A Bridge to Hollywood
HBO Exec Jay Roewe is helping drive television’s Golden Age—and strengthening the COM-LA connection
About an hour’s drive north of Belfast, Ireland, two rows of ancient beech trees have formed a gnarled tunnel above a country road. The Dark Hedges, as the picturesque formation is known, took two centuries to form—but just a few seconds to become world-famous. In the second season of Game of Thrones, Arya Stark, a key figure in the series, flees her home. Seated on the back of a horse-drawn carriage, she travels down the misty lane as the camera pulls back, dramatically revealing the trees. It’s a haunting, surreal setting that fits right into the fantasy series’ imagined world of Westeros.
A lot of creative decisions went into that scene, from casting and costumes to cinematography. But for HBO, the network behind the show, there’s another factor involved in selecting a location: tax credits for film and television productions. By the next year, the United Kingdom had begun offering such an incentive, meaning that for every dollar spent from the production’s Belfast headquarters, HBO would get a percentage back. That intersection of creative and business decision-making is where Jay Roewe, HBO’s senior vice president for West Coast production, works. He helps the network find the perfect setting for each show, then oversees the financial side of productions that vary from the quirky comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm to the sci-fi/Western mash-up Westworld. For Roewe (COM’79), making business decisions that put each show’s creative team in a position to succeed is the perfect challenge—and his success has also given him the opportunity to help connect College of Communication students to their dream jobs in Hollywood.
Finding the Right Tune
Roewe grew up in a musical family. His mother taught him the piano when he was seven. He picked up the trombone as well. “I was actually pretty good at it,” he says. But he wasn’t sure how to carve a path in the arts that would also pay the bills.
That path started to reveal itself at BU, where Roewe studied film, minored in business, and worked at WTBU, the student radio station. “It exposed me to things outside of the creative process,” he says of his education. At the radio station, Roewe recalls record labels shipping them new albums to promote every week. For the first time, he began to see the intersection of art and business. When a professor hired him to produce a short documentary about freshman orientation, Roewe began to see a future for himself in film. “I enjoyed the organizational side as well as the creative side,” Roewe says. “And I remember reading about the future of media and entertainment, and about how many jobs and what kind of growth there was going to be.”
After graduation, Roewe spent five years working as a freelancer on Boston-area productions, starting as a production assistant and working his way up to producer, before moving to Los Angeles. He never abandoned his musical roots—he still refers to meetings and conversations as “jamming”—so the music video industry was an obvious place to land. It was MTV’s heyday and within a couple of years Roewe had produced dozens of videos. These included 1980s staples like Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” as well as videos for M?tley Crüe, Def Leppard, Steve Winwood, Jody Watley, and more. Shoots were often thrown together in just a few days, but that crash course in producing launched Roewe’s career. Soon he was taking on larger projects, producing Madonna’s 1991 tour documentary Truth or Dare and the pilot episode of Beverly Hills, 90210.
Finding a Home
Roewe had worked for HBO as a freelancer, first shooting footage for a documentary about the Harlem Globetrotters, then as a line producer on a Billy Joel concert and a Billy Crystal comedy show in Russia. In 1994, he joined the company full time, first producing films, then miniseries. “To be around people who are among the best in the business, it pushes you, it’s motivating,” Roewe says. “And it’s a company that continues to evolve as the media world has been evolving.”
This was at a time when the network was focusing more on multiepisode series—to better attract and retain subscribers—and Roewe’s projects included John Adams and Angels in America, which both won Emmys for outstanding limited series. At the same time, HBO’s television division began producing increasingly ambitious shows, carrying cinematic storytelling and production quality across multiple seasons. The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999, ushered in what many call the golden age of television.
For us to be able to reach out into the industry, particularly at a time when there’s such a sea change going on…it’s an invaluable resource.
Roewe’s first chance to work on a recurring series came about a decade later, with Game of Thrones. The show, based on a series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, was a big gamble for HBO. The books had a passionate following, but they were set in sprawling, fantastical landscapes traversed by massive armies on horseback and fire-breathing dragons. Such a show would require a production of epic scale, not unlike producing a feature film for each episode. That gamble paid off, though, as Game of Thrones became a phenomenon. By its final season, more than 10 million people were watching each week and the show had won a record 59 Emmy Awards.
While Game of Thrones may have been HBO’s biggest draw for the better part of a decade, the network has more than 100 productions going at a given time. Roewe and his team are constantly vetting new project pitches, working on budgets for 10 to 20 green-lit shows and receiving daily updates from line producers stationed on sets around the world.
Building a Bridge
When Roewe arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1980s, he found his own way in the business. Now, he’s hoping to help ease that transition for fellow Terriers. “There wasn’t much of a bridge between Boston and LA,” he says. “When I finally got to HBO, I felt it was important to begin to give back—so I reached back to BU and struck up a relationship.” He also began talking to—and fundraising with—other COM alums in the business.
One of the first products of those conversations was a series of student tours of Hollywood, one or two weeks long, each spring. That soon blossomed into the BU in LA program, one of the University’s most popular study abroad options, with 190 students participating in 2019–20. At least a couple of students have interned at HBO each year, and many have stayed on as employees after graduation.
Cody Brotter (COM’13) was one of those interns. The screenwriter spent a semester in Roewe’s office, then stayed on as a temp. He recalls a very different transition to LA from the one his mentor had experienced 30 years earlier. “There’s a huge network out here, and not only that, they’re really excited to help young people,” Brotter says. “[Jay] was just an open book.” Six years later, Brotter is finding regular screenwriting work in Hollywood.
Roewe has maintained his relationship with COM, serving on COM’s Dean’s Advisory Board and BU’s Board of Overseers. And he became a COM parent—his son, Chris (COM’14), studied film and television. He also often provides advice for faculty and students alike. In 2008, with the industry going through a major change—Netflix had just launched its streaming service and YouTube was only three years old—Cathy Perron, then director of the master’s in television program, thought COM needed to capitalize. “I was starting to see what was going on in our industry, with the marriage of technology and content, and thought it would be a good idea for us to create a program that would prep students for a new era,” she says. She called Roewe for advice.
“Cathy was very ahead of the curve and visionary, and reached out to me and we jammed on a structure of what that might look like,” Roewe says. What emerged is COM’s Media Ventures Program. The graduate program challenges students to develop a media business and culminates in Pitchfest—where they present their thesis project to a panel of media executives and entrepreneurs, Roewe often among them.
“For us to be able to reach out into the industry, particularly at a time when there’s such a sea change going on, to access people who are working day to day through this kind of disruption—it’s an invaluable resource,” Perron says. “It makes all the difference in the world.”
The Next Big Thing
While the legacy of Game of Thrones lives on in Northern Ireland, the show’s historic run ended in May 2019, after 73 epic episodes. The finale drew an HBO record 19.3 million viewers, but left HBO with a massive challenge: How to replace its most popular show.
When I finally got to HBO, I felt it was important to begin to give back—so I reached back to BU and struck up a relationship.
Meanwhile, the television business keeps evolving, and HBO with it. AT&T, which bought HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, in 2018, has reportedly pushed for an increase in content. On top of adapting to production delays and shoots with social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year brings the launch of HBO Max, a streaming service combining HBO originals with the Time Warner archives. So Roewe and his colleagues are in search of the next big thing. In 2020, they’ve launched new shows, like Avenue 5 from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, will produce a third season of Succession, and brought back an old classic, with a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. And if that’s not enough, House of the Dragon, a Game of Thrones prequel, is scheduled for 2022.
“Once you’ve created something like [Game of Thrones], people want you to replicate it,” Roewe says. “It has put pressure on us to keep doing things differently, in a way that people will notice.”