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Ashok Amritraj – One Hundred Not Out

After over 30 years in the business, and with 100 Hollywood films under his belt, producer Ashok Amritraj has seen it all; from the highs of RAISING HELEN to the lows of BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Here, he shares the secrets of his success.

2010 saw Ashok Amritraj (right), CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, celebrate three decades in the film industry. As the producer of over 100 films, including Antitrust, Raising Helen and Premonition, Amritraj has partnered with every major Hollywood studio, worked with stars as diverse as Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman, Kurt Russell and Angelina Jolie and produced films that have, in total, grossed over $1bn worldwide. In short, he is the most successful producer of Indian origin in Hollywood. Not bad for a man who started out as a professional tennis player. Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Amritraj has been on the end of critical and commercial drubbing for some of his films, including Battlefield Earth and Entropy. But he’s always bounced back, which is no mean feat in an industry that is notoriously unforgiving. As his peers gathered to celebrate his achievements, movieScope sat down with Amritraj to discuss his longevity in a business that seems in a constant state of flux.

Firstly, how did you make the leap from professional tennis to making movies?
I loved movies. India’s a big moviegoing country, but English movies were big in the south; The Sound of Music, Ben Hur, To Sir with Love, all these great movies. When I got to Hollywood in the Seventies to play tennis, I gravitated toward that automatically. My friendships were with Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and Sean Connery at the time, but tennis got me into it. It was also a time when there were no Indians in the business; it was a white man’s world. I played a lot of really bad tennis games trying to break into the film industry-I’d play at producers’, studio executives’ and stars’ homes!

I don’t think anyone can quite predict if a movie’s going to be a big hit or a flop.

And now, you’ve made over 100 films. Has each been a completely different experience?
Everything from how you get these films made to the casting and the anecdotes that go along with it are pretty… out there. Overall, though, the reality of what I’ve been able to do has far exceeded the dreams that I started out with. I said I’d make a couple of movies and now here I am. I think the balance of East and West and family gave me a firm foundation, and is responsible for a great part of it. In Hollywood, when you’re unsuccessful you tend to get a little lost, but family’s always there.

The economics of the industry are constantly changing. What have you made of it?
It’s not the kind of business where you’re making chocolate or shoes, where you put it in a machine and then it comes out. We’re constantly balancing several projects at any one time. When you play tennis you either win or you lose, it’s black-and-white, but the movie business is a grey area. It’s how you package this and what you do with that, your relationship with the studio, and it’s how and when the movie is released, etc. So many good movies don’t get a proper release, but they spend $50m on print and advertising on so many dogs.

I balance a dozen projects at any given time, and today, with offices around the world, whether it’s Asian projects or Hollywood projects, I balance those and see which ones go and which ones don’t. A lot of it is about casting and the director in how things come together. We are well funded at this point, so that’s slightly less of a problem but, on the other hand, I don’t want to make a movie that’s not going to make its money back.

Do you look at a project from a creative or commercial angle?
For me, it always starts on a creative level. If you read something and love it immediately, you decide you want to make it. Then I check with my international division and how it works for them. I check with the studios in terms of its domestic potential. Then I check with the agencies to see what kind of talent I can get. Once I’ve figured all that out, then it’s a question of ‘what level of talent’ based on ‘what level of budget’. If you’re going to have a big director or star, and you’re in a different range, than I want to make sure we have domestic distribution in place. Whereas if I’m making a movie for $10m, then I have more freedom with the kind of talent and material we choose.

If one of your productions flops, how do you deal with the failure?
I don’t think anyone can quite predict if a movie’s going to be a big hit or a flop. I remember when we made Bringing Down the House, we were up against a Bruce Willis film [Tears of the Sun]. Nobody thought, Disney included, that it would make $32m on its opening weekend and go on to make $135m theatrically. The early estimates were showing Tears of the Sun to come out on top all the way up to Wednesday night, Thursday morning, when they have all these tracking figures.

It shows how inaccurate pre-polls can be…
Absolutely, and then there’s no accounting nowadays, more so than before, how far forward it spreads. If it’s Slumdog Millionaire, 500 Days of Summer or Last King of Scotland, word of mouth spreads and those films get seen. The studio system has gone much more in the other direction of tent-pole films like Clash of the Titans and Avatar. I think we’ll see more of that in the future. They’re really gravitating towards just the $200m to $300m movies for summer and Christmas. It does, however, provide an opportunity for independent filmmakers-the slots will start to open up more, while at the same time there’s less money available and there are less movies made. It’s probably a good thing. Supply and demand are starting to balance. The last five years there’s been too much supply.

Do you think the independents are being squeezed out in the current market?
The festival movies have had a very difficult time. There’s only really two companies left, Fox Searchlight and Focus, and who knows what’s happening to them? You’re competing with the Internet, video games, sport. You really have to make good movies today. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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