Hollywood playing it safe in India

Warner Bros., Disney have at least one film lined up for '10

MUMBAI -- Stung by the global financial meltdown and the vagaries of the Indian film industry, major Hollywood studios are playing it safe for now -- sticking to distribution deals and not making new Bollywood movies.

Industry sources said Sony Pictures Entertainment has all but abandoned its plans for Bollywood production after "Saawariya" foundered at the boxoffice in 2007.

"Internationally, Hollywood has been cagey with its releases, so it would be the same in India," said analyst Rajesh Jain of KPMG.

"Studios have realized that the distribution business is a good one. They are working on enhanced strategies for the same and setting up stronger distribution networks."

Of the major studios, only Warner Bros. Pictures and Disney have at least one film scheduled to release in 2010, while Fox Star Studios has no immediate plans to get into production.

"We don't want to rush into anything. We do want to produce Bollywood films, but would prefer to do it a few films at a time," said Vijay Singh of Fox Star Studios, a joint venture between Twentieth Century Fox and the Star Network.

"I think the key is to reach out to audiences, understand what they want and then deliver it to them."

For now, Fox Star Studios is content with its distribution deal for filmmaker Karan Johar's February release "My Name Is Khan." Its plans of releasing as many as 500 prints of the film in more than 65 countries worldwide are unprecedented for a Bollywood project.

Sony Pictures did distribute some Bollywood films like "Straight" and "Tere Sang" last year and is releasing "Thanks Maa" in 2010.

"We are of course looking at distributing Bollywood films, but the product has to be right for us," managing director Kercy Daruwala said.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

India, home to the world's most prolific movie industry, has long tried to draw wider audiences, including by forging ventures with Hollywood studios looking to offset sluggish box office sales with new markets and cheaper production costs.

The thumping success of "Slumdog" did bring Hollywood and Bollywood closer together but challenges remain. Industry insiders estimate that foreign studios spent around three to five billion rupees (US$64.35 million) on producing Bollywood films but none hit the mark at the Indian boxoffice.

Warner's two releases "Chandni Chowk to China" (2009) and "Saas Bahu
Aur Sensex" (2008) failed to set the boxoffice on fire, as did Sony's
"Saawariya" (2007) and Disney's "Roadside Romeo" (2008).

Of these, only Warner has stuck with production and their next film "Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge" opens this month. Warner declined to comment but media reports suggest two other films are in the offing.

"There is no doubt that the studios are in India for the long run, because India is a market that cannot be ignored," said Jain.

"At the moment though, they are lying low."

Challenges foreign studios face are mostly in the way the Indian film industry functions. Deals in Bollywood were, until recently, made purely by shaking hands. While working on "My Name is Khan," filmmaker Johar found foreign studios also had a different way of functioning.

"They brought a lot of discipline to the project. The fact that we had to follow rules was an impediment, but it has taught us to stay within the rules," he said.

But Singh feels Bollywood audiences aren't all that different from their Western counterparts.

"As long as you back the right script and market it well, you should be home," he said.

" 'Avatar' was the second biggest grosser in India (in 2009), ahead of every Bollywood film except for '3 Idiots.'

"That says a lot for where the Indian film consumer is headed."
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