Having gone from growing up in rural Yorkshire as a sickly child and having to frequently skip school and stay in bed to now being the CEO of Bafta, Amanda Berry’s life story reads a bit like a screenplay. When the Oxford Media Society revealed that she would be their final speaker of term, I was keen to get an opportunity to speak with Berry about her career working for Britain’s most prestigious media charity and awards show.
Accredited for bringing the film awards forward from March to pre-Oscars and extending the charitable arm of the organization, Berry has completely transformed the fortunes and reputation of the academy since the start of her tenure. “It was an organization that was surrounded by incredibly loyal people, but didn’t work with very many commercial partners and was financially in a very difficult place”, Berry tells me.
“By the way, I know I talk a lot so do please tell me to stop”, she warns early on. Her love and enthusiasm for the organization is tangible, even on the phone. “I came in to Bafta with a lot of energy, respecting what had gone before but daring to dream and work with commercial partners to take Bafta to the next stage.”
Since joining Bafta as Head of Development and Events in 1998, Berry has turned it into the internationally recognised and prestigious institution and awards ceremony it is today. “In the early days, I used to get quite cross that people didn’t know about everything Bafta did. But now we do so much that as long as we’re engaging with people in some way, I’m happy.”
Berry, who studied Business Studies and Graphic Design as a student, tells me how Bafta wasn’t exactly always on the cards, “My dad was a dry cleaner and the most important thing for him was that I didn’t go into the family business. It’s only when you look back at your career that you realise how everything is connected.” Berry’s entry into Bafta came after she started working very closely with them whilst producing their awards ceremonies for Scottish television, “I just started to have lots of dreams and aspirations for the organization and what it could be.” She tells me how she thought she’d only really stay at Bafta for three or four years, and then move on once her dreams had been fulfilled. “But here I am sixteen years later and dreams are still coming true. It’s a very addictive place to work.”
Berry, who’s been awarded an OBE for her services to the industry and made it into the Evening Standard’s 1,000 Most Influential People in London, tells me how she feels that being a woman has always worked in her favour and allowed her to do a great deal in the media industry, “It’s the fact that I can go with my gut instinct and I’m not judged for that.” She describes herself as “quite an unusual CEO” and would describe her position as more like Bafta’s creative director. “I’m continually allowed to come up with new ideas — even if some are a bit daft. It’s really the perfect job for me.”
I ask Berry whether she thinks there needs to be a push for more women in cinema, and what part Bafta has to play in this. “It’s only been a couple of years since Kathryn Bigelow won her first Bafta and Oscar for The Hurt Locker, and the first woman to do so, so when you look at that you realise that we’ve still got a very long way to go.” She continues, “But there are more and more women coming through; writers, composers, directors — and I see Bafta’s role as being to support them as much as we possibly can and to recognise those talents. I hope in years to come we’ll be able to look back and see that the activity we’ve done has made an impact.”
With the digital revolution eclipsing celluloid, more films being streamed on the Cloud and watched on iPads, and big corporate multiplexes like Cineworld buying out independent arthouse cinemas, I ask Berry whether she thinks we should be mourning the rapidly changing landscape of cinema. “My position is that I would always rather people saw films on the big screen, but at the
end of the day, I just want people to watch films, and there are so many opportunities to view now, whether that’s on your iPad, through Netflix, or the DVD market. So I think that if you turn it all on its head, you can say that there are actually so many more opportunities for people to watch films now, and that has to be a good thing.”
But Berry remains positive about the idea of going to the cinema as a very British pastime, “Yes cinema exhibitors and film distributors are having to work harder and be more creative to ensure that people are still coming through the doors, but we do still go to the cinema a lot in this country, and I hope that never disappears.”
Asking Berry for what advice she’d give to young people looking to follow in her footsteps she explains how these days everybody “just wants to be in telly”, without really knowing what that means. “If you’re able to focus on your skill and then move it into your passion, I think that stands you in very good stead” she tells me. “Also don’t feel that the industry is closed to you if you don’t do a media degree, because it thrives from having people from all sorts of different backgrounds”, Berry’s origins perhaps being the best case in point.