Women's Impact Report: One Giant Leap

Two young execs on the rise are taking on major new jobs during challenging economic times. In September, longtime Columbia Pictures production exec Amy Baer was appointed by Les Moonves as CEO and prexy of CBS Films. Baer spearheaded such films as “Adaptation,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” And in April, UTA’s star TV agent Sue Naegle replaced HBO Entertainment president Carolyn Strauss, to whom she had sold not only “Six Feet Under” but the upcoming vampire series “True Blood.”

Naegle has no plans to rock the boat at HBO, which has “a lovely legacy of high-quality shows,” she says. “To come in and reinvent it would be a mistake. It’s like sitting at a family dinner and everyone knows one another real well.” While the programming philosophy remains the same, she says, “I’ll bring in a new energy, find new voices and open up the doors a bit.”

Baer, on the other hand, is building a brand-new organization. Three or four projects are close to getting start dates for 2009 releases. “It’s giddy and fun and liberating,” Baer says. “There is a freedom in starting from scratch because you don’t inherit bad habits. You can be mindful in how you design it, as opposed to reacting to what is already there and trying to tweak it.”

The slowdown caused by the dual impact of the Writers Guild and de facto Screen Actors Guild strikes delivered unexpected advantages. “The timing actually worked for us because it took the pressure off,” says Baer. “The first day I got on the job I said to Les, ‘I would much rather take 2½ years and know that we believe wholeheartedly in our first slate of movies and have all the pieces in place.’ The writers strike allowed us to slowly build the division without rushed production.”

The WGA strike also yielded a silver lining for Naegle. “It shook things up enough in the TV world that great writers were no longer handcuffed in exclusive studio overall deals,” she says. “… People are saying, ‘I have this one show I have always wanted to do.’ Even more so now, we’re hearing ideas about passion projects from all sorts of people: novelists, movie people, television writers.”

The strike brought more writers to Baer as well. “A lot of talent that we normally couldn’t get because they were too busy while I was at Sony became available to us,” she says. “… People started bringing forth new ideas.”

This includes projects aimed at women. “Should we talk about the mock surprise that every male executive had at the surprise success of ‘Sex and the City?’” Baer asks rhetorically. “I believe if you make a good movie, whether it speaks to one quadrant or four quadrants, they go. ‘Iron Man’ wouldn’t have the success it had if women didn’t go.”

“It’s all about how to bring something to life,” Naegle adds. “When someone talks about targeting certain demographics, I just think, ‘Mistake, mistake, and mistake.’ … I don’t need to be watching a show that has a woman exactly my age to love it. I can watch ‘The Bucket List,’ ‘Gossip Girl’ or ‘John Adams.’”

The sweet spot for commercial movies is narrower, Baer admits. “I am not risk-adverse,” she says. “But I want to brand the division commercially by making movies for a broad audience that are not specialty. … I would like to establish the division as having commercial viability. Then I will have earned the currency to take some risks.”

Baer argues that “Crowley,” starring Harrison Ford, and a Karen Lutz romantic comedy called “Permission” aren’t cookie-cutter, either. “The best way to define what we are doing is broader audience films along many genres that are emotionally and conceptually driven.”

Naegle says she wants to do anything but play it safe. “People pay for our programming, so it has to be bold and out there, and you have to take some risks,” she asserts. “I look for a strong point of view. ‘The Washingtonienne’ is about women in their 20s. You read it and you say, ‘These women nailed it,’ and it comes to life in your head. David Simon’s new show ‘Treme’ is a very honest, realistic look at post-Katrina New Orleans. … It is also not a show that as an agent I would have been able to sell to ABC or CBS.”

SUE NAEGLE

Role model: “I have a Katharine Hepburn fixation. I loved her films; she was so strong; she was her own woman; she lit her own fire, lifted her own weight and swam every day.”

Three things in life I can’t live without: “My family, my cell phone and a blow dryer.”

What I’m reading: “‘The Ten-Year Nap,’ about women who gave up careers to become mothers and are trying to get back in the workplace.”

Fave leisure activity: “Jumping on a trampoline with my girls.”

AMY BAER

Role model: “My mom. She was a pro dancer at age 16; she was a Rockette. She was 34 when I was born, and she had such a seminal impact on my desire to pursue a professional passion.”

What I’m reading: “David Benioff’s ‘City of Ease’ and a nonfiction book, ‘Deer Hunting With Jesus,’ an examination of the working poor in the U.S.”

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