OCTOBER 16, 2001

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Advantage Amritraj

Nobody ever said producing a $60 million Hollywood film was going to be easy. A picture could flop for a multitude of reasons — bad reviews, bad timing, or maybe even bad karma — and all on a grand and public scale.

But when you get a hit, the thrill of global success is heady indeed! Ashok Amritraj, Hollywood’s highest-ranking Indian film producer and a former international tennis champion, has survived the extremes of this business over the past 20 years, and has no intention of giving up.

In fact, he says, the year 2001 is his biggest one yet. “This is an exciting year for me.”

Tall and athletic, with a jock’s big, disarming grin and a deep baritone, Ashok Amritraj nevertheless gives off a cerebral, watchful vibe.

One comes away with the impression that he’s expert at pacing himself and that all his energy and ideas will be revealed when he’s ready, and not a moment before.

He’s serving as producer, or co-executive producer, on no fewer than four major releases this year.

Original Sin, a sexy thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas, What’s the Worst That Could Happen, a comedy starring Martin Lawrence and Danny Devito, the high-tech thriller Antitrust and Bandits, a buddy comedy starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett.

Amritraj is the chairman and co-CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, a production company that also has a deal with the European media giant Epsilon. So what exactly does a producer do?

“A producer has various roles,” he explains. “I generate material, whether by finding a screenplay or novel or by pitching something we develop. Either we’ll take it to MGM or Disney.

But MGM gets first look. Once we have a script we like, my partner (David Hoberman) and I decide whether we’ll give it the green signal.

I work on a project from the development stage all the way to production and post-production.”

Unlike most producers, Amritraj explains, he is also involved in marketing. “I’ve always done it that way.” As the producer or executive producer of more than 60 films, Amritraj has a unique perspective on the inside of the American movie business, and more than one fledgling Indian filmmaker has come to him for advice.

“I make it a point to be helpful,” he says. “I try to be a bridge, since right now there are very few Indians in positions of influence in Hollywood.”
Before films, there was tennis.

During a nine-year career, Amritraj played in every major tournament, including Wimbledon and the US Open, and in 1978 he was a member of the team that won the World Team Tennis Championship.

Has playing tennis taught him any real-world lessons? “The discipline and work ethic that comes out of any sport was very instrumental to my success,” he says. “There are many ups and downs, but you hang in there. One big difference between tennis and films is that in sports, it’s your game.

Whether you win or lose depends only on you. Here, it’s the release date, how well you market the film, how good the film is, so many factors.”
Born in Chennai, Amritraj attended the Don Bosco school and Loyola College there, and started to travel when his tennis career took off. In 1977, he moved to the United States to play for the US tennis team and continued to play until 1981. Some of his fans included actors and studio executives, and finally it was friends like actor Sidney Poitier and studio executive Sherry Lansing who urged him into film production full time.
“I tried to do both tennis and films but it’s not possible!” he says. Amritraj lives in the hills near Los Angeles, with his wife Chitra and children Priya, seven, and Milan, three. Although moviemaking is a
24-hour-a-day job, he still finds time for tennis on his home court on the weekends. “I actually do a lot of business on the tennis court,” he says. “My friends have to like either tennis or Indian food!”
He’s a member of the foreign film board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and votes for the Oscars every year. Working in India and Hollywood, he’s gotten some insight on their different approaches. “When I made my movie there, I found it in a state of disorganised organisation,” recalls Amritraj. “It’s not yet corporatised,” he laments. “You have mom ‘n’ pop businesses. India has a lot going for it, but the internal mechanism needs to be more businesslike.” But as soon as one Indian movie breaks that magical barrier — a $30 to $40 million gross in the worldwide market — then “that will make everyone see Indian films in a new light. There’s a tremendous amount of talent, before and behind the camera. It’s in a growth stage. It’s all getting better.”
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