Studios ramp up for Bollywood productions

Warner Bros. on Tuesday unveiled its first India production, the action comedy “Made in China,” for which it will hold worldwide rights.

With the film — helmed by Nikhil Advani (“Salaam-e-ishq”) and produced by Indian shingles Ramesh Sippy Prods. and Orion Pictures –Warner joins Viacom, Sony and Disney in the accelerating Hollywood race to make movies in India.

Though Hollywood fare flourishes overseas, it accounts for a small percentage of the box office in India –the world’s second most populous nation. For example, Hollywood fare accounted for 85% of Spain’s B.O. in 2006 but only 8% in India.

Since more multiplexes mean the Indian B.O. pie is growing, Hollywood is determined to increase its share — and rather than bringing Western influence into the movie biz, the plan is to get into the Bollywood game.

Local fare, such as Hindi-language Bollywood pics, rules the box office and also define entertainment in India. Film scores and song-and-dance tunes from Bollywood movies dominate the musical landscape, while local stars rule the advertising market through their product endorsements.

In the wake of these realities, Hollywood is changing its India game plan. In the past, the studios gave lip service to the notion of acquiring remake rights or the possibility of exporting local foreign-language films to wider international audiences. Those notions have largely been dropped.

The Hollywood studios now expect their Indian movies to earn the majority of their revenues from the India market. Sony, News Corp., Disney and Warner have been working in the local TV sector in this way for several years.

Comparisons with China are enlightening. While filmmakers in China must submit to central government requirements for a focus on Chinese culture and local talent as a condition for co-production approval or local release, Indian helmers and producers are being given effective creative control because it makes financial sense.

WB’s Hindi-language “Made in China” will star Bollywood action hero Akshay Kumar as a lowly Mumbai cook who is mistaken for a martial-arts master as well as Indian model-turned-actress Deepika Padukone. Pic was scripted by Shridhar Raghavan, who penned the Ramesh Sippy hit “Bluff Master.”

The Hindi-language film, it is said, will be the first ever to lense in China when production begins in January, and Chinese casting is under way.

Budget was not disclosed but is believed to be substantial by Indian standards. (“Devdas” holds the record at $11 million, but $4 million-$6 million is considered pricey.)

“At the turn of the century, there was a lot of promise in the air about globalization in Indian cinema, and now, with this venture, RSE and Orion are joining hands with Warner Bros., bringing that dream closer to reality,” said producer Sippy.

Hollywood’s other projects in India:

  • Sony Pictures is backing “Saawariya,” a Bollywood meller being helmed by a master of the big spectacle, Sanjay Leela Bhansali (“Devdas”).

  • In June, Disney pacted with Bollywood powerhouse Yash Raj Films to take both companies into India’s increasingly muscular CGI animation biz. Strategic alliance sets “Roadside Romeo” as its first picture and commits the pair to making one toon budgeted at $4 million-$10 million each year thereafter.

  • In an even bigger move unveiled in May, Viacom tipped the bulk of its Indian businesses into a joint venture with the Network-18 group. While deal initially focuses on smallscreen ventures, part of that pact sees Viacom became an equal partner in the Indian Film Co., a new shingle that raised $112 million from a London Stock Exchange flotation and has greenlit development and production of 22 movies with start dates skedded over the coming 18 months.

(Indian Film Co. committed on Tuesday to two pics from Sohail Khan Prods., both set to star Salman Khan.)

Still investing in Bollywood isn’t without its risks for outsiders. Twentieth Century Fox’s plans to produce three Hindi films from director Ram Gopal Varma, including “Ek hasina thi” (There Was Once a Beauty), fell apart in 2002 over difficulties between the studio and Varma’s production company (Daily Variety, March 22, 2006).

Hollywood has gone local in other places around the globe. Warner was a backer of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” in France, while Sony was key to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” often held up as the epitome of local production combined with Hollywood distribution strength.

The U.S. studios have had a very strong year so far in India, with “Spider-Man 3,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” all turning in boffo numbers. But that success has highlighted what a small share of the Indian movie biz Hollywood currently enjoys.

“We are excited and proud to be working with such respected partners as Ramesh Sippy and Orion,” said Blaise Fernandes, country manager, Warner Bros. Entertainment India. “We’ll count on our partners’ expertise and will do everything in our power to make a well-crafted, popular and successful Indian film.”

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