Ashok Amritraj: Mr. Volleywood

Consummate pro builds bridge between East and West

Growing up in India, Ashok Amritraj harbored two passions — movies and tennis. Any chance he got, he went to see the latest offerings from Hollywood — bigscreen epics like “Ben-Hur,” musicals like “The Sound of Music,” social dramas like “To Sir With Love” — and dreamed of working in the town that made them, a dream that had no precedent for a young South Asian teenager from the town of Madras (today called Chennai). It was his other love — tennis — that would eventually bring him halfway across the world and pave the path to his groundbreaking movie career.

I usually don’t like producers breathing down my neck, but (Amritraj) was very good, very professional,” says Marshall about his experience on “Raising Helen.” “I felt like I could always turn to him and get some help. For a director, when you are harassed and exhausted, it’s very important to have somebody you can lean on.”

He was a pathfinder in putting movies together in a smart, lower cost way, founded on his knowledge of the international sales market,” says McGurk. “That’s a skill set even more important today than when he first started, because now you’ve got new sources of films, new sources of financing, coming and going on almost a yearly basis.”

Today, with one hundred productions and more than a billion dollars in revenues in just over 25 years, Amritraj has not only proven himself to be a prolific filmmaker but a disciplined professional with savvy instincts and eclectic tastes.

As one of the busiest producers in Hollywood today, he has worked with plenty of A-list talent, yet for the boy with big celluloid dreams, his route to success was improbable.

It was Dr. Jerry Buss, future owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, who proved the unorthodox conduit for Amritraj’s eventual ascent in Hollywood. When the World Team Tennis league was formed in the mid-1970s, Amritraj was a teenage tennis phenom whom Buss recruited from India to play on his L.A. Strings franchise.

But I knew when I first hit L.A. I wanted to be in the entertainment business,” says Amritraj. “This was what I always dreamed of growing up as a kid in India watching all those great movies.” So after five years playing in the pro tennis league and winning a championship in 1978, he decided to plunge into “the industry” in 1980.

I’d met a lot of studio executives and stars who use to come to the Forum to watch us play and so I thought, ‘I know enough people, this is going to be easy,’?” says Amritraj. “It took about four or five years to realize everybody wanted to play tennis with me, nobody wanted to make movies with me.”

For Amritraj it was a rude, if rarified, awakening. “I hung around a lot of tennis courts in Beverly Hills, played a lot of bad tennis,” he recalls. Still people would always take his meetings, if only to discuss their backhand.

A gregarious personality with a winning smile, Amritraj’s charm also didn’t hurt. “He’s got the most infectious laugh of anybody I’ve ever met, and it just kind of spills out of him,” says Chris McGurk, the CEO of Overture Films who has known Amritraj for 15 years and has collaborated with the producer on such pics as “Walking Tall,” “Original Sin,” “Antitrust” and “Traitor.” “He’s got a very positive outlook on everything, which in this industry is tough.”

Jean-Claude Van Damme, with whom Amritraj made “Double Impact” in 1991, also marvels at the producer’s sense of humor. “Once he starts laughing, you can’t help but laugh,” says the Belgian actor.

Eventually in those early days, Amritraj realized he’d need a viable property for people to stop looking at him as just another tennis pro and to start considering him as a producer.

I bought the rights to ‘Damn Yankees’ and was developing it at Universal and they told me to go get a producer to partner with. I said, ‘What producer? I’m a producer,’ and they said, ‘No, you’re not a producer.’?”

Ultimately he got Bernie Schwartz (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) to join him on the project, and even though it never got off the ground (another remake is purported to be back on the drawing board today), Amritraj learned how things get done — and not done — in Hollywood.

I didn’t realize at that time that things take years to put together,” he says, “only to then see them go into turnaround when a new studio boss comes.”

After repeating the same experience on three different projects, Amritraj decided to raise his own capital and become an independent producer, making a number of small genre films between 1985 and 1990 for then thriving indie distributors like Hemdale, Crown Intl., Roger Corman and Trimark.

The ’80s were sort of the heyday for all these companies,” he recalls. “It was a terrific time for us with the video market coming along. I couldn’t believe videos were selling for $79.95 or some extraordinary price. There was no Walmart $4.95 discount pricing back then.”

But as the 1990s began, Amritraj’s life changed dramatically. On a personal level, he met and married his wife, Chitra, in 1991. Even though Amritraj was by then a well-traveled man of the world and a full-fledged citizen of Hollywood, having lived here since he was a teenager, he still felt a strong affinity for his Indian roots: “As I got older, I definitely was starting to feel more cultural and Indian in my frame of mind.”

Today the couple have two children and split their time between India and Los Angeles.

On a professional level, 1991 also marked his breakout success with Van Damme on “Double Impact.” The result catapulted both their careers to a new level. Van Damme became a legitimate action star. For Amritraj, though he would never abandon the genre films that were his early bread and butter, it opened up new doors to work on different kinds of material with much bigger budgets.

(That year) definitely changed my life,” says Amritraj. “?’Double Impact’ opened in August and in September I got married.”

Since then, Amritraj has never stopped working. He formed Hyde Park Entertainment in 1999 and has since made movies with every major studio in Hollywood.

I’ve had a great run the last 20 years and with Hyde Park the last 10 years,” he says, “financing and producing movies in many different ways — co-financing with studios, fully financing myself then distributing through a studio, or fully financing through a studio and just producing.”

Collaborators have included directors Barry Levinson, Brad Silberling and Garry Marshall, and such stars as Kate Hudson, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Bruce Willis, Cate Blanchett, Dustin Hoffman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah, Dwayne Johnson and Angelina Jolie.

Adds Graham Taylor of William Morris Endeavor: “He fights for the material and fights to support the filmmaker. He takes risks on people, and he’s not afraid to tell you what he can and can’t do. I like to refer to him as a creative enabler.”

Brad Silberling, with whom Armitraj worked on “Moonlight Mile,” points to a dignitary quality in the producer rare in a business known for intimidation.

He reminds me a lot of how Steven Spielberg always described the now-late David Brown,” says Silberling, “because Ashok is like this incredibly stylish ambassador on behalf of the filmmaker, a combination of real old world patron and true defender of the work.

He and his then-partner David Hoberman came onboard ‘Moonlight Mile’ during post-production, and we first met in the lobby after a test screening. He grabbed me and just talked emotionally about the film, didn’t talk about commercial prospects, didn’t say, ‘Hey, I have some notes,’ it was just this really lovely response to what he saw and was moved by. It was the perfect way for Ashok to see the film the first time, because he has a real sense of popular taste and an ability to place himself in the audience and respond on an emotional level to the storytelling.”

Just as important as Amritraj’s rapport with filmmakers is the perception of versatility.

One of the things I hope is that I don’t make just one kind of film,” says Amritraj. “My movies have pretty much covered all types of genres — action, thrillers, comedy, drama. But every now and then I like to make a ‘Moonlight Mile’ or ‘Shopgirl’ in the middle of doing all the ‘Bringing Down the Houses, ‘ ‘Premonitions’ and ‘Walking Talls.’?”

Amritraj admits that it’s a challenging time for independents. “By far the toughest time ever,” he says. “But you just keep your head down and bull forward. As studios spend more money on tentpoles and marketing there is less money to spend on other movies, which means there will be more distribution slots opening up at the studio level for independent films.

Amritraj also has an advantage, given the global nature of his business. A pioneer in the international market, he championed co-productions and shooting overseas long before that became the norm.

Building that bridge has been very important for me,” says Amritraj says of his ties to South Asia. “I think my career has lasted as long as it has because of my balance between East and West, and because of being grounded by my wife and kids on one side and work on the other.”