From tennis superstar to iconic Hollywood producer and philanthropist, Ashok Amritraj transitioned his career from tennis to an internationally-renowned Award-winning Hollywood producer. Amritraj hails from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India and got his start in movies by producing independent films. His first big hit was “Double Impact” starring Jean-Claude van Damme. He continued his career by working with highly acclaimed actors Robert De Niro, Steven Martin, Angelina Jolie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Bruce Willis, and Aishwarya Rai, to name a few. Amritraj was the first Indian producer to become a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures in 1992. His awards and accolades do not stop there as he was MVP of the Los Angeles Tennis team when they won the World Tennis Championship in 1978. I had the incredible opportunity of interviewing Ashok Amritraj over Zoom. Continue reading to learn more about the journey of this incredible individual.
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Let’s start at the beginning of your journey. Through research, we learned that you watched the movie “The Sound of Music” 33 times. How has this movie influenced you at a young age and how has it impacted your career in the long run?
Growing up in Chennai, India, I’ve always been a fan of Hollywood movies, and I grew up watching and hearing about the big studios, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Disney and so on.
Particularly, I loved the musical and loved what Bob Wise, the director of “The Sound of Music,” had done. Many years later, I was on the Academy board for foreign film, and Bob was seated next to me. I remember telling him I watched his movie 33 times.
In the end movies are meant to transport you to another world and when you leave the theater you feel so fulfilled and great. It was really a very important point in my life as I was young and very impressionable. And of course it is a great film.
With tennis being your entry into the United States in the 1970s what were some life lessons you learned from the sport that you carry on in your everyday life?
Tennis has always played a very important part in my life. It builds character and teaches you that hard work pays off. It teaches you about perseverance, discipline, and focus. Tennis being an individual sport, the responsibility rests on your shoulders. When you’re on the court, it’s all about how you perform. Those lessons are character builders and life lessons. And of course, those are lessons that served me extremely well, in the entertainment business.
When I went into the entertainment business, I didn’t know anything about it. I had no relatives in it and there was no one to follow. There was no Indian who had really made it at that point. People were always wondering what is this kid is doing here? He was on the tennis court, and we liked watching him play tennis. Now he’s producing movies. I had to create my own path, being the first to do it.
Even in the early ’80s to mid-’80s, I made one of the first US-India co-productions with a gentleman named Rajinikanth. He’s one of our iconic Indian stars who played the lead in an English film for me called “Bloodstone.” Rajinikanth has remained a friend ever since and has gone to do many great things. I also did the movie “Jeans” which was Aishwarya Rai’s first film. I like saying Indian cinema because there’s talented actors all over India. And since I’m from the South I can’t quite reference Bollywood only.
Is there a treasured memory while being on the Los Angeles Tennis team you would like to share?
Jerry Buss brought me to play tennis for the Los Angeles team. In 1978 we won the World Team Tennis Championship. I was named MVP that year and I remember walking into Jerry Buss’s office, and he handed me the keys to a burgundy Jaguar. It was my bonus, which was rather extraordinary of him. He was always a larger than life personality.
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You dipped your toes into Hollywood in the early 1980s. What were the first grueling five to six years like networking in Hollywood and trying to get your foot in the door?
First, let me start of by saying I have an extraordinary amount of respect for the first generation of South Asians that came out here and have made it so spectacularly: as doctors, in the tech world, as engineers, etc. I mean, it was really tough. It was a completely new world. There was no safety net for us.
When I started, I don’t believe there were any brown people in Hollywood at that point, so it was very daunting. I was surrounded by a sea of white, very different from today. I got into the Hollywood movie business out of my love for movies, and I thought to myself, let me figure out how I can make one movie. I never dreamt that I was going to make 120 films.
Everybody was welcoming because they wanted to play tennis with me; however, nobody wanted to make a movie with me. So, I knocked on doors and bruised my knuckles. I’m not an easy guy to throw out if I get in the door, but it was tough.
There was no talk of diversity in those days. It wasn’t even in the conversation. Nobody even really knew where India was. I remember a studio executive asking me, oh, you’re going to India, which part of India is Singapore in? He actually thought Singapore was in India.
And you may have heard the story when in 1984 I met this young limo driver. In 1990, I met him again at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was Jean Claude Van Damme. He said, out of 800 photographs I sent out, you were the only one to call me back, and we should make a movie together… That was “Double Impact”.
This is a perfect transition to my next question. The ’90s is when you first tasted success in Hollywood with movies like “Double Impact.” What did this mean to you?
From the mid ’80s to 1990 I made a lot of smaller films. It was a time when HBO, Showtime, and USA networks were making their movies of the week with a budget of $3 million dollars to $4 million dollars. It was a great time for me to learn and understand how to translate a script to the screen, what it took in the casting process, production, the editing process, and finally how to market a film.
It was a terrific time of learning and a great education. I made a bunch of smaller films at that time, so I was ready when “Double Impact” came along. I had done my homework and worked those 14-to-16-hour days. The movie came out in August and was a huge hit both here in America and abroad. And, quite frankly, people who threw my phone messages away, picked them up and started calling me back. That’s Hollywood. It made me a very successful producer and Jean Claude a major star. The change was sort of unimaginable, after all the struggles an overnight success in 10 years. In 1991, it was truly a time of double impact, because I married my wife as well the same year.
For our readers, what are the general roles and responsibilities of a film producer?
Film producing is what each one chooses to make it. I would say I am a complete film producer in the way that I take an idea or a book and take it all the way to the screen.
We develop the screenplay with the writers and then bring on the whole package: directors, stars, and financing. Whether we co-finance it with the studio, finance it in a different way ourselves, there are different versions of how we finance movies.
The next steps are production, postproduction, all the way to what we call delivery of the film to the distributors. Ultimately this leads to the whole marketing campaign, the trailer, and the artwork. We are involved in every step. In the old days, we would always be battling about how much prints and advertising money is being spent or marketing dollars were being spent.
You wanted your movie to get the best shot possible out there in the marketplace and how many theaters you were able to clear. Was it 3000 theaters or 2500? Today that whole model has changed dramatically with streaming and shorter theatrical windows. As we sit here speaking, it’s changing some more.
I’ve had the good fortune of working with wonderful writers, directors, actors, and great talent in front of and behind the camera.
I always think of a producer’s job as really complete. I try to encourage anybody who works with me at Hyde Park to get the full experience. I think it’s important to know everything, even if you want to choose certain areas, it’s very important for a producer to have the knowledge. We’ve always had multicultural executives and interns because that’s always been my thing, to build that mandate and build that bridge between US and India, which is why my logo is the bridge. The same bridge which I always loved when I spent time in London playing at Wimbledon. It’s the bridge between the two cultures.
What was your experience like being the former CEO of National Geographic Films?
I had Hyde Park, which was my day job, but National Geographic had lost their CEO, and they offered me that position as well. It was a situation where National Geographic was reorganizing in many ways from a documentary company to trying to make feature films and developing content in many different ways, including when James Cameron went down to the Marianas Trench in his one-man sub, so it was a very exciting time. They’re such an extraordinary organization and that period was a wonderful experience.
As you are the founder CEO and current chairperson of Hyde Park Entertainment Group what does the company mean to you?
I formed Hyde Park in 1999 so it’s now 23 years old. The 90’s had been very successful, and the purpose of Hyde Park was to build on the success and to partner with studios to control my own destiny to a greater point through Hyde Park. I had a deal with MGM Studios, which is what we call a first look deal, and I had a deal with Disney Studios as well. I was one of the only few producers who had a dual deal at the same time. I had this deal for seven years, followed by a deal with 20th Century Fox for the next five years. In breaking new ground for future Indians to follow were the studio deals and multiple major films, along with becoming, in 1992, the first Indian producer to be in the Academy of Motion Pictures.
Hyde Park was a place where I could build a library, finance movies myself, and own more of what I was doing. It has worked incredibly well and it’s one of the few independent companies of its size that remains standing. There are also not too many guys who’ve stayed the course over a 40-year period.
Companies get bought and sold all the time. I remain the sole founder and owner of Hyde Park Entertainment. It’s great to have that flexibility since one needs to be quite nimble these days. In our heart we love making content. That’s what we are great at.
So Hyde Park produces Film, TV, and now we’re taking a good look at some of the Asian local languages as well.
How did COVID-19 impact Hyde Park Entertainment?
We had a couple of movies that were planned, and the pandemic hit. To be honest I pulled back a little because people were being infected with Covid and there was so much insecurity with the way things were being done. Insurances were difficult and people were getting hurt. There were a lot of things going on in the world that I think were more important than the movie business that were on my mind.
We spent the time more on development of our next slate of product. Now we are into casting and we expect the end of this year and next year to be quite vibrant. We have a slate of about 24 projects that are in different stages.
How do you feel the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world of entertainment?
Those two years changed the world in general, but certainly the world of entertainment. It changed how movies are viewed and changed how people gather in the office. Just look at us! Before Covid, I did not know what Zoom was. Now it’s back to back. I just got off a casting call on Zoom. In many ways, it’s convenient to talk to actors and directors from different parts of the world without inconveniencing them too much, or myself. On the other hand, I’m old school, I like the human contact. I’m very much about that. So, I’ve gotten back to getting together with actors, directors, and friends. COVID has changed the world, but ultimately it’s how you get back into things again.
You’ve worked with many talented actors on many films throughout your career. What has been your most treasured memory thus far working in this industry?
That’s a tough one. You know every movie has a wonderful story. As I mentioned earlier, “Double Impact” was my first big movie and always has a treasured place. I loved making movies with Steve Martin. “Bringing Down the House” was great fun, and a big hit. And “Shopgirl” with Claire Danes and Steve Martin won a whole bunch of awards. I enjoyed making “Ghost Rider” with Marvel and Nic Cage, “Machete” with De Niro and Robert Rodriguez. It was great fun making “Walking Tall” with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, “Bandits” with Bruce Willis and Cate Blanchett. There have been so many great experiences, it’s just been a wonderful ride.
As you were one of the first South Asian producers in the 1980s how do you feel the landscape of Hollywood has changed for South Asians?
In the last five to seven years, everything that I hoped and worked towards making a reality, and the goals that I’ve had in trying to build out a multicultural company, diverse movies, etc. has happened. You look around and there are a lot of brown people in front of and behind the camera.
Studios and streamers have finally begun to understand how important diversity in movies is and this of course offers a great opportunity for brown talent. I hope I have played a role in making that happen.
The second generation of Indians are very talented actors, directors, agents, entertainment executives and much more. I never want to use the word easier, but it’s certainly wide open now, and I think it’s a much more level playing field.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Hyde Park Entertainment Asian Women Fellowship?
Hyde Park and Warner Music Group partnered to create two fellowships per year for female Asian writers and directors. This year Sari Arambulo was awarded the first fellowship and the second one is in process of being chosen. Sari is a wonderful multi hyphenate, writer, director, and actress. She’s writing a screenplay right now. An organization called Film Independent, which does the Independent Spirit Awards runs the search for us. It’s a global search, as well as the diaspora. We will be announcing the next winner this fall. The idea is to shine a spotlight on female filmmakers and writers, show the screenplay they’ve written, work with them on making the screenplay better and ultimately and hopefully they will be able to make their films. They would also have the opportunity to meet various executives and talent in town.
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Ultimately what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
When you look at what I have been able to do in the entertainment business it is a dream come true. No dream is too big, you just have to go for it. Whether it’s playing at Wimbledon or making movies in Hollywood you just go for it. It’s all about hard work and perseverance. If anybody tells you, it’s all about luck, that’s not true. There is always the element of luck but that comes at the end after you’re completely prepared. You’ve done all your homework, you have discipline, you’ve worked hard and then you wait for that break, right? Don’t just go out there and think it’s going to happen. I would hope that your readers understand the difficulty that one goes through, but at the same time have the self-confidence that you can attain that goal. Preparation, perseverance, and passion go hand in hand and that would be the message.
Photo Courtesy of Hyde Park Entertainment