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Ashok Amritraj Grilled on ‘Life of Crime,’ and the Puzzle of Indie Filmmaking (Video)

Says the veteran producer: ”I’m very specific about how I put my movies together — it’s not fiddle-faddle“

Ashok Amritraj, the CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, produced Elmore Leonard‘s last film, which will premiere on the closing night of the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday.

“Life of Crime” stars Jennifer Aniston (below, with ski mask), Isla Fisher and Tim Robbins in a noir thriller that sits firmly in the style of Leonard, who passed away last month. Amritraj sat down with Wrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman to talk about his movies and career. That includes includes two other films in post-production, one starring Nick Jonas; and a memoir, “Advantage Hollywood.”

This is a tough time in the movie business – how did you figure out how to be so busy?

By and large the movies I make are ones the studios are not making. By and large they are very specific about what they’re wanting to make.

There’s a great opportunity in making these movies. The studios and some of wonderful independent distributors need theatrical product – not necessarily direct-to-VOD product. Good, theatrical films at a price. I did it with “Premonition,” with Sydney Pollack, even “Ghost Rider” was at a price. So we have this one.

That’s “Life of Crime.” You’ll probably sell it in Toronto?

life.of.crime.insideGreat cast. For acquisition, high teens is a big number.
All of the deals we make, after we finish the film we’re looking for the best distributor, one who will give it the right kind of release.

Also read: Hollywood Producer Ashok Amritraj: I Wouldn’t Send My Daughter to India Alone

The way I finance my movies, the MG – the minimum guarantee – if it’s $3, $4 million that’s less relevant than a major commitment to P&A (prints and advertising). I’d be happy to have someone put up $25 million of P&A and take fees, and I would play the outside (sell foreign) and hope the movie works. Instead of making a difficult deal and taking $3 million up front. That’s the choice.

Your timing to have Jennifer Aniston is great. A year ago it didn’t look as good for her. Why did you cast her?
We’re very lucky. She’s absolutely perfect for this role. The whole movie is seen through her eyes. She’s married to Tim Robbins. These two guys come and kidnap her, ask her husband for a ransom. He’s been screwing Isla Fisher, so doesn’t want to pay the ransom. It’s an action comedy.

How will that play overseas?
Any time you deviate from classic movies that every international guy wants to buy, I think it’s all about the execution. We have our regular international buyers, and they all love the picture. The buyers have gotten a lot more sophisticated. They’re all reading TheWrap and everything else, and they’re ahead of the game.

I mean, they get information quicker, in real time. In the old movies it was all rear-view mirror. They all needed to see how it did in the U.S. Today a lot more movies come out day-and-date.

 Abu Dhabi Film Festival - Day ThreeWhat would be your verdict on the state of the business right now?
I find a lot of producers don’t know how to put the pieces together. I mean that in the nicest possible way. They are in and out of my office. But the indie film business today is a puzzle, a slightly complex puzzle, and you need to know how to put the pieces together. And then when they do put the pieces together they go on, rather than taking care of this one.

What do you mean?
You’ve got to see it through post, be involved in the marketing, push as hard as possible to make it a success. It’s impossible to cut through the traffic these days with a medium- to small-budget film. If it’s Spider-Man or Batman, it’s different.

Also read: Ashok Amritraj — From Tennis Racquet to Film Racket

So much of it is willing it to happen. In today’s world you have to commit yourself and will it to happen. It’s the same on my book, I’m up every night doing interviews. You have to cut through the noise and make sure you’re everywhere in that period of time.

But you’re saying it’s the producers’ fault?
I wouldn’t make it that specific.

We had an event where a movie executive said, “The movies are over.” Do you agree?
No. We’re making six movies this year. It’s certainly not over. The larger the studio movies get, and the fewer number they make, they still have to release a certain number of movies. There has to be certain number of movies being made.

This year I’m making too many. We’re in post on three, making three more. It will be five or six this year, and we pick up about six more through our international company.

You still have financing from Singapore and Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi is my key partnership. It’s been four years, and we have a long-term deal. We have three more years on that first go-round.

For $100 million?
It’s about that size of equity. But that funds about $300 million of production. We use bank lines.

Also read: Toronto: Jennifer Aniston’s ‘Life of Crime’ Heading to Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

That’s enough?
I can’t spend it all.

You’re going to piss a lot of people off.
I’m very specific about how I put my movies together. It’s not fiddle-faddle, let’s make a movie. I’m very clear about what the foreign market value, the soft money value, where it shoots, who the stars are. And 90 percent of the time we say no.

I will agree that it’s a lot more difficult. The target is smaller and the traffic, the noise is greater. You really have to figure out your marketing strategy for your movie before you make it. It’s not about making movies for producing fees. Ours are more: Will it be successful? I don’t need to make another movie.

On the movies we have in post-production. “Careful What You Wish For,” the first movie that Nick Jonas is doing. We feel we’ve got something really hot. Nick and Isabelle Lucas, forbidden-fruit stuff, sexy thriller. He’s the youngest Jonas, he writes his music, between the three of them they have $21 million.

Is that why you cast him?
He’s right for the role, but he also has this extraordinary following. Very smart, and very aware of his place. And we have “Midnight Sun,” a big family film with a kid called Dakota Goya, he was in “Real Steel,” and a polar bear.

And these are both for sale?
Yes. I’d rather wait and show the movie.

What’s your feeling about what’s going on in India?
There’s an election next year, and it’s going to be a very crucial election. We are at a crossroads. A decade of incredible growth is stalled at the moment. The currency’s taken an incredible beating. A lot of concern about the economy has sent foreign money running for the hills.

There’s also this big Vodaphone lawsuit – over $ 1 billion in taxes. They won at a Supreme Court level, and then there was a change in the law and they are still being asked to pay the tax bill. So there’s this big concern about how the laws are working in India. There’s a lot of cleaning house to be done to have the next decade of growth.

I’m aware of the stories of women being attacked, rape. I know you have a daughter yourself and extended family in India. Is this a problem in society?
There has always been this dichotomy in India where mothers and sisters are held as great figures and the centerpiece of a family. But always been this side, especially in villages, of rapes. What is strange today is there is more of this in big cities that didn’t happen when I was growing up.

Chenai, which was Madras, is a big city, like Delhi. It’s horrible, horrible stuff. Definitely not enough is being done to chase down and have a severe punishment. It takes too long. It gets caught in whole social thing, how was it the woman’s fault, how was she dressed.

A lot of that has to do with information that filters in from the West. Things have changed. Girls do dress differently. And there’s a conservative part of Indian society. There’s a social conflict.

I would feel uncomfortable going to India right now. Would you feel comfortable sending your daughter there?
Not alone, I wouldn’t. She’s also grown up here in a different atmosphere. For her to go around Delhi or Bombay, I would worry.

Let’s talk about the book.
My father started to have Alzheimer’s two years ago, and I started taping my parents. I told Harper’s I would do it. I have respect for writers. It was a lonely business.

What did you learn about yourself?
The scope of the story is my background in Chennai, when the British influence was still there. My mother placed the first tennis racquet in my hand. The book is really about how one blends culture and traditions with the West. I had an arranged marriage.

You had an arranged marriage?
I knew my wife for six hours when I married her. In 1990 I was making a movie in Hong Kong with Jean-Claude Van Damme, I had just broken up with my previous girlfriend, Veronica Hamill, so I called up my parents and said, “I’m ready to get married. I’m looking for a South Indian Catholic, 5-foot-6.”

My parents met 300 girls and families around the world. They then narrowed it down to 20. Who I met. All very nicely done. You go to the girl’s house, 20 people in the room, you chat, two hours, and whether anything happens or not, goes from there. Very decent. None of those 20 worked out.

December of 1990 I was coming back for Christmas to Chennai, my mother says, “I have one girl for you.” I said, “Mom, it’s gotta be me, I’m just too Western. These girls are all stunning looking and stuff, but I’m just not able to connect.”

She said, “You’ve got to go. So I go to Chithra’s house that day. There’s 20 people in the room. I wasn’t able to say a word to her. I get in the car: ‘I don’t know. There’s something. Can you call her Dad and see if I can go out with her?’

I pick her up we go to the beach. There’s 12 aunts and uncles about 300 yards away. We talk for a couple of hours. My mother is beside herself at that point, she said, “Are you ready to commit?” I said, “I’ve got to go back to L.A. and think about it.” I’m getting cold feet. My mother calls me a couple of days later. She said, “You said give me a couple of days, it’s been a couple of days. Three other boys have come from America, they all want to marry her.” I said, “OK.”

I go talk to Chithra to see if she’ll put these guys on hold for three weeks. She did. I went back, spent two hours in her house, two hours in my house, and the third day I asked her to marry me.