HBO Films names alumnus new president

By Thomas Pardee

With titles like Analyze This, Blood Diamond and Recount under his producer belt, it was only a matter of time before Columbia alumnus Len Amato got a promotion.

Last month, the 1975 graduate of Columbia’s Film Department was named president of HBO Films, a newly sanctioned division of the premium cable TV network HBO.

Amato, who served as a vice president for the network since 2005 after a colorful career as a full-time producer, said he’s excited and humbled to pick up where his predecessor left off and has enjoyed the new career challenge so far.

“It’s like getting thrown in the deep end of the pool. With your clothes on. And your boots,” said Amato, 53, a Chicago native. “It’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s gratifying. The only reason it’s possible for me to do it is because I’m inheriting a well-oiled machine. It’s more like a gift to me.”

Josh Culley-Foster, director of Alumni Relations, said Amato’s rise to the top of one of Hollywood’s most respected TV production companies is a significant achievement.

“HBO has produced some of the top films, documentaries and features on TV today, and to have our alumnus be a part of that process is exceptionally exciting,” Culley-Foster said. “HBO is a big part of something that shapes America’s culture, and that of international viewers, as well.”

Amato’s career trajectory wasn’t meteoric and included several detours. He came to Columbia after two years taking general education classes at Triton College in River Grove, Ill.

Chap Freeman, a professor in the Film and Video Department who taught Amato’s Film Techniques (now Film Production) class, said Amato was an active and level-headed student who wasn’t afraid to take risks.

“It’s hard to predict a formula for success in the film industry, but students need to have enough curiosity to try different things,” Freeman said. “Len had that.”

After graduating, Amato worked on several commercial and documentary productions in and around Chicago. He moved to New York City in 1979 where he set his sights on an acting and music career, putting filmmaking on the back burner.

He was part of two bands, The Good Boys and Sway, over the next six years, while working as a waiter to support his music.

“We’d be in studios recording, going around to clubs, bulls—ing our way into VIP rooms and drinking whiskey with Keith Richards,” Amato said. “We never made any money.”

Amato soon took a job as a reader for Warner Brothers Pictures, where he read scripts and wrote reports on those that could make a marketable story. His big break came after landing another reader job at Robert De Niro’s newly founded Tribeca Film Center in 1989.

He said working at Tribeca was one of the “greatest things that ever happened to me.”

“[De Niro] was my hero-I was lucky,” Amato said. “I remember reading the script for [Quentin Tarantino’s cult hit] Reservoir Dogs and looking at Mr. Pink and Mr. Blue, and thinking, ‘What is this?’ It was good, but I had never read anything like that.”

After three years as Tribeca’s story editor, Amato moved on to Spring Creek Productions where he remained for eight years as a producer. He moved to Los Angeles in 1997 and has lived there since.

Amato has worked as a producer and executive producer on many projects, both credited and un-credited, that have contributed to his success. Freeman said this shift in Amato’s career path wasn’t foreseeable when he was a 21-year-old film student. He said even his non-film-related experiences are likely benefiting him today.

“Len discovered producing somewhere along the line after learning basic film techniques,” Freeman said. “Now that he works with actors and musicians, it can’t hurt that he’s tried both of those out himself. Those explorations must be useful to him now.”

Amato attended Columbia’s commencement ceremony last May. He said he was amazed to see how the campus had changed, but how the “scrappy” spirit of the college he knew remains intact.

He said it’s this spirit that makes Columbia students successful.

“Columbia was always a school where you got out of it what you put into it,” Amato said. “It wasn’t going to spoon feed you as other schools might. But if you had the fire in your belly and were curious, it would provide great resources to learn what you wanted. My sense is that it’s still that school.”