“I honestly could not have asked for a better “job!” says the producer of Brown Nation, The Crash and Money.
Hollywood is becoming increasingly diverse (however slow the process is), in terms of actors, writers, directors, and producers. Atit Shah is one of those adding to the rich diversity that is now the hallmark of Hollywood. The New York-based producer just finished working on his latest project, The Buried Girl. Among his other projects are Money and Brown Nation, which are available on Netflix. In a recent interview, Shah spoke with The American Bazaar about his journey.
Where are you from?
I was born in Ahmedabad, India, moved to my mother’s birthplace of Nairobi, Kenya, for a year at the age of 3, and enjoyed most of my childhood until the age of 11 in the beautiful chaos that is Mumbai. I went to high school in Edison, NJ, and moved around between Queens, Chicago, [and] DC, eventually settling in Manhattan.
Tell me a little bit about your work background?
I studied International Business at The George Washington University. But my first job when I graduated was as a production assistant on a Bollywood film starring Saif Ali Khan in North Carolina. My responsibilities included those of clean-up crew, a driver and, in my case, doing the bookkeeping. I have a couple of family members in the film business, so I had my share of brushes with the film world. Although, while I loved my time during those brushes, I really wanted a steady paycheck and a career. Freelancing in film didn’t fit that mindset, so I went corporate for six years. I simultaneously developed my skill as an entrepreneur and got bit by the film bug again in 2011 while visiting the set of My Name is Khan while it was being shot in San Francisco. I ended my career as a Sr. Product Manager at Thomson Reuters and began living my dream – to work in and eventually produce movies on my own.
Is your family supportive of what you do, how so?
Very much so! My mother is my rock. I would have never had the ability or courage to pursue my dreams without her love and encouragement.
Paint the picture of what drew you into this business.
I’ve loved cinema since I was a three year old in Kenya. I was entranced by movies. You could tell me the house was burning and, if I was watching tv, wouldn’t even blink. In Mumbai, I distinctly remember when I was six and my mother scolding me for not getting good enough grades. She said we would continue to go to the cinema every Friday only if I came top 3 in my class. Henceforth, I was top 3 every week, every year until I moved to NY because losing the opportunity to see a movie was not a risk I was willing to take. I needed my Bollywood romance every Friday! Before moving to the U.S., my grandfather made me watch Towering Inferno and upon my arrival to NY I saw The Fugitive in theaters. Seeing all the possibilities with storytelling made me fall even further in love with movies.
Tell me a few highlights of your career?
Selling my most recent released film Money to 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Netflix for global distribution (after it picked up 20+ awards between 50+ global festivals), Brown Nation to Netflix for all 190 plus countries, and producing a movie which released theatrically earlier this year called The Crash for under $500,000. It had an ensemble cast including Minnie Driver, John Leguizamo, Ed Westwick, Dianna Agron, Maggie Q and AnnaSophia Robb. Lastly, getting representation at United Talent Agency (UTA) as a producer was certainly one of the most unexpected highlights this early in my career.
Are you happy with what you do?
I honestly could not have asked for a better “job”! Except astronaut or spy, which I have plans to tell stories around one day anyway.
Tell me about a recent project you’re working on/have worked on and what your role is on it?
As a producer, you are essentially the CEO of the movie. Let me summarize my experience on my recently released film Money. I first negotiated and bought the intellectual property rights to the script via the writer in Spain. Then it was my job to oversee and manage the process of putting together the creative and financial elements of the film. I hired the director and with him begin to hire the actors and essentially everyone else important to bringing the words on the screenplay to life. Basically I was ‘packaging’ the movie, the second half of packaging is financing. I composed and eventually executed a finance plan that included things such as tax credits, equity investors, debt, and pre-sales. Once I have my creative and finance package in place, I green-light the film and oversee the planning and execution of major pre-production, production and post-production elements on the film. Upon completion, I work with the sales agency I hired to secure distribution. Lastly, I work with those distributors to market those films here in the US and globally. As the producer of the film, I am additionally responsible for the accounting, legal, profit sharing, taxes and all other corporate responsibilities generally tied to a for-profit business.
How did you get involved Brown Nation?
A mutual friend of mine knew that Abi Varghese, the director of the project was looking for a producer and introduced us via email. A few days later I ended up on a flight sitting next to someone else who was already helping Abi with the project, we spoke the entire flight and we all met days later.
Why is it important to have this show and the shows you chose to work on?
I didn’t set out to produce a sitcom about Indian people. I loved BN because it was well-written, timely and hilarious and most importantly it could show us all that we can tell stories about diverse people while still appealing to wider audiences/networks.
Are there many desis Producers involved in Hollywood? If no, do you feel like you’re a pioneer and why/how?
Not really. I can think of less than ten desi producers involved in Hollywood and while I am sure there are more than the ones I am aware of, it’s still a very small number comparatively. I don’t necessarily feel like a pioneer but I do take pride in the fact that this is a route that isn’t paved for people like me and hopefully I can do my part to pave that road for future generations of South Asian filmmakers.
Do you do anything else besides producing? If so, please describe?
Being a former product manager, I stay involved in the tech start-up space and consult for development studios and young companies as my time allows. I also recently began teaching “The Art of Film Financing and Packaging” at the The Made in NY Media Center at the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) in Brooklyn.
What are your hobbies?
I truly enjoy traveling and meeting new people! I love to read and an avid consumer of the news. I ski. I love to play/watch tennis. Of course I watch a ton of films and tv shows, both american as well as globally produced projects.
What makes you the most happy?
Being on a plane, or on set.
Describe a typical day for you.
That’s the best part about the job… there is no typical day, week or year.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I used to teach Bollywood and hip-hop dancing in DC and NYC.