Eight seasons of Game of Thrones, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire—this is just a sampling of HBO Creative Director Anthony Mauro’s broad portfolio. Anyone that has had the pleasure of working with HBO—as Carson Hood, executive producer at New York City-based creative agency BigStar has on several occasions—knows how hard their marketing teams work. Mauro is no exception and through his almost-two decades with the premiere network, he has become a treasure trove of knowledge and insight about entertainment marketing on the highest level.
In this interview, which is part of Hood’s Vision 20/21 series of discussions with creatives about the future of the business, talks with the HBO creative director about his long experience in entertainment marketing at the premiere cable network.
Carson Hood: Hi Anthony, thank you so much for joining me. To begin, how would you describe your role and job function?
Anthony Mauro: The one word answer would be varying -- but that’s what I love about it. I’m a wearer of many different hats—creative director, yes, but I’m also a manager, mentor, project manager, sometimes director, sometimes graphic designer, sometimes I find myself doing interviews. The one thing I really enjoy the most is being able to push the creative on my team, taking the nugget of an idea from one of my junior producers and helping them work through it and get it to a place where it’s out in the world and really pushing their creativity to the next to the next level and get to see them grow. That’s probably one of the favorite aspects of my job.
CH: What drew you to working in the entertainment business and how did you land a job at HBO?
AM: To be absolutely honest, I had no desire to be in the entertainment industry and I didn’t really know much about it. I was going to school at Kean University in New Jersey and my major was psychology. On one Friday afternoon, I was walking to the cafeteria and I saw a sign in front of one of the auditoriums that said “HBO seminar,” and I stuck my head in. Because Kean was a suitcase college, on Fridays there weren’t that many people there, so maybe four or five people were in attendance. The person on the stage welcomed me in and I had no idea or interest in post production or anything to that effect and because I was interacting with a speaker and he was speaking to a dead room, he just kind of gravitated towards me.
At the end of the talk, I stuck around and he introduced himself as Dominic Ambrosio, senior vice president of HBO Studio Productions, and offered to give me a tour of the studio. I didn’t really think about it much, put his business card aside, and like a day or two later it dawned on me that it was a missed opportunity to look into a new world. That’s the whole point of going to college—to explore different career paths—so I wrote him an email and next thing I know I’m getting a tour of HBO Studio Productions and I was absolutely blown away that people had whole entire careers dedicated to literally just working in editing and, as I saw it at the time, people getting paid to watch TV. I didn’t know a thing about marketing, didn’t know a thing about A/V, didn’t know a thing about trailers but I kept in touch with Dominic. A friendship grew there and he offered me an internship. I took it, started mid-December in 2002, and HBO has been a part of my life ever since.
CH: At the time, did you realize the magnitude of the door that had just been opened for you?
AM: I realized that about two days after I had his business card. I saw that as an opportunity. I wish I could remember that moment I first walked in HBO, but I can tell you I always took it very seriously and I’ve always appreciated the opportunity that was given to me by Dominic.
CH: Flash forward, almost two decades with the company. You’ve worked on some of the most iconic series in history, including Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire. And then of course, eight seasons of Game of Thrones. Any highlights that come to mind?
AM: Yeah, 18 years of memories kind of flashed in front of me. Just to list a couple, in my first actual on-set experience I was helping out with a DVD extra shoot called “Supper with the Sopranos.” I totally fell in love with that part of what we do, the experience of directing and, as a producer, pushing the narrative and helping shape the story.
It’s hard to take over eight years—which was the Game of Thrones experience—and make it into one, but I got to travel the world anywhere from four to six months out of the year for five out of the eight seasons of Game of Thrones. And with that comes so, so many memories because Thrones sets were in these exotic locations. I never would have gone to 90% of those places if it wasn’t for that experience.
When I was an intern, if you had told me I’d be spending a good part of five years of my life living in a city in Northern Ireland called Belfast I never would have believed you.
CH: What has been your favorite project or campaign thus far?
AM: Out of everything I’ve done for this company still to this day the most favorite project that I’ve worked on was The Pacific, which was the follow-up miniseries to Band of Brothers. On that project I had a mentor, Eric Council, who really taught me and pushed me to tell the best story I possibly could. It was one of my jobs on that campaign to do the bonus features for the Blu-ray, where we were taking the raw interviews from the Vets and syncing them up to the episode, telling the real story behind it. And that feeling of telling such an amazing, heart-wrenching story of those vets, topped with being honored and gifted the ability to let them be able to tell their story on such a massive scale was life-changing to me.
CH: I’d like to dive into Game of Thrones. Tell us about the process, what it’s like to be in Belfast with that community. What did the journey from the first to last season look like? And how did you kind of steer that ship?
AM: To answer the first part of your question, what Game of Thrones did for Belfast was absolutely mind blowing. It wasn’t just because of Game of Thrones, but Game of Thrones definitely helped. It gave the artists and the grips and the sparks an outlet; it gave them the ability to prove that not only could they do it, but they could do it on a world-class level. And even though we pumped out hours of behind-the-scenes content to support every season, I honestly felt we’ve always failed to really let the viewers know how hard that crew worked, how hard that city works, and how many lives that production touched and changed. They were by far the hardest-working crew I’ve ever worked with in TV—just absolutely amazing.
On set from day one to the final day, it was always a team effort. There is nothing to say about 600-700 people standing at four in the morning in a rock quarry that’s on the northern coast of Ireland, in a hailstorm in the middle of January, and everyone’s smiling. There’s no other crew out there that would do that. And it’s because they knew the more pain, the more blood and sweat they put into it, the better the product. And they were all doing it together for one cause and I’ve never seen anything like that, it was absolutely amazing. And I miss that camaraderie on a daily basis.
CH: When you’re in the midst of that 18-hour day on the biggest show in the world, I can imagine there’s probably no way of not feeling the pressure. Did you have any checks and balances, or how were you constantly measuring yourself to make sure that things are on point?
AM: There are really no checks and balances. I would just say it’s just my drive. I’m never satisfied with anything I ever do. And I think that is true for a lot of the people here at HBO in my department and for creatives in general. I’m always challenging myself to outdo what I did last year or for the last piece. Those are my own personal checks and balances. As for HBO—it’s years of experience and trusting our guts. It’s good creative, good storytelling. And yeah, we’re marketing our shows. But at the end of the day, we’re telling a good story.
CH: That leads me into your process. You’ve mentioned storytelling a number of times and we all know that HBO understands how important story is to everything you do. Can you tell us a little bit about your process as a creative and when you’re on a new project, what’s the first thing you do to get the wheels turning?
AM: Research. Understanding the story that the production is trying to tell. And then doing my best to put myself in the shoes of the writers or the director and understand their vision. I definitely think marketing should be an extension of the show, it shouldn’t be two completely different elements.
A lot of people talk about it and it’s the most cliche thing: think outside the box and then everyone rolls their eyes. But actually, I love the box. I search for the box. I welcome it, and to me that box is created by the boundaries of time, money, purpose, and material. Once I understand that box, I can then use that process to push and understand the creative.
How much time do I have to make this promo? How much money do I have to make this promo? What’s the purpose of this promo? What information am I trying to relay? And then overall, what material do we have to work with? That’s my process, searching out those four things. Then another cliche comes into play, which is that we use the limitations of the box to push the creative. That’s another really important aspect, because I work with some extremely creative individuals who are always surprising me by rising to the occasion and exceeding all expectations. So I welcome that box and I probably think that’s the most important thing I do.
CH: In 2020, when the pandemic began, what was the first thing you remember as being the sign that things were going to be different moving forward?
AM: When we got the heads up. The email arrived that we were not to go back into the office that next day, I believe a Tuesday at like 11:30 at night. My team—there’s ten of us and my team is one of seven in our department—was up and running within 24 hours, if not less. I think we were all fully cutting the next day. And that’s a testament to HBO’s operations team: RJ Kane, Ben Guinta, James Copland, to name a few.
CH: Do you think the process of program marketing on the scale of a Game of Thrones will look different moving forward?
AM: Short term? Yes, I do. But, you know, I don’t think this situation is here to stay. I think we’ll come together as a world community and we’ll pull through. And to an extent, I think it’s changed the way we work. But do I think it’s going to forever mark and change human interaction and our ability to go on set? No, I don’t. We’ll eventually get back to where we were, especially when it comes to large-scale productions.
CH: What is your relationship to social media and 360° storytelling?
AM: I always feel the need to be on top of it as much as I possibly can. My job is to be fully aware of all the different types of platforms that our A/V content lives on. To a bigger point, though, it’s more important for me to use all those platforms because I need to understand how the viewer digests videos on each platform and to understands how they consume it all. What works and what doesn’t work. There [are] multiple social platforms that we put our content on and techniques for each platform. It’s our job to make great content and tell great stories, we just need to tweak it for each specific medium. I do really believe the day of that universal 30- second spot is gone. You don’t make a 30-second spot for your network sell and then put it everywhere because that 30-second spot isn’t going to play correctly everywhere. Your off-channel buys will never play on TikTok. And that’s something if you’re not already doing then you should be doing because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the promo world any more.
CH: What are you excited about or most excited about moving forward?
AM: I’m most excited about watching the technology change and how we’re going to be able to [use it to] tell stories. A/R, V/R, second-screen companions, interactive streaming—that’s all great for the productions and the storytellers on that side, but also in our world, how we can really take marketing to the next level? Nobody wants to be marketed to but everybody wants to be entertained. So why not? Why not push the boundaries of this technology, to see how we can change the way we tell stories.
CH: Final thoughts and predictions on the future?
AM: Subscribe to HBO Max and find out!
As for bold predictions—this is a really, really rough time for everyone in this industry. My bold prediction is that this will come and go, and it will forever change the landscape we work in. I want to give that sense of hope to everyone else that’s out there as well. This world is crazy, and it’s dark and ugly right now. But there’s a lot of hope. And I don’t think we are going to get back to the place in the world that we knew, but I think at the end of the day, it’s going to be a better place. I think we’re going to be a little bit more flexible in where and how we work. I think a lot of barriers can be broken down, and I’m excited. That’s my message: change is coming, but it’s good. And we just need to hang in there. And wear your mask. Dammit, everyone, wear your mask.