Len Amato spent most of his childhood in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. After graduating from Triton College in River Grove and then Columbia College, he knocked around the city working freelance film-production gigs. He never made it as a musician, composer, actor, director, fiction writer, or screenwriter, and he never went to business school. So how did he end up as president of mighty HBO Films, whose roster of socially conscious, award-winning titles includes movies like Game Change (2012) and The Normal Heart (2014) as well as the recent and controversial Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill true-life drama Confirmation?
Amato, who’ll be here for the city’s Lake FX Summit and Expo events this weekend, talked by phone from his Santa Monica office last week about an upward trajectory that surprised even him.
How did you land at Columbia College?
I was always interested in a lot of things, didn’t really know which to concentrate on. I had this epiphany watching the movie Scarecrow—Jerry Schatzberg directed, kind of indie-ish. I remember thinking, “Oh, look at that. There’s photography, music, acting, writing—film has all these things. Maybe I should do that.” That’s what led me to Columbia. It wasn’t even accredited yet. I didn’t know that, because I didn’t know what accreditation was or if it was important. I just knew it was cool, and they were giving me a work scholarship. It was kind of an outlaw, renegade film school. I wanted to be a writer and director. I graduated in ’75.
When you left Chicago in 1979, you went to New York. If you wanted to be a film director, why you didn’t go to Hollywood?
My girlfriend, Diana Conforti—who is now my wife—was a modern dancer. We were lucky enough to get CETA [federal job-training] grants to spend a summer in New York, and we fell in love with it. She studied with Merce Cunningham and did a lot of modern dance downtown; I was writing fiction.
Then a friend wanted to do a movie about a garage band. I put a band together to do the prerecords on the music. The money for the film fell through, but I kept remnants of the band together, and veered away from film and played music for the next eight years. But I didn’t make any money.
The first band was called Good Boys—kind of punky, new wave, all original songs. We played at CBGBs and Danceteria and different places downtown, trying to get a record deal, ’cause that’s what you did back then. The second band was Sway—that was still original songs that were punk based, but it also had dance and a bit of a techno side to it.
Was there a turning point that brought you back to filmmaking?
I found out about this thing I didn’t know anything about, which was that they actually paid people to read books and see plays. I started reading for Gladys Nederlander, of the famous theater family, and eventually I became a freelance reader for a lot of the studios. So my entree into the real movie business was reading books and writing coverage.
Then I got a job with an independent producer, just inputting a script into a computer. His company was called Force 10 Productions. I became the company’s story editor, and learned about buying books for film, which was a very active situation in the 80s and early 90s.
While I was at Force 10, I heard that Robert De Niro was going to start a company. I thought, “I’m not worthy to work for Robert De Niro, I could never work for Robert De Niro.” But six months went by and they still hadn’t hired somebody, so I figured, well, maybe I just need to at least try.
I had a couple of things on a resumé, but not much, because I never really had a straight job. I wrote a short letter, with my resumé with four things on it, and I FedExed it to him. He called the next day, and we met at this little restaurant in Tribeca. It was like a miracle.
I didn’t get that job. Producer Jane Rosenthal—who’s still with him—got that job, and Jane and Bob started Tribeca Productions together. But eventually I became Tribeca’s reader, and then I became story editor for Tribeca.
While I was part of Tribeca, I got ahold of Kenny Lonergan’s first script. It was a spec script—Analyze This. Lonergan wasn’t a famous playwright yet. But before I set it up, I wound up moving from Tribeca to Spring Creek Productions, and I brought the script with me. Warner Bros. eventually optioned Analyze This, and I ended up making the movie with both Spring Creek and Tribeca, because De Niro ended up being in Analyze This. It went full circle.
At what point did you become a producer?
I didn’t have any aspiration to be a producer. It just evolved. I sort of organically learned what a creative producer is—someone who finds stories, puts elements together, develops the script, sets the project up with a studio or a financier, tries to help and ensure the vision of the filmmaker.
When I was at Spring Creek, I produced my first movie, which was an HBO movie called First Time Felon. It was a story about a kid from my neighborhood, where I grew up, on the west side.
“I had become this thing that I didn’t know what it was—a producer.”
—HBO Films president Len Amato
So you weren’t writing, you weren’t directing?
No. I had become this thing that I didn’t know what it was—a producer.
I was at Spring Creek about 16 years. Then HBO asked if I would be interested in working there. I became a studio executive for the first time.
How much of of the job is creative and how much of it is the business end?
That’s completely a part of the job. There’s show, and there’s business. You need a realistic grasp of the resources you’ve got, how those resources can be distributed, and how efficient you can be.
It sounds like you didn’t have any formal training for that either.
That wasn’t my area that I was interested in. But you learn all those things if you have the opportunity to actually make the films. It’s one thing to find the story and develop it and put the talent together, but it’s another thing to deal with unions and budgets and everything else. It’s like a traveling army when you make a film of a certain size. So yeah, I learned on the way up.
What’s the hardest part of this job?
Not being able to do projects that, if you had more resources or more opportunities, you would try to do. But you can’t do everything. Having to pass on those things, and tell people who are very passionate and care very much about the work that they’re doing, that’s a hard thing to do.
What about the future of this business?
It’s a business that’s still in transition—the ascension of cable and premium television, the means of digital distribution, a changing competitive landscape. But I’m very excited by the types of stories that are now viewed on television—that was a transition I got to see up close, a very positive transition for television.
The one thing that remains the same is that it’s still about storytelling. At the end of the day you can have all the production value in the world, but if the story isn’t good—if the characters aren’t empathetic, if the story isn’t complex, or sophisticated, or funny and joyful, or tragic in a transcendent way—you can’t hide that.
You appeared in the HBO series Project Greenlight—have you seen the Funny or Die parody where a pair of actors portray you on the Greenlight set, giving notes to yourself?
It’s funny. I thought that, you know, they could have had a more handsome actor. v
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Len Amato appears in conversation with producer Bob Teitel and Columbia professor Bruce Sheridan at noon Friday, May 13, at the Chicago Cultural Center, as part of the city’s Lake FX Summit and Expo. The event is free and open to the public, though advance registration is recommended.