WEST HOLLYWOOD, LOS ANGELES: Amy Baer will shake your hand with the sort of gusto and might you’d imagine Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg would if you were ever so lucky to meet the Supreme Court Justice in person; firm, genuine. In the film world, Baer is as successful as the appellate judge with a career in the entertainment industry spanning major studios, independent financiers and producing.
Beginning her career as an assistant at the Creative Artists Industry in 1988, Baer then spent 17 years working at Sony Pictures Entertainment where she oversaw films such as 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, 2001’s Adaptation, 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give and 2006’s The Pursuit Of Happyness. In 2007, she became the CEO of CBS Films before beginning her own production company four years later.
Baer became Board President of Women In Film in 2018 at a time when Hollywood was doing a little house-cleaning as the call for parity and an end to the mistreatment of women was branded urgent. Sitting down with the movie mogul at The Sunset Towers hotel, Baer talked of WIF’s incredible partner in Italian atelier Max Mara, Australia’s Elizabeth Debicki and Margot Robbie and the many turning points in her own career
(Editor’s note: Leder aptly picked up the Women In Film Members Choice Award at the event that night.)
GRAZIA: You stepped into this role as President of Women in Film at a critical juncture in Hollywood. What was the first thing you did?
BAER: “That’s a good question. I was asked to do a speech at the Variety Path To Parity Summit. I think we can see from what’s happened in the last 18 months with the #TimesUp and the #MeToo movements and women coming out and telling their stories, is the sort of power we possess collectively. I think that women really need to lock arms and help each other – and I think that men historically have been very good at doing that and women not so much, for a variety of reasons. But the first thing I did is essentially call for community, call for helping each other, lock arms, talk to each other and I think it’s critical.”
GRAZIA: In this post-Weinstein world– and at a time when the spotlight is intensely on parity in the film space – do you feel any added pressure when it comes to putting on an event like the Women In Film Awards?
BAER: “Oh, absolutely, yes. I mean it’s opportunity more than it feels like pressure. One of the things that we are really keen on is letting everyone know who we are and what we stand for. The themes of community, advocacy and entrepreneurship are so critical to our mission and we really want the event to stand for that. So that was the pressure that I felt – it was less of an industry wide thing and more of ‘I want to do right by our women and the community of women at large.’ I feel sort of a self-inflicted pressure to make sure the event stands for them.”
GRAZIA: Why is Elizabeth Debicki an excellent choice for the Women In Film Max Mara Face Of The Future Award?
BAER: “That’s an easy one, she’s an extraordinary talent. We select with our partners Max Mara and they seem to have a tremendous eye for talent which is quite impressive, they have an amazing track record. Elizabeth is a woman who has really taken agency of her own career; she is young, she has made extraordinary films so far, she has worked with extraordinary filmmakers. Some actors take years or decades to work with some of the of filmmakers she’s worked with but already she’s worked with Baz Luhrmann, she’s worked with Steve McQueen, she’s working with Christopher Nolan. Elizabeth really advocates for herself in terms of the decisions that she makes, you know, a young, gorgeous actress like herself often times will find herself being told. ‘Go do this movie first, and then go do this movie and then you can go do an art movie’. Obviously she has the presence of a star and could easily go and star in that Marvel movie or that DC comedy or whatever it may be. But she’s really made decisions based on her internal artistic, creative and commercial instincts.
So the agency that she has taken on behalf of her own career not only has served her well but it’s a representation of everything we stand for as an organisation and what Max Mara stands for, so it’s a really beautiful, seamless fit in that regard. And oh my gosh, she was a ballerina. She way she carries herself! She’s so beautiful.”
GRAZIA: The Women In Film Max Mara Face Of The Future Award is awarded to an actress who is experiencing a turning point in her career. What would you say was your turning point in your own?
BAER: “That’s such a good question. The first one was when I decided to stay at Sony as opposed to going to Universal with all my compatriots who had gone over there. That was a very difficult decision because they were like family to me, but it was the first moment in my career where I took agency for myself and what I really wanted to do is stay with my projects, because they were my professional currency and that included [movies like] My Best Friend’s Wedding and Stepmom and things that would really create a resume for myself and they were also the things that I was really, professionally invested in. It was really hard advocating for myself, which is something that I think men do really well.
The second turning point would have been when I left Sony to go work at CBS, a start-up company. I was a working mum and I had had other opportunities that I had turned down because I didn’t want to start something new while my kids were really young. I got to a place where I thought, ‘You know what? I want to do this for me” and I made that decision to go and run a business and start a company from scratch. The third turning point was seven years ago when I started my own company. I guess in every turn there is a step towards agency and sort of speaking up for yourself and on behalf and advocating for yourself that I hadn’t really thought about until I said it just now.”
GRAZIA: Well it seems a fitting time to reflect. Here’s another one: What do you think the young assistant at Creative Artists Agency in 1988 would think of your success? Could she have ever dreamed up she’d be where you are today?
BAER: “No. Because that assistant in 1988 was terrified that she would be stuck as a secretary for the rest of her life because at that time, that was the primary job for most women in the industry. Even if you were college educated or whatever, the minute you became an assistant, that was their career. And my biggest anxiety was, ‘How do I move out? how do I get off the desk?’ And I was blessed, extraordinarily so, because that’s how I got to know [Film Industry Executive and Former CEO of 20th Century Fox] Stacey Snider. She would call, talk to my boss, they were good friends. I would talk to her all the time and when an opportunity presented itself at the company she worked at, she called me. So it really goes to the heart of what we’re talking about which is women helping women. But you know I didn’t know that I’d ever get off a desk in 1988. I thought, ‘Oh my god I’ll be stuck here forever.’”
GRAZIA: Women In Film was founded in 1973 amid the women’s movement. Do you see parallels between what women were fighting for then and what we’re fighting for in the present day?
BAER: “It’s exactly the same! We have moved forward in a lot of ways, but yes there are parallels, and I think it goes back to the same issues. They were more formulated because they weren’t caring about work, and they were trying to tell each other what was going on so they could find work. So again, it goes to the core value of community; you must be able to build community around each other because there’s power in that. So we’re still fighting for that. I think obviously we have made tremendous strides in terms of the breadth of opportunity: You now see women run studios and be the CEO’s, you’ve now seen women win Academy Awards as best director, you’ve now seen women as successful agents that are partners, you know, there are inroads everywhere. But you have to keep fighting for the same things until it’s 50/50, because we are 51 per cent of the population. But there’s still work to be done as long as the hiring, practicing and the content we create don’t reflect the reality of the culture, the reality of the population. So we may have more spokespersons, we may have more tools at our disposal, we may have more than we had in ’73 but we’re still fighting for the same things.”
GRAZIA: These Awards champion pay parity. In recent times, my favourite examples of women standing up to studios include Jessica Chastain brokering a “favoured nations” deal and bundling her salary with Octavia Spencer to make sure they were earning the same in The Help. And Michelle Williams re-shooting Spacey-less scenes in All The Money In The World for free despite Mark Wahlberg demanding millions. Do you have a stand-out example?
BAER: “I think the Michelle Williams one was extraordinary because she had complete leverage there, and she could have shut down the whole movie and could have tanked the movie and they would have either had to re-shoot her or had to scrap it. The fact that she took that moment – rather than just complain which other actresses would have said, ‘Hey well that’s no fair, I was paid this and they were paid that’ – she said, ‘Look, if you want me and you’re paying him for the re-shoot, you’re going to pay me the same amount of money’ and she was absolutely right. She had the moral high ground there, because you could argue the economics of any movie or any actor were all probably paid too much at a certain point. But the fact that she leveraged a situation where there could have been tremendous pressure put on her, there was tremendous power in that, and I thought the way she did it with such dignity and broke through to a new conversation about pay parity as opposed to just like an actress complaining. It really was a business decision.”
GRAZIA: Margot Robbie has had to answer to questions about her limited dialogue as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. She felt she could adequately portray her character without speaking. Do you think the Bedchel Test is still relevant as a measure of the representation of women in fiction? Or is it outdated?
BAER: “I don’t think it’s outdated. It’s not based on science, it’s a very fascinating thing actually. Alison Bechdel is an American cartoonist who drew a comic about it. Whether or not something is based on science, anything that calls out discrimination anecdotally or is scientifically supported is valid. I haven’t seen Once Upon A Time In Hollywood so it’s hard for me to comment specifically on what the realities of the movie are, but it absolutely is relevant because you’re talking about an imbalance. And so if there is a metric against which you can measure imbalance then it’s a valid question. When it’s no longer valid is when 50 per cent of the roles are equal, and the amount of lines are equal, and the dialogue and the way those women are presented on screen. And right now, it’s valid.”