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“India is not yet a critical market for Hollywood films”

Ashok Amritraj, a former tennis player who represented India on the international circuit, has produced more than a hundred films, including Hollywood movies such as Walking Tall and Bringing Down The Houseand Tamil film Jeans. Recently, he was in India to oversee the release of his next venture Ghost Rider:Spirit Of Vengeance. Amritraj, in an exclusive tete-e-tete with Sagorika Dasgupta,discusses Hollywood and, of course, Hindi cinema too

Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance,scheduled for a February 17 release,will mark your 103rd film. What’s thejourney been like?

I went to LA to play tennis in 1975 but I was always very passionate about movies. The moment I landed there, I knew this was something I wanted to do and dreamed of making a couple of films there. I got into the movie business in 1980. I spent the next five to seven years knocking on a lot of doors. It was a time when there were no Indians making a mark in any business. But the hope,passion and stupidity of being young paid off.

What can we expect and how are yougoing to market your film in India?

Warner Bros is distributing the film inIndia. It will release in more than 400 screens in English and three other languages. The promotions will entail the traditional marketing that everybody does for a film. And I made this special trip to India to shed a spotlight to the film.It’s an important movie for me, a Marvelcomic book I grew up on. The last part released in 2007 so we will try to rebuild this franchise. It’s more important for me, not because it’s Ghost Rider but because it’s India.

Go on…

Well, I must tell you about Nicholas Cage.He has had a rough time for a couple of years but he is outstanding in the film.The 3D and the VFX are both amazing.I have heard that the technology and glasses here are not necessarily the best but if you watch it in the right 3D theatre,you will be really impressed.

Has the Indian market become veryimportant for Hollywood movies?

As a box-office market place, compared to other countries, I would say no. It’s stilla very small part of the global revenue.

How much would that be?

Only 1 to 2 per cent, especially if you look at the global release of a movie suchas Ghost Rider or Avatar or any other movie. You don’t even have a very big DVD market here. The TV market is good but as far as box office and ancillariesare concerned, the other markets aremuch more evolved.

Other markets?

All of Europe… Russia has become very strong. Mexico, Brazil, Latin America…China is very different because only 20 films are allowed there as they don’t want Hollywood to over whelm their country.Ghost Rider was censored only recently and will release in March there. When you get in, China is a very big market for us. So competitively, it is not a very large market but economy-wise, India is growing so rapidly and everybody believes that by the next decade, India and China will hopefully be important markets too.

Why is it difficult for Hollywood to crackthe Indian market?

Here, Indian cinema is itself much more popular with the Indian audience than Hollywood films, whereas Hollywood is more dominant every where else.

We have seen actors like Tom Cruise come to India to promote their film. Are Hollywood actors taking notice of the Indian market?

Indian market?

Yes.

In terms of what?

In terms of box office numbers. And also to market their films.

Tom Cruise didn’t come to India! He came to the Burj in Dubai and he then came to India. He didn’t really come from LA to India and go back. He did it as part of an Asia trip, which is usually what an actor does. He travelled to Japan, India and Dubai. I think it’s very important for actors to come down to India and Asia at this point because it’s definitely a growing market but the question of an actor coming specifically to India because it is an important market for a film is not quite right. India is not a critical market for actors to visit but it is a market place that everybody is paying attention to.

When an Indian actor signs a Hollywood film, it is considered very prestigious.What is the perception of the foreign audience towards an Indian actor in a Hollywood film?

No Indian actor has ever ‘starred’ in a Hollywood film. It is always good for Indian actors to act in Hollywood films.It is good for both the actor and India.But I do think it’s overplayed from the standpoint of the importance assignedto it. At this point, I don’t think there is any Indian actor who is very relevant in a Hollywood film from a standpoint of marketability.

If you cast a Roberto Benini in a film and release it in Italy, it will do well.Likewise, if an Indian actor appears in aHollywood film, it would definitely mean something big for the Indian audience.But you can’t say that the box-office business of a film increased because there was an Indian actor in it. The bottom line is, people go to watch the Hollywood stars there.

How high are the marketing budgets for marketing an English film in India?

It’s 1 to 2 per cent of the marketing budget that we would spend in the US.International gross is higher than US and Canada. When I started out, US and Canada versus the rest of the world would be a 70:30 ratio but now it’s the other way around. Internationally, the market is growing more for 3D films. US and Canada have been stagnant for a few years now.

Why is that?

The number of cinemas is growing internationally but, in the US, people tend to watch most films online. Also, due to the recession in the US and Canada, you have to give people a really good reason to go to the movies. It’s a very difficult market to penetrate. That’s why foreign films, not just Indian films, don’t do well.

Would you make a film with Hollywood technicians but Indian actor in the lead?

Yes, I plan on doing something in India.We are developing something in English and one of the Indian languages as well. But can I make something that stars an Indian actor in the lead? The answer is two-fold. One, if it’s a film like Gandhi, yes. I don’t think I would evermake a Slumdog Millionaire. It’s notme. If I would do something, I would do the opposite. I would show India ona growth trajectory, what India would be tomorrow and the stuff that is going on now. Yes, I would be happy to useIndian actors but you have to look atthe screenplay and the marketability…how much are you making it for? The business it can do. It’s a big question,dependant on the screenplay and then it comes down to pairing it creatively and financially for it to work.

Is it also the lack of good scripts?

Yes, the toughest part is finding goodwriters. I don’t have any writers to come and pitch me. I walk into a hotel and there are 25 guys pitching stories to me. It’s hard to find three writers here who are not directors. And this is a little unusual for an industry of this size.

How come you have made 103 films but used Indian actors in only a handful?

I made Jeans with an Indian actor inTamil. Many years ago, I made a movie with Rajinikanth called Bloodstone. In Raising Helen, we had a couple of Indian actors. With MGM, I did a small film, The Other End of the Line, with Anupam Kher and Shriya Saran. We made Traitor with Aly Khan. I had Indian actors in these films and even used Indian VFX. The question is finding stories where Indian actors can play the lead. Small roles are easy to find for them but when they play the lead for a global market, that’s a challenge.

Why wouldn’t it be viable?

You know, in LA, they write lead roles with Western actors in mind. As you move further East, like in the UK, they have a more sympathetic attitude and more stories that have Indian actors.And as you get to India, you hope to find stories that are strong with Indian actors.But that doesn’t happen. So there is a lack of being pitched and lack of rightscripts, and you try to sell them withIndian stars in it. There are very few that I have come across.

Which Indian actor would you cast if you had to?

I can’t tell you that as I have too many friends in the industry. Any one of the actors could break out internationally.Hollywood films require a different style of acting. It’s just that the Indian actors have to display a more real and grounded style. I think they could.

It takes a lot of time and effort and, moreimportantly, the right representation for any Indian actor to find a good role inHollywood. The question is, if you have attained a certain star status here, would you want to sacrifice all that and start from scratch in Hollywood?

I’m actually surprised that the younger actors don’t try and break out internationally.They can do action films, thrillers, romantic comedies. They are not restricted at all.

Which younger actors are you impressed with?

Again, I’m not taking any names. (Laughs) Indian actresses are actualy doing prettywell internationally. Their looks are very international these days. Frieda Pinto is a good example. She is doing a lot of films where she has not played an Indian.

What about partnering with an Indian film production house?

I have no problem doing that but the question is, who would that be? As long as it’s somebody who thinks the way I do. We have a lot of partnerships across countries, so that is something I wouldn’t have a problem doing. I need to find the right partner. I don’t have an ego problem about working with someone who knows the local market better than I do.I would ideally want to partner and get alot of advice.Indian films also only cater to the Indian diaspora living abroad. So these stories are not relatable to anyone other than Indians. This restricts a film’s business overseas. So even the stories need to change and we need good writers for that.

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