Reliance's Hollywood play could be beginning of a subcontinental shift

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Hollywood thrives on OPM, but few folks were prepared last week for the stunner that an Asian-based conglomerate that sounds like it should be in the insurance business but is actually best known for textiles and supermarkets was in talks to fork over half a billion dollars to buy into the town's most iconic, independent-minded movie machine, namely DreamWorks.

It definitely was a day of Holly goes Golly over Bolly when folks here found themselves stumbling over the name of the owner of Reliance ADA, one Anil Ambani, who, if all goes according to plan, might become as familiar a name here as Vivendi's Jean-Marie Messier or Sony's Akio Morita were in their day.

Fortunately, the company boasts a little subsidiary simply called Big Entertainment, which is the unit in talks with DreamWorks reps about an outright cash injection in the company set up 14 years ago by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Other suitors might be circling the SKG bandwagon as well, but the Reliance offer almost certainly would represent the biggest chunk of whatever equity is needed to allow DreamWorks to again control its own destiny and presumably cut ties with current owner Paramount.

The latest speculation put the sum being waved about by the Indians even higher, but no one at either company was confirming those rumors. (Reliance is a multifaceted $70 billion colossus, split more or less in half between the two sons of Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukesh and Anil. The former got oil, gas and farming; the latter lords over telecommunications, banking and entertainment. The two reportedly feud.) There already was a sign of the company's Tinseltown aspirations at May's Festival de Cannes, where Big Entertainment CEO Rajesh Sawhney unveiled plans to invest upward of $1 billion in the movies of top Hollywood actors including Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage and George Clooney.

At that event, Sawhney said: "If we want to engage globally, we have to engage with Hollywood. And that means engaging with talent."

Three days ago, he told reporters in Mumbai gathered to hear about yet another huge-money film foray — this time investing several hundred million in the country's top film acting dynasty, the Bachchans — that Big is not a hedge fund: While stressing that relationships with talent are based on creative freedom, Sawhney said that the talent involved also should realize that "there is an element of responsibility that comes with creative freedom."

Whatever might be the company's interest in creative control, the investments stateside would represent the first substantial influx of Indian money into Tinseltown, a sure sign that financial clout and cultural confidence are alive and well in the Far East. This as the U.S. dollar and media stocks continue to languish, American banks go to the wall and private-equity players and hedge funds retreat for safer havens.

Not since the Japanese made inroads into New York and Hollywood at the beginning of the 1990s have so many eyebrows been raised and heads scratched about what, if such investments take hold, this new financial muscle might mean.

For one thing, India already is a crucial outpost and back-office partner for a substantial number of the biggest U.S. corporations. And unlike, say, the fledgling financial and services center rising from the deserts of the United Arab Emirates, India boasts its own much-loved and highly developed indigenous entertainment business.

Bollywood churns out five times as many movies a year as Hollywood, at a tenth the cost per movie. Only problem: Its output rarely travels successfully beyond its own borders or the limited Indian diaspora abroad, whereas U.S.-produced films make more than half their money outside North America.

Unlike the heretofore inwardly focused Indian entertainment players, American companies, including all the Hollywood majors, have invested heavily in India during the past decade, especially on the satellite and cable channel side. The foray stateside by Reliance might help reverse that flow. Per an Indian producer who knows the company well, the CAA-facilitated entree into Hollywood is part of Reliance's push to be a global player in entertainment as well as in the energy biz. And if it succeeds here, other Indian players (think Modi, Zee, et al.) won't be far behind.

Maybe. However, I don't want to be naive — the Reliance outlays might well be nothing more than fickle financial gambles in which the Indian partner is hoping to make a quick buck while getting invited to movie premieres and star-studded parties — but it's also possible that Reliance has more long-term ambitions in mind.

If it does become the single biggest investor in a newly independent DreamWorks and ups the ante with the aforementioned actors, who's to say what the impact might be?

Might, for example, a closer study of Spielberg's storytelling genius inspire filmmakers working under the Reliance umbrella back on the subcontinent? Those song-and-dance numbers, the mainstay of so many Hindi drama epics, might give way to a more compelling narrative pulse and thus make more of those movies appealing to Americans and Europeans.

Or might relations with all these top-flight actors in whose movies Reliance is a backer lead to an influx of Indian talent in the U.S.? Might we at least see the amazingly green-eyed Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a love story with the brown-eyed Clooney?

Might a relationship between an American studio distributor and Reliance — if indeed DreamWorks does a distribution deal with NBC Universal (and this too has yet to be worked out) — mean that pressure is put on Indian authorities to further loosen the currency restrictions and other hurdles that keep American movies, including DreamWorks', from making much money in India? (The country is not even among the top 20 foreign boxoffice gross territories for MPA-distributed pictures, though with 1.1 billion inhabitants, it has the second-largest population in the world, almost a quarter of which speaks English.)

Might Mumbai's ability to mount pictures for a pittance inspire Hollywood filmmakers to be more financially conservative? (OK, that one's really naive … .)

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.
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