From dazzling serves on the tennis court to producing multimillion dollar movies in Hollywood, Ashok Amritraj has done it all….
When Ashok Amritraj was growing up in Chennai, he saw the Hollywood film ‘Ben Hur’ and was mesmerized. Watching Charlton Heston in that huge epic, he was hooked on to cinema forever. So it was particularly sweet, when decades later, as a big Hollywood producer, he was awarded a plaque at the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences by none other than Charlton Heston himself.
He says, “With that, I closed a lot of circles in my life.”
Known for his prowess on the tennis court, Ashok is the youngest brother of Vijay and Anand who both played at Wimbledon, and the three brothers have played internationally. Ashok came to the US in 1975 to play for the Los Angeles tennis team which won the World Championship in 1978.
From there he has moved effortlessly into a second career in the challenging and highly competitive playing field of Hollywood cinema, making the cash registers ring at the box office. In an equivalent of dexterity and fancy footwork, he has built his cinematic success on passion, business acumen and a talent for networking.
Amritraj, in the span of 25 years, has produced or executive produced 98 films with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion; He has worked with the who’s who of the film world including Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Dustin Hoffman, Antonio Banderas, Kate Hudson and Kurt Russell.
An independent filmmaker, he has grown Hyde Park Entertainment into a global company which encompasses many of the features of a traditional full-fledged studio, producing action, animation and cross-cultural cinema and also develops, produces and finances projects as well as handling international sales and marketing. An adroit entrepreneur, Amritraj has developed great connections with the huge Hollywood studios, and has a first look deal with 20th Century Fox, and a second look deal with The Walt Disney Studios.
Hyde Park Entertainment released ‘Moonlight Mile’ starring Academy Award winners Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter through Disney Studios, and ‘Original Sin’ starring Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas, through MGM. The latter also released the Golden Globe nominated ‘Bandits’ which starred Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett.
Other success stories have been ‘Dreamer’ starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning through DreamWorks SKG, which opened in the number 2 spot at the U.S. box office; ‘Shopgirl’ starring Steve Martin and Claire Danes through The Walt Disney Company, and ‘Death Sentence’ which was released by 20th Century Fox and starred Kevin Bacon and Kelly Preston. There was also ‘Raising Helen’ with Kate Hudson, and ‘Walking Tall’ with The Rock. There have also been box-office hits like ‘Bringing Down The House’ starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, and ‘Premonition’ starring Sandra Bullock. It’s been a varied group of films from action to family pictures to comedies.
Yet the big pictures and the associations with big studios did not come on a silver plate – Amritraj started at the bottom in the 1980’s with small private investors and profited from the boom in the video market. He made small movies on $5 to $7 million budget and was able to sell them to the video market, cable channels like HBO and Showtime as well as international markets.
In 1990, after the box-office success of his film ‘Double Impact’ which made $100 million, his reputation led him to joint ventures with major studios. Hyde Park Productions has made films like ‘Bringing down the House’ and most recently ‘Premonition’, using studio financing and bank loans. With his business sense, he’s been able to raise funds for his projects, and collaborated with studios to provide the marketing dollars.
As he points out, “If you do the numbers and a film does $50 million at the US box office and another $50 million at the foreign box office, and then there’s video and DVD for the life of the film – that makes it a profitable film.”
Amritraj has seen the Hollywood landscape change over the last 25 years, with the advent of video, then DVD, which kept both studios and quasi studios like his in business with the lucrative sales. “Now we are looking toward new media and all of the things that could happen over the next five to ten years,” he says. “There have been a lot of changes technologically. The audiences have changed, budget ranges have changed, and the cost of marketing has skyrocketed.”
Today, it’s become fashionable to be ‘global’ and shoot around the world, but Amritraj had a global world view long before it became a trend. He shot ‘Double Impact’ with a multinational cast back in the 1990’s and pioneered a lot of overseas shooting. His current film ‘Street Fighter’ which is based on a video game, has a huge cast of many races. The film was released by Fox and shown on 2500 screens, selling well internationally. Now many of his films get pre-sold internationally. He says, “If you bring in wonderful actors from different countries, and structure the script and characters properly, they can appeal globally.”
In this global atmosphere, Amritraj is involved many ways with his homeland. “My thing has always been about bridging the gap between Asia and the West – it’s what I’ve been doing for a long time,” he says. He hosted a TV show, Gateway, for Sony in which thousands of young directors submitted short films, and several top Indian film directors worked with Amritraj in selecting the winner over 12 episodes of the show. The winner saw his dream come true – a chance to make a film for Hyde Park Entertainment.
Hollywood and Indian corporations are also interconnecting: Reliance did a major Hollywood deal with Amritraj’s Hyde Park Entertainment, to make several films over a period of five years. The films include “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li,” which opens in February through 20th Century Fox, and ‘
The Other End of the Line,’ which has been released by MGM.
‘The Other End of the Line’ is a cross –cultural romantic comedy starring Jesse Metcalfe from ‘Desperate Housewives’ and Shriya Saran, who starred in ‘Shivaji’. He says, “It’s a nice platform for Shriya to be seen in the US. It’s blending east and west and providing a platform for Asian talent.”
Treating cinema as a business, Amritraj’s Hyde Park Entertainment has also launched an Asian production fund of $ 75 million drawn from institutions and banks, and is based in Singapore. This five year fund plans to fund a combination of Hollywood and cross-cultural films and provide a platform for Asian actors. The first film is planned to go into production in 2009. Over the years he’s built up a track record and a name, so that when he talks, Hollywood studios and investors are willing to listen.
Some of the Hollywood stars he once watched on the big screen have now become friends and many like Sidney Poitier, Steve Martin and Dustin Hoffman come over to his beautiful Spanish hacienda-like home in the heart of Beverly Hills, LA – to play tennis.
Asked if he’s still a good tennis player, he laughs: “Well, ‘good’ is a very relative word. It is still something I enjoy doing very much with friends on Saturday mornings.” Some of those who match racquets with him include Michael Lynton, Chairman of Sony, Mathew Perry of ‘Friends’, Pierce Brosnon, and Chris Mcgurk, the Vice Chairman of MGM.
Just like in tennis, life for Amritraj is also about balance – balancing family and work. He and his wife Chitra, a Chennai girl, have been married for 17 years and have two children – Priya, 14, and Milan, 10. Says Amritraj: “They’re into tennis and they give their expert opinions on my films!” He attributes a lot of his business success to the wonderful growing up years in Chennai: “In the 60’s and 70’s the family was so close – and that strong foundation has stood me in good stead.”
Amritraj, who loves collecting cars (his favorite is his Bentley), Old Masters and red wine, still has his passion for sports. Does he get a bigger high from tennis or film-making? He says, “It’s hard to compare – there’s a purity about sports, especially individual sports – that’s hard to beat. When you’re playing great and you’re playing in front of a crowd it’s a wonderful feeling; at the same time, making movies is something I’ve always longed to do. It’s been a dream of mine. I’ve done 98 films – I hope in 2009 to make two more – which would be nice and have a party!”
Hollywood is a tough city to succeed in and money alone cannot buy success. As Amritraj points out, “So many people come with money and leave with less. It’s got to be a combination of passion, of taste, of working incredibly hard.”
“I’ve had extraordinary crossroads in my career – when I quit playing tennis and decided to go into the motion picture industry it was a real defining moment. ‘Double Impact’ was my first big success – a real defining moment – it was my first film to make $100 million.”
There have been ups and downs in volatile Hollywood but many of Amritraj’s films have raked in big bucks at the box-office: “Bringing Down the House’ was his most successful movie – No.1 at the American box office for three weeks in a row. About a dozen of his films have opened in the top ten, and he’s received name and recognition. He’s probably the only Indian-American who has served on the Foreign Film Board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and has been a member of Los Angeles Board for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the International Council for the Emmy Awards.
“I used to love the movies, still do, and still take my family to the films all the time,” he says. “Much as it is my life it’s still wonderful to watch great films – you sit in a dark theater and watch a movie on a big screen, it’s just fabulous. I enjoy the experience and I would be very upset if you only got to see films on a computer or a mobile phone!”
Yes, things have indeed come full circle for the young boy from Chennai who loved watching movies. “I was eight years old and I remember watching ‘The Sound of Music’ 32 times,” he recalls.
Ashok Amritraj adds with a laugh: “I remember that when I served on the board of the Academy for Motion Pictures, Bob Wise who directed ‘The Sound of Music’ was sitting next to me.
I said to him: ‘You know, you’re the guy that got me into all this trouble!’”
Copyright: Lavina Melwani