight seasons, I want to leave it as it’s own work of art and not have shows directly, having Arya do that. I think it’s best to try the prequels in other areas of George’s massive universe — just feels like the right thing to do, let the show stand on its own.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Dan and David, what are the odds of them staying in the fold with an overall deal?
BLOYS: I think you had an accurate story about them meeting around town, which I think, given their success and status, is the right thing to do because it’s such a great marketplace for creators. Obviously we have a strong relationship with them, they have a strong relationship with Warner Bros as well. So we would love to stay in business with them, but they are going through the process and we will see how that all goes.
DEADLINE: What about their Confederate HBO drama. Can we assume that’s no longer on the front burner?
BLOYS: Not on the front burner, yes.
DEADLINE: Another creator you are in business with, JJ Abrams, also is shopping an overall deal that WarnerMedia is in pursuit of. Any update on that?
BLOYS: I don’t have any updates on his larger Warner deal but he has got his project with us, the first thing he has written in a long time. We have Lovecraft with him and obviously Westworld. We at HBO are in the JJ business and really love working with him.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Westworld, the trailer you just released looks very different. Is the show going for a reboot in Season 3?
BLOYS: Not so much of a reboot. At the end of the season, Dolores was going off. So it was a little bit of a tease to see what the world might look like. All I will say is, it still has robots in it but it’s not so much a reboot as it is following the characters.
DEADLINE: HBO recently picked up Julian Fellowes’ lavish period drama The Gilded Age, which had been set up at NBC through Universal TV. How did that come about? Will accommodating such a big-budget series lead to you holding back one of your shows?
BLOYS: I met with Julian before the holidays, this was before Bob [Greenblatt] came. I got the impression there was some hesitation at NBC about the budget level it required to do a show like that; for a broadcast network the economics are a little bit different. We had the meeting, nothing came out of it because they were still trying to figure out a deal. Then NBCUniversal took it out to market — it made more sense for them to do it elsewhere — and we jumped in. It’s such a massive show so it’s going to take some time to get it up and running and cast and shoot. It was far enough out that it made sense for our schedule and it also might compliment it. When you have got big sci-fi shows, it’s nice I think to have a big period piece like that, so that you have a nice mix of shows, it felt like a nice addition to our canvas.
DEADLINE: Back to Game of Thrones. You aired a promo before the finale reminding viewers of the other shows you have on so they stick around. Do you expect subscriber dip after the end of GoT?
BLOYS: Historically what we have seen is, before any kind of tentpole show like Game of Thrones, True Detective, Westworld — obviously Game of Thrones is the biggest — there is usually an uptick of subscriptions for the show and then down afterwards. Usually what we are expecting is a net gain. So there are absolutely people who watched HBO for Game of Thrones, but historically, we usually end up with a net gain, and that’s what I expect in this case as well.
DEADLINE: In conclusion, what has the experience of doing Game of Thrones taught you?
BLOYS: We are proud to have been the home for it, it’s been a great show for us, we are proud to have been in business with Dan and David. Someone was telling me that, maybe it was after Season 1, there was a headline saying, ‘Ratings Show Game Of Thrones Is No Boardwalk Empire.’ It’s just a good reminder for everybody that you don’t know where the next Game of Thrones, the next water-cooler show is going to come from. It’s probably not what you’d expect. So the best thing you can do is get in business with people you believe in and support them, take shots and see how it goes.
Game of Thrones, the juggernaut that it is today is just a good reminder that it doesn’t start that way. When it came out, a lot of people questioned, ‘Oh, a fantasy epic at HBO, does that make sense, I’m not sure that feels like HBO.’ You have to continually evolve and push expectation, but keep in mind that everything has to have an extremely high level of quality.