Television

'50 per cent of the challenge of filmmaking lies in marketing' : Ashok Amritraj - Entertainment chairman and CEO

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Former tennis player turned Hollywood film producer Ashok Amritraj has reason to celebrate. Having spent 25 years in filmmaking, he was recently in India to collaborate with English movie channel Pix from the Sony stable to kick off a reality show titled 'Gateway.'

Amritraj's new hunt: to discover the "hidden filmmaking talent in India." His firm Hyde Park Entertainment will act as a platform for this talent to go international.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto, Amritraj shares his insight into the business of filmmaking in the West, his relationship with studios and the experience of working with top talent in the industry like Bruce Willis and Steve Martin.

Excerpts:

What opportunities does the burgeoning Indian media and entertainment scene offer for Hyde Park?

The good news for India is that the entertainment industry is growing. The television industry has seen enormous growth. The motion picture industry will hit a steep curve over the next five to seven years. The younger generation of filmmakers are much more globalised. They understand filmmaking in a different way compared with their predecessors.

There are interesting opportunities in a growing industry. My business is in Hollywood first and foremost. But I have always felt a great affection and affinity for the country where I grew up. This year is the 25th anniversary of my being in Hollywood and I have made over 95 movies. It felt like the time was right to come back and do something here.

How did the idea for 'Gateway' come about?

Young Indian filmmakers have a lot of talent. Around a year ago over dinner with Sunder Aaron (Pix's business head) I expressed an idea that involved a search for a talented aspiring filmmaker who would be given an opportunity to work with my company and make a Hollywood film.

Pix was interested and so we started to evolve the whole idea. The concept got bigger and better. We are excited about seeing 'Gateway' come to fruition.

In the US Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg did a film-based reality show On The Lot which didn't fare as well as had been expected. What went wrong and how confident are you that 'Gateway' will take off?

I don't think that anything went wrong. It comes down to a person's take on a certain kind of a show. At the end of the day our show will pick a director and give him an incredible opportunity. Spielberg's show was the same way.

However, the way of getting there and the tasks that they go through the elimination process is completely different. In one way it is close to The Apprentice as I will act as a mentor. In another way it is also close to Project Greenlight, which was done by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

There are different things being done. Our show is very India centric. It is for Indians. The aim is to make the path of a talented Indian filmmaker to Hollywood easier. We are looking to provide a platform for a young fresh Indian director to showcase his/her talent on the world stage. He/she is guaranteed a distribution of his movies between Sony and Hyde Park Entertainment.

What brought you and Pix together?

Our relationship with Pix is based on their tagline - We Tell Stories. This is the basis on which Pix was launched. A lot of what they do is story based. Top Hollywood producers also feel the same way.

Money is available from a myriad of sources like hedge funds. However stories, talented and original storywriters are hard to find. When you do an initiative like Gateway you could find an extraordinary talent like an Ang Lee or an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

What are you looking for in candidates?

I often speak at schools and colleges and also at UCLA, AFI and so on in the US. I say that PQ plus CQ will always beat IQ which means that in films the passion quotient combined with the curiosity quotient will always trump the intelligence quotient.

You also need abilities like how to handle actors, how to work with creativity, how to formulate a story, how to keep a producer happy. As you put all these pieces together and add to that a personality that can work, you try to frame the whole picture.

Are you looking at other television projects?

No! I am a film guy. I have not done television. Internationally Gateway represents my first foray into television. This project is personal. It is less about doing a TV show and more about finding hidden filmmaking talent in India.

Last year you had mentioned that Hyde Park was looking at a JV with an Indian animation firm. Has anything happened on this front?

Practically everyone has come to us to do something. We are going to make a film here in October called The Other End Of the Line. We will use an Indian actress who could be a newcomer or who has done a couple of movies. It is a question of finding talent. Hyde Park is looking to act as a platform for Indian talent to go international. Bollywood films may not crossover into Hollywood but I certainly think that Indian directors and actors can achieve this.

In general what does Hyde Park look for in a project before giving the go ahead?

Everything starts creatively. Our creative team in Los Angeles is presented with around 100 pitches each month. These include novels, books, videogames, comics, screenplays. We look at over 1000 projects a year. We develop a dozen and make three to four films. Those three or four films are chosen on the basis of creativity, gut feel and the kind of film we are looking to make.

Secondly you look at the distribution paradigm and you look at who will want to watch this kind of a film. The distribution team gets involved and lets us know what will work and where. Then we get a casting director to tell us things like a certain project will only work if Brad Pitt is involved or it will only work with Kevin Bacon. All these pieces are put together which is why it comes down to only three to four films.

When you work with a big star like Steve Martin on Shopgirl how much of a collaborative process is it?

I am closely involved with every film we make which is why we only make three to four films a year. I could make ten movies a year but we do not as I would not be able to give enough attention to each one of them.

The areas where I am very personally involved is developing the screenplay to a point where I as a producer am happy with it. I am closely involved with getting the principal cast and the director. Then I get hands on post-production. During the production period the director runs the project.

We start with storyboards. So you have the movie laid out before you pretty much. We know where the camera angles are, where the locations are. We then do a read through with the whole cast. Sometimes we take a complicated scene from a camera point of view and computerise it. For me the post-production process in terms of the cutting, sound and music becomes very critical.

Could you talk about some of your favourite experiences of working with creative talent?

I have worked with a number of very talented actors over the years. Steve Martin is brilliant as he is a writer as well. We worked very closely together on Shopgirl as it was his novel which he entrusted to me. He wrote the screenplay and produced it with me. I also worked with him on Bringing Down The House which was a completely different experience. Queen Latifah was a complete pleasure to work with. She is a great character.

I did Bandits with Bruce Willis, Billy Bon Thornton and Cate Blanchett. That was a dynamic experience as was working with Anjelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas on Original Sin. All these actors are extraordinarily professional. They arrive on time and treat their craft as a business. They are very disciplined which results in success.

As a producer when you have a film like Bandits with more than one big star, how much of a challenge is it to deal with egos?

Actors always have to check their egos. That is a task I have to deal with. It is also part of the director's job. When we pick a talented filmmaker through our Gateway initiative, he is going to have to understand that managing actors is a large part of the job.

' Filmmaking is getting democratised with the use of mobile phones & Youtube'

How did a tennis player from India like you get accepted in Hollywood?

The first six to seven years were an incredible struggle. Nobody wanted to make a movie with me as our family was not involved in the movie business at all.

I got lucky in 1984. I met a young chap who was a limousine driver. I met him again in 1990 at the Cannes Film Festival. He said that out of 800 photographs he had sent, only I had responded. The person was Jean Claude Van Damme and we made Double Impact. Then people in the industry found messages that I had called two years earlier. They got back to me and things started to roll.

You have been making films for two decades now. What is the biggest change you have noticed in the industry?

There have been many. In 1984-85 when I started to make movies for half a million dollars, there was at that time a fight between two formats - VHS and Beta Max. VHS won in the end. Then the international market for Hollywood grew. Satellite movie channels became more prominent.

The digital revolution is amazing. You just have to look at what George Lucas did with Star Wars. A more recent film 300 was shot against a green screen. It is an exciting time to launch Gateway as directors today have more tools at their fingertips.

Would you say that filmmaking has become more democratised?

Absolutely! Democratised is a great word to use. One can use a mobile phone to make a movie. There is Youtube through which you can get millions of film fans to view your film and comment on it. Anybody can make a film.

You do not have to be the son or daughter of someone famous to enter filmmaking. You don't need to have a huge film background to get into it. You need talent, vision and creativity. Gateway is a democratisation of filmmaking.

Are new forms of distribution like VoD making it easier for a film producer to recover costs?

It is another revenue stream. But I agree with guys like Scorcese and Tarantino that a film has to make money theatrically if it is to be anything on video or video on demand.

When you started out you focussed on action and comedy. Are you looking to branch out further in terms of genres?

I hate to sound egotistical but I have worked in all genres. I have done action films like Double Impact, action comedies like Bandits, serious films like Shopgirl, Moonlight Mile and family films like Dreamer. The thing that I like about Hollywood is that I can do different things.

We just released Premonition with Sandra Bullock. We will release Death Sentence which is a gritty action film. It is not a 'shoot them up' film and I believe it will make audiences think a lot. It is about an ordinary man being put in an extraordinary position and to what extent he would go. It stars Kevin Bacon and Kelly Preston.

You co-produce films with different studios. How would you describe your relationship with them?

I have worked with pretty much every studio. My main deals today are with Fox and Disney. I have a first look deal with Fox and a second look deal with Disney. Death Sentence is being released by Fox on 31 August. I am also close with the guys at Sony and Paramount. I made Dreamer with Dreamworks. I have made ten movies with MGM.

How does the Bollywood system compare with Hollywood in terms of creativity and professionalism?

The Bollywood system has worked for many decades now. I think that they are now gravitating towards fully completed scripts before shooting commences. There are more storyboards in Bollywood now as you cannot shoot visual effects without them.

Are films like the Oscar winner Crash a sign that Hollywood is becoming more multi-cultural now compared to the early 1980s?

Definitely! When I started out 25 years back, I could not find another Indian guy. Today there are Indian agents, studio executives. There are Asians all over the place. Also, Hollywood is getting inspired by stories from Asia and so you have films like The Ring, Dark Water and The Grudge. Also you have Asian stars like Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Do you feel that there is a lack of respect for IPR in bollywood?

I think what is lacking is good quality writers. Writers need to be encouraged more here. They are the lifeblood of the Hollywood business.

Why can't India have a global film like what China is doing with films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?

I think that songs and dances in Bollywood films are a cultural barrier for someone in Idaho. However the way for Indian cinema to succeed overseas is to make films that emotionally resonate across the globe. That is what The Last King Of Scotland did. That film could have been made by anyone. Little Miss Sunshine and Letters From Iwo Jima did the same thing. The casting was also great. Emotionally resonant films come out of great stories and not necessarily from simply having a big star like Tom Cruise.

Finally how much of a threat do you feel new forms of entertainment like gaming will be to films five years down the road?

I know that I am not only competing against other films but also with other forms of entertainment. Marketing will have to become more savvy. At Comic Con which was recently held in Las Vegas, we gave away products to push our new film. That is one way in which you can differentiate yourself in a cluttered media environment. Fifty per cent of the challenge of filmmaking lies in marketing.

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