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May 28, 1999


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Amritraj's Hollywood Divorce: He Gives Up 2-Year-Old Partnership To Float Company

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Aseem Chhabra and Arthur J Pais

Ashok Amritraj Two years ago some of Hollywood's top stars and directors were seen currying deals with Ashok Amritraj, the former tennis champ who began producing low budget films about two decades ago.

Stars such as Cuba Gooding Jr, the Oscar-winner for Jerry Maguire, and Alec Baldwin met with Amritraj pitching projects which the big studios in Hollywood thought didn't have big commercial prospects.

After years of making low-budget popcorn movies including sex-thrillers, Amritraj – along with his financier Eli Samaha – was now dreaming of setting up a mini studio. The independently run studio Miramax Pictures had been bought by Walt Disney, October Films had been sold to Universal Pictures, and Fine Line to Warner. Amritraj and Samaha were stepping into the void with their own mini studio called Franchise

The films being produced by Samaha and Amritraj were to cost between $ 10 million and $ 30 million; the average budget for Hollywood films is $ 50 million.

"We are working on a simple formula," Amritraj had said in an interview then. "Stars work for a nominal fee because they are committed to the project – in most cases they bring the project to us, and we offer them backend deal. They get to share the profits."

But a few weeks ago, Amritraj announced he was getting out of the partnership with Samaha. Some people might have thought this was an end to Amritraj's bigger Hollywood dream. In an interview from his Hollywood office on May 27, Amritraj said that he got away from Samaha because of "philosophical reasons" about the future of their partnership.

He said that differences between the two were from "a creative point of view, where we wanted to take the company next and what projects we wanted to work on."

But his dream has got even bigger – and though he is his own man now, he is still tied to the projects he shepherded two years ago for Franchise.

Among the films he helped develop are: The Confession, (1999) starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Kingsley and Amy Irving, and released directly on Home Box Office; A Murder of Crows (1999) with Cuba Gooding Jr, Tom Berenger and Eric Stoltz; The White Raven (1998), with Roy Scheider and Ron Silver; and White River Kid starring Antonio Banderas, Bob Hoskins and Ellen Barkin, which Warner Brothers will release later this year.

Another Franchise vehicle, The Third Miracle, starring Ed Harris, Anne Heche and Armin Mueller-Stahl is currently in post-production stages. The film is directed by Polish/French film-maker Agnieszka Holland, whose works include the critically acclaimed Europa, Europa, Olivier, Olivier, and a Leonardo DiCaprio film -- Total Eclipse. Amritraj added that New Line Cinema is considering distributing the film

With the establishment of Hyde Park Entertainment, Amritraj is set to "make films in the major budget league -- in the $ 40 million to $ 90 million range and primarily in partnership with studios," he said.

He is currently in discussion with several studios for joint ventures and co-productions. While he refused to comment on the types of film projects being discussed, Amritraj said "they will be major star-driven, action thrillers (and) commercial vehicles."

He added that Hyde Park will remain an independent production company and he will "co-finance the pictures with the studios, which will be part of an overall structure being put in place."

Amritraj sometimes thinks he would have started producing movies right out of college had it not been for tennis. "My mother used to remind me, as I grew up, how much I loved watching films from my very young years," he has said. "My eyes would be glued to the screen even after the film was over… I refused to leave the theater, hoping that something will happen on the screen in the next few minutes."

Amritraj came to Los Angeles in the 1970s to play in celebrity tennis matches. It was during these events that he had his first brush with the Hollywood elite, including Sidney Poitier, Sean Connery and Charlton Heston, all of who continue to be his friends.

It was Heston who encouraged Amritraj to go into the movies, warning him at the same time that though Hollywood seemed friendly, it was nevertheless a very closed town. Amritraj had to keep his wits alive to succeed in that town.

Ashok Amritraj Amritraj started his film career in the 1980s by producing low-budget teen sex comedies, sexual thrillers, and martial arts and other action oriented movies, with titles such as Nine Deaths of a Ninja (1985). While most of these "B-movies" were critical failures and performed modestly on the US box office charts, Amritraj recouped his investments and made money with video and international market sales.

But his association with Jean Claude Van Damme proved gainful. Van Damme had come to him in the early 1980s looking for a break. "But I didn't have a suitable role for him, nor the money to pay him even though he was a newcomer," Amritraj said. "But we promised to keep in touch. We struck a good relationship. See, I was an immigrant from India, he was an immigrant from Belgium." In the early 1990s, Van Damme asked Amritraj to executive-produce Double Impact. The $ 17 million film went on to gross over $ 80 million worldwide, turning in a tidy profit.

"Ashok is the sweetest producer I have ever come across," Van Damme would say often. "He is ever cool… You can’t have a better troubleshooter."

At Hyde Park Amritraj will continue troubleshooting as he did it at Franchise. He said Samaha brought in an investor who purchased Amritraj's interest in the company. Amritraj refused to disclose the financial arrangement associated with his departure from Franchise Pictures.

This break in the relationship, however, does not end Amritraj's involvement with Franchise and Samaha. Last year, Amritraj put together a separate deal, where Franchise would produce four films each with $ 30 million plus budget. These films would be distributed by Warner Brothers and Morgan Creek Productions. The first of these four films -- Battlefield: Earth, a science fiction film starring John Travolta, is set to go into production soon and is scheduled to be released in 2000.

The film is based on a novel written by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of what is often described as a "religious cult" -- the Church of Scientology. Travolta and Tom Cruise are among a group of top Hollywood stars that belong to Hubbard's church.

Amritraj has come a long way from playing tennis for India to the world of big league Hollywood film industry. But the creation of his new company, Hyde Park Entertainment as a "natural evolution of what I wanted to do."

And while he is excited about the prospects of making big films, reuniting with friends such as Van Damme who wants to make a sequel to Double Impact, he is also aware of the life lessons he got from Heston, who is yet to act in an Amritraj film. ("There were no really good parts for him," Amritraj said last year. "We need to have him a wonderful role in one of our films.)

"Hollywood can be a very unforgiving town," he says. "It is not enough to be good here, we ought to be among the very best."

Arthur J Pais contributed to this story.

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