By Ashley Coates. Published: 01/07/2013
“I’d produced BAFTA’s awards ceremonies for Scottish Television and was passionate about what they were trying to achieve. I just thought, “I have to go for that job” and for the second time in my life I was prepared to take a substantial pay cut to do a job that I really believed in.”
When Amanda took up the Chief Executive role at BAFTA in 2000, the Academy was suffering from lack of interest and lack of funds. Although it was still hosting the annual awards ceremonies that it is best known for, the organisation had gradually lost touch with both the public and much of its own membership. Amanda is widely recognised as having turned BAFTA around. Since the start of her tenure, the prospects for the Academy have increased dramatically.
Moving the Film Awards ceremony from March to before the Oscars required a huge amount of work but it now means that the awards are seen as part of the New Year awards season. The charitable functions of the organisation have also increased, going from around four events a month excluding the awards ceremonies to around 250 events a year, most of which are accessible to the public.
It’s an impressive track record for Amanda, who describes herself as a “dry cleaner’s daughter from North Yorkshire”. She has gone from interning at a Newcastle newspaper to running one of the most prestigious organisations in film in what has been a winding route through PR, television and talent agencies. Success in the media is typically characterised as being a case of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, but when Amanda was looking for her first job, she knew no-one.
Nor did she really know exactly what she wanted to do. But Amanda did know that she wanted to be somewhere in the creative industries and set about finding an opening, writing letters and making applications. Amanda’s guiding light has always been finding jobs that she enjoys, moving on from most of her posts once she has felt she has made a worthwhile contribution.
Amanda joined BAFTA as Head of Development and Events in 1998 and became Chief Executive in 2000. She was awarded an OBE for services to the film and television industries in 2009 and entered the Telegraph’s 100 Most Powerful Women in Britain list in 2010. In 2012, she made the Times’ British Film Power 100 and the Evening Standard’s 1000 Most Influential People in London lists.
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Could you outline how you came to be involved in media organisations, starting from university?
I was at Newcastle Polytechnic, studying Business Studies and Graphic Design and each year you had to go out on a placement. In the first year, I worked on a local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle. I think they thought I was a little bit different because I had bright blue hair and I was a bit of a punk.
They were just fabulous with me – so supportive and encouraging. While I was at the Poly, I was a member of the Entertainments Committee and Editor of the student newspaper, but I didn’t ever really know what I wanted to do. I don’t know where it came from, but for my second-year placement I decided I wasn’t going to go to one that the polytechnic had organised locally; I wanted to work in a PR department in a television company.
Following your instincts I suppose?
I don’t know. I wrote to 15 television companies and I was very lucky that one of them said yes. I worked across the PR Department and the Publicity Department at Thames Television and couldn’t have been better supported, and I ended up staying for six months. I loved being in London and I thought if I moved back to Newcastle to complete my course, I would struggle to make the move again to London.
I didn’t have many qualifications, but I had shorthand and typing, so I applied for secretarial roles and, again, I was very lucky. It was a time when pretty much every role I applied for, I was offered. The job I eventually went for was what I have always referred to as “second junior assistant from the left” at a theatrical agency. I was the 53rd person who was interviewed for the job and I got it.
The only reason I knew anything about theatrical agents was because my job in the press office at Thames involved forwarding fan mail to people’s agents, so I had a bit of a clue as to what they did. Within a year of being there, I became an assistant to the owner. Duncan Heath Associates was quite small when I joined, but we were taken over by a large American company and started to grow.
I became a company director and started spent a lot of time in LA and New York, as well as London. I did that for six years before wanting to do something else. I have to be absolutely in love with what I do and when that starts to wane, it is time for me to do something else.
I took three months out to decide what to do next. I then worked at LWT for a couple of years, doing everything from Telethon to the Royal Variety Performance. In 1990, my husband’s job took him to Glasgow and I started working for Scottish Television.
It was a bit of a culture shock to be really honest; I went from being at LWT – where you didn’t work across different departments – to a much smaller television company, where as a producer you worked across numerous genres from features to documentary to entertainment, and this included BAFTA’s awards ceremonies.
In 1998, I saw an advert for Head of Development and Events at BAFTA. I’d produced BAFTA’s awards ceremonies for Scottish Television and was passionate about what they were trying to achieve. I just thought, “I have to go for that job” and for the second time in my life I was prepared to take a substantial pay cut to do a job that I really believed in.
After three interviews I got the job and started in October ’98. I was very lucky that I was starting at the right time; there was a will to grow and develop the organisation, following a period of challenging financial times. I became Chief Executive in December 2000, after at first turning the job down. I ran all the awards ceremonies and I thought it was the best job at BAFTA and I didn’t want to leave that behind.
The Chairman at the time said to me, “If you can stop talking for long enough, Amanda, and listen, I’ll explain how you can still do your old job and hire someone to manage other parts of the business.” So I hired a Chief Operating Officer and together we started to make the changes that you see in the organisation today. Did I tell you I talk a lot?
What sort of changes were you looking to achieve when you got into the organisation?
The organisation had struggled financially, so it was all about survival – delivering what it had to deliver but doing it at absolute minimum cost: with a very small staff and a very small budget. I believed that by introducing the right commercial partners into the Academy they could help us develop and grow.
Now we work with 70-plus commercial partners, everyone from EE, the title sponsor for the Film Awards and our partner for 16 years, to Audi, who are the official car for the Academy – brands that share our values and understand what BAFTA stands for.
It was also about looking at our priorities for the organisation. We are an educational charity, but at the turn of the millennium our events were primarily membership focused. Over the last year we produced close to 250 events that were accessible to the members and public facing. Our events range from how to make a short film and how to market it, to lectures and masterclasses covering film, television and video games, as well as mentoring schemes.
The time was also right to evaluate the awards ceremonies. The year I arrived, the Film and Television Awards became separate ceremonies and yet the Film Awards were still in April. Looking at the global Film Awards calendar, that made no sense whatsoever because our Awards came a number of weeks after the Oscars and we weren’t in that window when the world was looking at film.
We spent a lot of time talking to the film industry about moving the Film Awards, asking where the issues were and how the industry could support us. In 2001 we moved the Film Awards to February and since then they have grown dramatically, from an event that was broadcast just in the UK to an event that is shown in every major territory in the world.
It all comes down to belief – believing in our heritage, and our brand and growing and developing it to make sure we were properly representing film, television and video games and that our membership reflected those industries. We had a very loyal membership but people new to the industry weren’t necessarily thinking about joining BAFTA.
I wanted to develop the BAFTA brand – an amazing brand – one that was already recognised widely, and take it to where it is today. But I honestly didn’t think when I started that I would be here 15 years later. I thought maybe after three or four years I would have done all I wanted to do and it would be time to do something else, but my ambitions for the organisation possess no limits and I am just as passionate about BAFTA today as I was when I first started.
You are often singled out as a “woman of achievement” and you have acquired a number of awards, such as Woman of the Year and getting onto the Woman of Inspiration and Enterprise list. How much do you see yourself as being ostensibly a “woman of business”?
These sorts of awards almost take the angle that the careers of the people they recognise have been defined by the post-holders being women. How much do you feel that has influenced you?
I think being a woman has benefited me hugely. As a woman you can say “I’ve got a gut feeling about this” or “my instinct is” and nobody looks at you oddly, but these aren’t things you would necessarily hear a man say very often. I have been very lucky. I have been given a free rein to take risks and take chances. Circumstances and colleagues have allowed me to be me. I have never felt that I needed to play at politics or present myself in a certain way.
I used to think, “I haven’t achieved what I have achieved because I am a woman; I have achieved it because of who I am”. Then it struck me how fortunate I have been and how I have been supported by a lot of people, so I now feel it is my duty to support other women and I am very happy to do so.
I have a confident exterior, but I am not necessarily as confident as I look. Men seem innately to have more confidence. I always say to people that everything is possible and I really believe that. I am a real workaholic and I am really lucky that I have got jobs that make the most of my skills.
I have also recognised when a job has come to the end of its natural term and I have been able to find the next job that has challenged and excited me. The awards I’ve gained are not just for me but for my team, and so when I got my OBE for services to the film and television industries, the first thing I did was throw a party at BAFTA, to thank everyone who had been on that ‘journey’ with me.
Thinking about support again, film and TV are two horrifically difficult industries to get into and seem to be increasingly so. What would you say to someone who is interested in a career in either of those industries?
They are incredibly broad sectors. Try and identify the area within the industry you are interested in. You could be great at maths and become a film production accountant, be creative and be better suited to the crafts. You won’t always know immediately, so if you are not sure where you want to be, but you know that the creative industries are something you want to be in, then try to find a job as a runner, or an internship.
There is an internship programme here at BAFTA which I am very supportive of because starting out I got my foot in the door through a work placement. Most people are genuinely supportive of the next generation of talent and if you write to them and say, “I need your guidance”, I hope people would help. So use every contact you’ve got, read and research as much as you can.
If you are going into an interview, expect that they are going to ask you, “What’s your favourite TV show?”, “What’s your favourite film, and why?” Show them you have a passion for the industry. Use every possible way in you can find, and that can be as simple as writing loads of letters to people and hoping they reply!