Ashok Amritraj

An ace of movie moguls

Ashok Amritraj | An ace of movie moguls

It isn’t much of a surprise to see Ashok Amritraj, 56, in a tracksuit and flip-flops. Sports is in his genes. He is in the middle of one of his frequent whirlwind trips to Chennai and Mumbai. The former tennis player, the youngest of the three Amritraj brothers from Chennai, and now one of Hollywood’s leading movie producers—chief executive and chairman of Hyde Park Entertainment—is meeting “friends from the film world” and young film-makers with ideas.

We meet at Oakwood Premier, a serviced apartments building in Mumbai’s quintessentially filmi suburb, Juhu, in February. Instead of wine, which he is known to be a connoisseur of, it’s sugary masala chai for him. Being in India has something to do with that choice.

Amritraj is upbeat and unassuming—Ghost Rider : Spirit of Vengeance, the latest film from his banner released by Warner Bros in India, is three days away from release and another, a small film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, is competing at the Berlinale 2012 for a top prize. These two films, being watched at the same time by two different kinds of audiences, pretty much sum up Amritraj’s philosophy as a movies man.

Strategist: Amritraj says his company tries to produce four-five films every year with big and small budgets. Jayachandran/Mint
“One of the reasons for the longevity of my career is that I have made a variety of movies. Double Impact, Ghost Rider in 3D, comedies like Bringing Down the House, smaller, intimate ones like Shopgirl, Moonlight Mile, a sexy thriller like Original Sin with Angelina Jolie—I’ve dabbled in all kinds. It is conscious, so that I am not known as the action guy or the comedy guy,” says Amritraj.

His Hollywood dream is not complete—at present, he wishes to work with director Clint Eastwood and actor Meryl Streep.

Amritraj’s first big break as a producer was with Double Impact, in 1991, which was also the first major role of action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. It was an action-thriller template that many in Hollywood, including Amritraj himself, followed. They were brain-dead thrillers with limp direction and stony heroes, but for producers, they made a lot of money.

Amritraj’s career has progressed tangentially from that first hit, but it’s a career attuned to Hollywood’s changing dictates. Over the years, he has diversified into the technically advanced big- budget blockbusters (the Ghost Rider franchise with Nicolas Cage, for example) as well as the small-budget, film festival favourites which get limited release. “The changes have been at the production and distribution levels,” he says, “and of course, the movies have got much larger and more expensive. The middle-budget films that used to get made a lot in the 1980s and 1990s are rarely made now. The Forrest Gumps of the world, the $40-50 million (Rs.200-250 crore now) films, are dead. Films like The Descendants, the $12 million film, have taken their place. Then there are Pirates of the Caribbean, the superhero films, and Avatar, for which the budgets go to hundreds of millions of dollars.”

His distribution model is equally scripted: Send out around 6,000 prints all over the world at the same time and plan a, say, $40 million marketing blitzkrieg in the US alone, which gets transmitted to the world market through new media. Amritraj interacts with writers personally—the basic difference, he says, between Hollywood and Bollywood is in the starting point.
“It’s rare that you have a total business guy or a totally creative guy making decisions. While in India, producers or studios depend on six or seven stars, there we know that we can do without stars. I start with the writer. I can make a million-dollar movie without a famous actor.”

Hyde Park Entertainment, the label he set up in 1999, is an independent entertainment production company that collaborates with Hollywood studios. It has tie-ups with the Singapore government, Image Nation of Abu Dhabi and National Geographic to produce creative content in genres spanning film, comics, gaming and television. After more than 30 years in Hollywood’s inner circle and after more than 100 films, Amritraj believes it is “a world of fantasy”.

“I am fortunate to have strong women in my life. My mother, my wife, who is from Chennai like me, and my daughter, who keep me grounded.”
Amritraj played tennis professionally until he was in his early 20s, for about nine years. He played at Wimbledon as well as the US Open. In 1975, he moved to Los Angeles (LA) and, as he says, got completely lost in the magic of the movie world.

“I still played a lot of tennis but I wanted to say I have made some movies. I took that wish pretty seriously. I got to know a lot of people from Hollywood and played tennis with them. I would hang around at the editing room of (film-maker) Sidney Poitier and networked any way I could. No Indians were of any consequence then. Hollywood was a closed world, very white, and Hollywood folks can grind you to the ground.

“Today, it’s more economic than racial—about how much green you have. The US is not the complete superpower. In the next 10 years, it’s going to change more. But I find the inner circle of Hollywood does not change much. If you are an outsider, you rub shoulders, you take some pictures with stars and that’s it.”

After seven years of his struggle, what he describes as “anguish”, Amritraj set up his film company and Van Damme walked into his office. “We both made each other with Double Impact. It’s like the film Sliding Doors by Peter Howitt. It’s about a guy and two stories about him. In one, he catches a train and goes to office, in one he misses the train, returns home and finds his wife in bed with someone else. Things change on a dime.”

Things have changed with his tennis as well—now, Amritraj plays with Dustin Hoffman, Pierce Brosnan and Matthew Perry, among others, every Saturday morning on his own private tennis court. In 1999, he suffered a serious back injury and had to give up tennis for a while, but the ritual has restarted at his LA home.

“My children (a son and a daughter, both in their teens) play tennis. I inculcated the game in them because individual sports teaches you lessons on life that team sports can’t. It teaches you about crying, being responsible for yourself, and getting up on your own after crying. Tennis is a family thing.”

The other constant with the Amritrajs (his brothers are Vijay and Anand), he says, is Chennai, where they are from—where he discovered his love for films and tennis. Amritraj is looking for Indian writers and directors who can tell him stories about the new India.

“Stories are universal. If you can make any producer, including Hollywood producers, feel part of it, it’s a story they will want to make. If I am making a movie that takes India into account, I’d like to do more about India and about the India of today. I don’t make movies about American college life, for example, because I don’t get it.”