Reliance Rethinks Its Big Hollywood Experiment Amid an Uncertain Future

2012-07 BIZ Reliance Illustration H
Stephen Lovekin, Frazer Harrison, Rabbani and Solimene Photography, and Jason Merritt/Getty Images

From left: Tom Hanks, Brian Grazer, Brett Ratner and Julia Roberts are beneficiaries of Reliance's dealmaking.

Four years after delivering cash to DreamWorks and CAA clients, the Indian conglom shows signs of retreat.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

India giant Reliance Group grabbed Hollywood's attention in 2008 by pouring tens of millions of dollars into development deals with big-name stars and investing $325 million in DreamWorks at a point when Steven Spielberg's label urgently needed cash. But nearly four years later, as those pacts have yielded little and DreamWorks has endured a bumpy ride, is India's largest privately held company losing its appetite for the entertainment business?

Attorney Schuyler Moore, who represents Reliance in some matters, says the company still plans to be a global media player. "They are happy with all their talent relationships," he says. "They are happy with DreamWorks. They've been financially successful. They are thrilled with everything that's happened."

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But a close look at Reliance's Hollywood experiment reveals few bright spots and signs of an uncertain future.

The company, which posts annual revenue in excess of $58 billion from interests as diverse as mining and textile manufacturing, broke into Hollywood with 10 development deals worth $2 million each. Those pacts, forged by then-CAA agent Emanuel Nunez, exclusively benefited CAA clients including Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jim Carrey and director Jay Roach. Reliance intended that each deal would generate at least two projects; talent kept an ownership interest in any project created through the deals.

Some participants requested and received funds beyond the initial $2 million:

Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment financed a writers lab with $5 million from Reliance over 18 months, with the hope of generating 25 projects. None has yet been greenlighted. (Imagine says many scripts "continue to be developed.")

• Director Brett Ratner quickly maxed out his fund-buying material and submitted additional projects that Reliance approved. He also was hired to recut the 2010 Bollywood action movie Kites, which flopped.

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Tom Hanks' Playtone used an additional $5 million from Reliance to transform Electric City, an animated series developed at HBO, into an online game and a web series that will run on Yahoo in the spring. (Hanks appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and said his company had produced 90 minutes of the series for $2.5 million.)

So far, the only movie to have come out of Reliance's deals appears to be Jesus Henry Christ, a low-budget comedy produced by Roberts and starring Toni Collette and Michael Sheen. Entertainment One announced Feb. 13 that it will release the film in the spring.

At this point all the development deals have expired, though sources say Reliance will continue to provide money on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, there have been shifts in Reliance personnel. Initially, Amit Khanna, a longtime player in Bollywood films, oversaw the development deals. But sources say Khanna, 60, is no longer in that role. (Khanna declined comment.) Nunez, CAA's liaison to Khanna on these deals, left the agency in May to launch a talent management and media investment company. He also declined comment.

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It is unclear which Reliance executive, if any, oversees the remnants of its talent deals, but the chief power with respect to its entertainment business is vice chairman Amitabh Jhunjhunwala. In terms of Reliance's biggest investment in Hollywood -- its 2008 deal with DreamWorks -- the company's chief adviser was Alan Levine, a former Sony Pictures executive who was affiliated with JPMorgan Chase and the Ziffren Brittenham law firm. (Both relationships since have been dissolved.) Using Levine, Reliance in May made a far smaller investment in Lava Bear, the film company founded by former Universal co-chairman David Linde.

A source says Levine had hoped to become the company's sole Hollywood representative. (Levine declined comment.) But others say a May 2010 deal to acquire a stake in Stuart Ford's film sales company IM Global was handled by the low-profile Deepak Nayar, a producer and investor who has emerged as an important representative in Los Angeles. A source says the involvement of Nayar, not widely known in Hollywood, suggests that Reliance's ardor for entertainment has cooled. But another source who has had dealings with Nayar and describes him as "user friendly" isn't so sure. "I don't know what he's done," says this person, "but he wants to build something." (Nayar did not respond to a request for comment.)

There is little doubt Reliance has so far faced losses on the DreamWorks deal. Spielberg's company scored with The Help but was unsuccessful with such films as Cowboys & Aliens and I Am Number Four. Some read the fact that Reliance has not yet committed to refresh DreamWorks' coffers as a sign that it means to back away from the relationship. But a source familiar with Reliance's thinking believes the company wants to work out an arrangement.

"Had DreamWorks not gotten 10 Oscar nominations and all that positive press in India for [Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani], it would be easier to step sideways," says this person. "But I think he'll say to DreamWorks: 'We're going to move forward, but we need a partner. … If Warner Bros. can have Legendary sharing costs on Dark Knight, why can't we have a version of Legendary?' "

Whether Reliance will double down on Hollywood or perhaps find new money to share risk is the multimillion-dollar question.