In a talk at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Hyde Park Entertainment CEO Ashok Amritraj talks about growing global opportunities and also laments the lack of talent nurturing at US studios and agencies.
Hyde Park Entertainment CEO Ashok Amritraj predicts there could be big growth in Middle Eastern cinema in the next decade.
In a talk at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the founder, CEO and Chairman of Hyde Park Entertainment said he was impressed by the potential of the young industry in the Middle East. “The enthusiasm and love and passion for the film industry is here…The next decade will be a very interesting one. Companies like Image Nation who encourage the talent — that is so critical in building the whole film area… The culture is so ready, the kids are very, very talented. You’ve got a real chance in the next decade.”
He had some advice to young people who want to break into film locally. “The one thing to keep in mind is that everybody gravitates towards directing and acting because there is so much attention given to them. There is not a lot of attention given to writing, being a director of photography, a production designer, an editor – all of those jobs are crucial to make a movie. For building a film culture you need all of those people…There are so many facets to it. Kids need to understand that it’s the whole process, not just a director.”
“The first moment that you have a hit Emirati film, the floodgates will open,” he says of growing local market share as well as attracting more international attention.
The globalisation of film
He said that when he started working in the entertainment business in Los Angeles in 1980, “I looked around in Hollywood I didn’t see anybody close to my colour, The closest might be Sidney Poitier and maybe that’s why we became good friends…It was a lonely time. It was a long trip back to India [then], today we travel amongst the world so easily. “
He added: “But now with the distribution models and the globalisation it’s come a full circle. Suddenly today Asia and the Middle East are growing so much quicker than America is, those are really important now to Hollywood.”
The Indian born executive comes to the Middle East frequently thanks to Hyde Park’s partnership with Image Nation Abu Dhabi (they have worked together on films including Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and ADFF 2013 opener Life of Crime.)
He noted how the influence of the international markets had changed in his decades in the business. “When I joined in 1980 the international [non-US] market was about 25-30% of the global market. Today it’s 65-70% for most films. In the old days, an executive asked me which part of India Singapore was in. Today they have to pay attention to these international markets.”
He continued: “Side by side with that you have different forms of distribution coming online, like VOD. You have local cinema that is starting to take on a different kind of importance. We all pay attention to what local filmmakers are doing because the films are doing better, and also it’s easier to watch, you can send me a link to watch in my office. These filmmakers in the local languages are starting to better work, they get better exposure, then they get agents in America.”
He pointed to foreign-language Oscar submissions this year from the likes of Saudi Arabia (Wadjda) and Pakistan (Zinda Bhaag). “There is more of an openness from the west to see these movies [than before].”
Addressing China’s growth, he noted that while the “box-office grosses are growing dramatically” that hasn’t changed Chinese funding for production of international films. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.
The US landscape for indies and studios
Budgets for quality independent films are being squeezed. He said: “Independent film budgets are all coming down. Everyone has to rethink what a movie is worth.” The good news is that it’s not just producers worrying about costs. “The agencies are rethinking what they as for stars, so it is getting more productive.”
He said he currently is in the enviable position of having more money available to him for financing than he has top-notch projects to spend it on. “It’s about finding the materials to get the director and actors you need.”
Amritraj also spoke candidly about the changes in the studios over the years. “It’s not for no reason that heads of these studios these days are more marketing guys not production guys, they come out of a business and distribution background more than purely creative,” he said,
“No creative talent believes that a studio should do a movie for less. They get stuck making these movies for a larger price. I would blame the studios for not encouraging talent from different parts of the world, like the old days with Jack Warner when they could build up the talent. They don’t have the patience today to do that. The pressure is so great, you have to carpetbomb the whole world the first weekend. You don’t have the time to nurture the filmmaker and sign them for five movies. It seems to be a very quick world these days. “
Also he said that behemoth agencies like CAA and WME are in so many aspects of representation (from actors to writers to investment bankers) that they can take their eye off building new talents. “But I wouldn’t say they really nurture talent…I think there is going to come a time when they figure out if they are representing the producer or the star or the studio or the network or the money and of course they can’t represent everybody. I think it’s an evolving story there.”
He says he never joined a studio despite offers in past decades because he wanted to be more hands-on for his productions. And he also explained why Hyde Park has kept its independent origins. “In the last 15 years I’ve had so many overtures from banks or people coming into the company. If you lose that control you are so worried about the next quarter, how do I show a return back, and then the creative process changes becomes more of a pure business process, which I don’t think the independent film company is supposed to be. Even at the studio level they have so much pressure to deliver billion dollar returns. They don’t want to make $50m-$100m, they want to make movies that can make a billion dollars and sell lunchboxes. The studios have now all gone for the big bets, which creates opportunities for companies like mine.”
The digital changes in the media landscape today make it “a scary time,” he acknowledged. “As an audience you have so many options….You need to make movies that people want to go and see. A great martial arts movie, a great horror film, the bar has really been raised by original programming on TV that is very, very good, expensive, made extremely well, with stars that used to be in movies. It’s a challenge. I think they can all live side by side, but he challenge to us is to make better movies. “
In a relaxed and charming session, Amritraj also spoke about growing up watching Bollywood movies in India, his days as a tennis champion, and being inspired by his mother’s tough business negotiating skills when she ran a packaging company. He also signed copies of his autobiography Advantage Hollywood.