Hyde Park CEO Ashok Amritraj on the State of Indian Film, Collaboration With Hollywood (Q&A)
Ashok Amritraj is a rare Indian success story in Hollywood. With a career spanning three decades and multiple hits for his banner Hyde Park Entertainment, the 57-year-old exec's top titles include Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Bringing Down the House, Bandits, Machete and Premonition.
Born in Chennai, South India, Amritraj started out as an accomplished tennis player along with his brothers Vijay and Anand. The Amrtitraj brothers were among the first Indian tennis pros to go international, playing in major tournaments including Wimbledon and the US Open. But Amritraj was drawn to Hollywood, even if he had no background in films (other than "watching The Sound of Music 34 times"). As he chronicles in his just-released autobiography Advantage Hollywood, Amritraj's tennis skills opened the doors to an extent with some of tinseltown's heavy hitters but cracking the business was initially tough. As Charlton Heston once told him, “Ashok, if you do as well as a film producer as you have as a tennis player, you'll have nothing to worry about.”
After starting out in the eighties with a string of mostly straight-to-video titles, Amritraj acheived a breakout hit with 1991's Double Impact, which also launched the career of Belgian action star Jean Claude Van Damme.
With his latest production Life of Crime closing the Toronto festival, Amritraj chose to be in New Delhi to attend the Big Picture summit, organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, where he launched his book along with Van Damme. Amritraj sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to share how India and Hollywood can increase collaboration.
The Hollywood Reporter: Your autobiography Advantage Hollywood chronicles your journey from being a tennis pro to a Hollywood producer. What would you like people to take away from your journey?
Ashok Amritraj: The book deals with my tennis years and the transition and difficulties of breaking into Hollywood. But it also deals with how important family and religion have been in my life and how to strike a balance and aim for longevity in your career. The culture and traditions that I grew up with in Chennai, I still maintain that a lot and its about how all those things played a part in my success. I think it's a very interesting read, if I say so myself.
TORONTO FILM REVIEW: Life of Crime
THR: How different was Hollywood when you started out?
Amritraj: The big difference 30-35 years ago was that though the U.S. was the center of the world, there was a lack of knowledge there about what happened in other countries. There was certainly a lack of knowledge about India and Asia. Today, of course, the world has changed -- both economically and culturally. And in the movie business there has been massive box office growth worldwide. This means that Hollywood today pays more attention to the global marketplace and certainly pays more attention to India, China and Asia. So it's a more open environment now and there are more opportunities for the global film business overall. I am glad I was able to carve a path earlier on but I think in the next ten years, you will see even more interaction between the various film industries of the world and Hollywood.
THR: How has the Indian film business changed during this same period?
Amritraj: You have a new crop of younger filmmakers who are technically more competent and use a lot of gimmicks that we use in Hollywood. Across the board, cinema has become better and grown. Now the next step is to go international. For instance, I hear The Lunchbox (director Ritesh Batra's debut feature, which premiered at Cannes and is generating buzz as India's potential Oscar entry) is quite good, so there is this new independent cinema which is coming along and that is very nice.
THR: What do you make of the business to business interaction between India and Hollywood?
Amritraj: Well, as the economies grow in Asia and India, there will be growing interaction. For instance, China's Wanda group bought AMC Theatres in the U.S., and there is Indian investment in Hollywood (such as Reliance's equal partners investment with DreamWorks). But it seems Chinese investments in Hollywood have overtaken India dramatically. It will be good to have more Indian companies investing in Hollywood, if not in movies then in the service, studio and VFX space (such as Prime Focus). But the Indian entertainment industry is still lagging behind India's IT sector -- outsourcing and software industries that have really taken off. I think for the Indian entertainment business, it will take a group focus to move it to the next level. There should be a joint effort with something like a producers group and financiers group and maybe even actors coming together to take things forward.
THR: The Indian and Chinese industries are often compared and contrasted. How do you see it?
Amritraj: There is no comparison as far as box office size goes. China's box office is much larger than India's and they only allow 34 foreign movies in. If they open up the market, then the growth will be huge. For Hollywood, both markets are important. India is definitely growing though it's really Indian movies that dominate here (foreign films command less than ten percent market share in India).
THR: What do you make of the growing trend of Hollywood studios producing Indian films?
Amritraj: The studios coming to India to produce local content is basically about them discovering another market where they can do business. They are not taking movies out of here and distributing them on 3,000 screens in the U.S. They are doing the same thing that a leading Bollywood banner like Yash Raj Films is doing, which is making local films for the local market. So the studios are in India as they are in other markets like Korea and Japan. I don't think that's a big deal, but the first person who can take a movie out of here and distribute it worldwide to a mainstream audience -- now that would be a big deal. And that is really about identifying and cracking the right kind of content. Now, how you do that is anybody's guess.