Fox International Productions Head Talks Hollywood Adaptations for India (Q&A)

Sanford Panitch, president, Fox International Productions
Fox International Productions

Sanford Panitch discusses the Bollywood version of Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz starrer “Knight And Day” and the opportunities of the Indian market.

Fox Star Studios India is among the Hollywood majors that have expanded their presence in India with local productions while trying to widen the market for Hollywood films. Established in 2008 as a joint venture between 21st Century Fox and News Corp's Star broadcasting and media group, Mumbai-based FSS replaced 20th Century Fox India to handle the studio's distribution of Hollywood films here while foraying into Hindi language Bollywood cinema and the South Indian industry.

FSS releases have included Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's 2010 title My Name Is Khan, along with more recent releases such as thrillers Raaz 3D and Murder 3. FSS's upcoming projects include a Bollywood version of the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz starrer Knight And Day. Titled Bang Bang, the Siddharth Anand-directed film will star Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan and actress Katrina Kaif and is scheduled for release next year.

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Fox International Productions president Sanford Panitch attended the Big Picture summit in New Delhi organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry. He shared his views on content creation as part of a panel discussion that featured leading Bollywood figures such as directors Ramesh Sippy and Prakash Jha. Panitch sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to provide an overview of FSS's India strategy, while offering insight on the potential of adapting Hollywood films for the local market.

THR: How have the first five years been for Fox Star Studios in India?

Sanford Panitch: We made a focused decision to be part of the largest film market in the world (given that India produces the highest number of films annually, estimated at about a thousand titles). The goal was to succeed with Indian films and in our endeavor, we had the support of the Star group (which runs a diversified broadcasting and media network). These five years also gave us an opportunity to understand the market for our Hollywood product so we could make a foothold in that space as well. And we are seeing growth in that area. The India box office numbers for Life of Pi (the Ang Lee film collected over $17 million) were a good example. As for our domestic content, this year we will make eight Bollywood films.

THR: China's box office for Hollywood product is way ahead of India's. But in India you seem to be producing more local films. How do you compare the two markets?

Panitch: The biggest distinction between both markets is that China is not primarily driven by local films -- the market is equally divided between Chinese and Hollywood or foreign films. (By contrast, Hollywood films only command less than ten percent market share in India.)

Yes, they only allow 34 foreign films [into the market], but beyond the restrictions, Chinese growth is extraordinary -- it can grow 30 percent every year. However, Chinese box office for local films will still be bigger than for Hollywood films.

As for producing local films, there can be more experimentation in a market where you don't have restrictions and censorship. But things are opening up in China -- there used to be the trend of only doing period films but now all kind of films are being made -- from cop thrillers to romantic comedies which are doing well at the box office.

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THR: FSS is next producing Bang Bang -- starring Hrithik Roshan and actress Katrina Kaif -- a Bollywood adaptation of the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz film Knight And Day. How do you see the potential of adapting a tested property for the local market?

Panitch: In the nearly 50 or 60 non-Hollywood films that Fox has made worldwide, we have never made any adaptation of a Hollywood film. That has not been our strategy. We source local material and scripts and create indigenous IP (intellectual property). Bang Bang happens to be based on a Hollywood film that the director (Siddharth Anand) and Hrithik Roshan thought would lend itself well to the Indian market. But its almost a reinvention -- it's really a Bollywood film. Most of the audience probably never saw the original, while for some pockets of the audience there may be a curiosity to compare it with Knight and Day.

THR: Historically, Bollywood was always been accused of ripping off international storylines. How have things changed now that the Hollywood studios are getting more active here?

Panitch: I think inspiration based on other people's concepts isn't new. And Hollywood certainly has been doing that too. But inspiration and movies that violate IP are different things. Now that the studios are in India, there is more awareness. We have many local producers calling us for IP issues. They are also understanding that protecting IP for their films is as important.

THR: In 2009, Fox settled a legal dispute with Bollywood producer Ravi Chopra who was making what seemed like an unauthorized local version of My Cousin Vinny.

Panitch: That has been one of twelve episodes -- we have an aggressive strategy to protect our IP. But, as I said, things are changing rapidly. For instance, leading Bollywood producer Karan Johar took permission to remake Sony Pictures' Stepmom.

THR: As the Star network has demonstrated with hit local versions of foreign formats (including launching the first Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire), television seems to have shown the way when it comes to to adapting foreign content for India. Does that give you any pointers?

Panitch: I think it is a unique situation in India where Hollywood may have a small market share, but the content has value for remakes especially for TV. One of the best examples is the upcoming Indian adaptation of Fox's 24 (co-produced by and starring Anil Kapoor, which will air on Viacom18's Hindi entertainment channel Colors). But for us, we are trying to find new talent and new stories for film. We make Hollywood films for the whole world and are entering local markets with local content. But who knows, it could well be the other way round -- we might end up making a south Indian language Tamil film that gets remade in Hollywood.

THR: There is some buzz around the independent film scene in India. What do you make of that?

Panitch: I really think the democratization of media is impacting content. You can shoot a movie on a phone and do post with cheaper editing programs which can turn incredible material into incredible content. It's never been a better time to do this. As the business gets healthier where you can start to monetize content in different ways, it allows movies for these kinds to be created unlike before. Now there is a genuine diaspora audience or new markets that didn't exist earlier. And there are secondary markets and outlets like Netflix which can allow for a perpetuation of these kind of films out of India.

THR: So would you consider something like a Fox Searchlight for India?

Panitch: I hope some day that could happen. We are still new to the market and getting a grip. Luckily, we have had some success in both mainstream films while we tried offbeat fare like Stanley Ka Dabba. We are making those kind of experiments under the Fox Star Studios banner. For now, we don't need to label this kind of content.

THR: Are there any lessons from other markets that you can apply in India and vice versa?

Panitch: The biggest thing we have done here is to take chances with first time directors (such as Amole Gupta of Stanley Ka Dabba). There are a couple of new films in the pipeline with new talent. One thing that we do in Hollywood and in other markets is that you don't have to make every movie that you buy. It's important to put time and effort in scripts regardless of whether they get made. In India, the concept of a bound script was new and now its becoming common.

THR: Do you see any potential in making an Indian film travel internationally since it's backed by a Hollywood studio?

Panitch: The big challenge for any local film is its often about language. At this time in the world, English language films tend to travel. We make Hollywood films for the whole world anyway. My Name Is Khan was still a big international success for us and we opened new markets (beyond the Indian diaspora) with that.

THR: FSS has also ventured into the South Indian film industry. How different is that compared to the mainstream Hindi Bollywood industry?

Panitch: We just finished our fourth South Indian film (Raja Rani) and we have a good tie up with (leading producer) A. R. Murugadoss. (FSS also expanded its South India presence partnering with leading producer C. V. Kumar.) I think -- and maybe it is provocative to say that -- there is sometimes more originality in the South Indian film industry [than in Bollywood]. They are not as restricted -- maybe because their cost of marketing is not very high. And that's also the problem in Hollywood, because once the cost of marketing is high, it forces you to dumb down the product to make it more accessible. The fact that some South Indian films are being remade for the Hindi market proves that their content is more inspiring. So I see it as great source material.

THR: In Bollywod, FSS has had a relationship with leading banner Vishesh Films, backed by brothers Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt. What made you connect with their brand of cinema?

Panitch: They are like-minded in making films at a great price that are very marketable. They do all kinds of genres (such as murder mystery Raaz 3D) and are great storytellers. Moreover, they discover new talent and these are things we are trying to do as well.

THR: FSS is currently producing acclaimed director Anurag Kashyap's next Bombay Velvet, which is planned as a trilogy. What are your expectations for that?

Panitch: Bombay Velvet is definitely one of our big upcoming productions. We were really excited that an edgy guy like Anurag Kashyap, who made a cool two-part epic like Gangs of Wasseypur, can now make a more mainstream movie. It's got a great cast with Ranbir Kapoor, and it's never been a better time to cast him (given Kapoor's recent string of hits, including India's 2012 Oscar entry Barfi!). Of course, because of its subject matter (the trilogy is said to span across decades, starting from Mumbai's fifties jazz age to the seventies), maybe there is an opportunity for us to take Bombay Velvet to wider markets, because we have the ability to do that.