The Right Stuff: What Makes a Top Hollywood Producer Tops?

ashok_amritraj_image__2_Sometimes when you are doing background research on a person you are going to interview – a word, phrase, or even an entire sentence will stick in your mind. As a writer, you look for symbols – things that represent something else. For me, in researching Hollywood film producer Ashok Amritraj, that hook was the name of his film production company – Hyde Park Entertainment.

Having spent time in London myself, I knew of Hyde Park – it’s beautifully landscaped gardens, Serpentine-shaped lakes, towering oak trees. I wondered why a former tennis star turned Hollywood producer would name his production company after a London park! After interviewing Mr. Amritraj, I got the answer both literally and symbolically. For him the park was literally a place of tranquility when he was in London, playing at Wimbledon – fond memories he recalled of looking out from his hotel window at the massive green span before him. For me, it came to symbolize the true character of this extremely interesting producer – whose altruistic attitude represents what’s missing in Hollywood.

I think it’s interesting that you were a professional tennis player before becoming a top Hollywood executive. Were there skills that you learned while competing in the world of sports that you applied in competing in the world of filmmaking?

Well, tennis is an individual sport, which requires a lot of personality traits to be successful such as discipline, focus, stamina, and perseverance. Of course these are some of the very personality traits that are essential as a film producer. The biggest difference, however, was that talent in the tennis world is a very black and white concept. Either you have it or you don’t. Talent in the film industry is more of a grey area – it can be defined in many ways. For example, actually getting the film made can be regarded as a talent.

You’ve produced, executive produced, or co-produced over 100 films – that’s an impressive record. What drives you to work at such a fast-paced speed?

I’m very driven by performance and feeling like I’m accomplishing something. At any given time, the company has 12 projects in different stages of development – pre-production, production, and post. I like to put things into production and not just “talk” about producing.

Did you start your producing career in Bollywood or did you begin in Hollywood? What were the career steps that you made along the way?AshokAmritraj_250x346

No, I did not start in Bollywood. I actually started in Hollywood. I came to Los Angeles in the early 80’s to play tennis, made a lot of connections in doing so. I then went into a development-training program in the studios, and subsequently worked on the development of films. I always wanted, however, to produce a film so eventually after a couple of years, I went out and independently produced my first feature called Fear in a Handful of Dust, which was made for $500,000.

You’re quoted as saying, “Hollywood is a welcoming town if you convince the studios that you are a serious player, but if you make the wrong moves, it can also be very unforgiving” What are, in your opinion, some of the wrong moves one can make?

For me it’s always been about perseverance – sticking with it and actually getting the film made. You really have to be a bull in a China store so to speak going forward with a project. Very few people actually stick with a project in order to get it made. Focus is getting the movie in the can. If you prove yourself in that regard, then Hollywood can be very welcoming – you are a stick to it kind of person. The worst thing you can do is to come off as flighty – jumping from one project to the next. Studios will take you seriously if you A) make movies that you feel passionately about B) make successful movies (which comes in many forms – financial, critical, etc). Those are the two criteria I’ve always held to and it’s worked for me.

You’ve said that Hyde Park – your production company – operates like a mini-studio – what did you mean by that?

We do a lot of things the studios do – find the material, develop it further, bring a director on board, cast the film, nurture the film during post-production, and handle international distribution. These are the essential roles that the studios also do.

A lot of our readers are independent filmmakers who operate outside of the studio system. As an executive producer, do you have any advice to give in terms of securing capital, especially in this continued era of financial crisis?

The easy money has definitely gone away, however, there’s still a lot of opportunities out there. You need to have a good package, good actors and well-known actors attached to your film, etc. Actually, there’s a variety of financing available to include film grants from various states, foundations, or film organizations. One of the hot items right now is partnering with visual effects companies in order to produce films based on video games. It just takes a savvy producer to piecemeal the funding together.

I read that around a 1,000 projects a year will cross your desk, but only 8 will get selected and only about 4 will actually be made. What’s the single most important element that makes you green light a film or not?

For me it always starts at the creative level. I have to like the script, and if I feel it creatively then I’ll pass it on to my guys (international distributors) to see if it has marketing potential. I also keep a pulse on what the studios are looking for in the US distribution marketplace, which is what they mostly deal in. If those two areas are both positive, then we’ll move forward with the project. But again the first criterion for me is the creativity of the project. If that’s not there then I’m not going to waste my time.

One of the areas your production company focuses on is cross-cultural film. Your film On the Other End of the Line addresses the relationships that can develop in a global economy. This is still a relatively new genre of filmmaking. Do you think we will be seeing more of these types of films in the future and if so then why?

I hope so. Yes, it’s a very new genre and I will continue to make those types of movies, but of course with small budgets. I’m from India and we have a lot of operations in Southeast Asia. These types of films have more of an international appeal in those regions, which are very different of course from films that would generate interest in the US box office.

Many people dispel the producer as the one who “only secures” financing. I’ve read that you actually are very active in the casting process of the films, and sometimes even stepping in the director’s chair and working with the actors. Why are you more hands-on with the production process? Has this helped your films be more successful?

I am very involved in the entire filmmaking process because movies start with my decision to make them and I feel the need to follow through until the end. I’m involved in the development, selecting the director and cast because of course it affects my sales. Also, I am supremely involved in post-production because that’s in many ways where the actual film is made. I think one of the reasons the movies I produce are so successful (both artistically and financially) is because of the hands-on approach that I have.

You’ve also received a lot of awards for your success as an Indian film producer, being named “Producer of the Decade” by the Spirit of India Foundation and a US Congressional Producer of Vision Award for “exceptional foresight and insight, and creative contribution to the enrichment of humankind”. Do you feel as a producer you have a social or political obligation in the films that you produce?

Not so much political, but definitely I feel like I have a responsibility both socially and culturally. Movies, as they have for the past 100 years, are profoundly influential in cultures around the world. Our lives are influenced from the fashions we wear to the fades we follow because of movie stars. That’s powerful, and at the same time, a huge responsibility. I think it’s something that everyone that’s involved in the movie industry should bear in mind when making a film.