HONG KONG — Hollywood isn’t a big deal in India, but Will Smith is. While Hollywood movies must make do with a market share of 5%-10% in a subcontinent dominated by Bollywood and other local varieties of cinema, Smith once again confounds expectations.
He helped launch Sony’s Pix channel in India, has done guest turns on talent competition show “Indian Idol” and even has a production deal with UTV, one of India’s leading studios.
According to previous accounts, Smith’s interest in India came after release plans for the superstar’s date-doctor pic “Hitch” were rejected by Chinese authorities. Angry at being locked out of such a growth market, the proactive Smith turned to Sony toppers Howard Stringer and Michael Lynton, who instead of suggesting a solution to the China problem said they could be more helpful in India, a much more open market.
A month or two later, Smith and Overbrook partner James Lassiter took a five-day trip to India, where they met execs, directors and giants of the Indian scene, including superstar Amitabh Bachchan, and visited the Taj Mahal.
“On his first trip to India, not only did Will have a great time and meet a lot of interesting people, but I believe he really did fall in love with India — the warmth of the people and the interaction and the buzz of the city and the creative energy of the people of the film world,” says UTV topper Ronnie Screwvala.
“I really feel there is a marriage to be made between Hollywood and Bollywood,” Smith said at the time, and he joked that he would like to be called “the Big W,” an echo of Bachchan’s nickname “the Big B.”
Smith’s global appeal may have much to do both with his interest in the world beyond the U.S. shores and his willingness to engage in a hands-on fashion.
“It’s been said, ‘Why sell something to 10 people when you can sell it to 10 million people?’ You have to have a global perspective,” Smith told the New York Times.
He is critical of stars who don’t like to travel abroad in support of their movies, and he uses each of his Hollywood tentpoles to target a particular country for intense promotion work — and expansion of his inclusive, arms-wide-open brand.
“Will is one of the biggest brands worldwide and not just in Hollywood. He was an Obama long before the Obama wave,” Screwvala adds.
Screwvala — who like Smith, wasn’t born into an entertainment dynasty and has embraced modern practices to grow UTV into a global business — saw an opportunity to build something, and he quickly followed up with meetings in L.A. and Gotham. That turned into a $30 million deal for UTV and Overbrook to co-produce movies that Sony would distribute.
Plan is to make a live-action film in the region of $10 million and an animated pic costing $20 million. Deal sees UTV provide coin up to a specified sum, beyond which Overbrook has to raise the money. Emphasis is on Smith and Lassiter to develop a script and hire the cast.
“We struck a chord, and it was clearly keeping in mind an Asia and India slant,” says Screwvala. “Overbrook has picked some very out-of-the-ordinary scripts — pathbreaking — and then backed them creatively. That’s their breakout.”
Separately, Overbrook is one of half a dozen companies controlled by Hollywood stars that this year agreed to accept coin from another Indian conglom, Reliance Big Entertainment, to create “production silos.”
Since that first trip to India 2½ years ago, Smith and Lassiter have returned regularly, visiting more stars, execs and locations. Danny Boyle reports that Smith visited him twice while the Brit helmer was lensing India-set “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“There’s going to be a massive coming together of Bollywood and Hollywood. It’ll only take one person to bring them together, and it’ll be huge,” Boyle told the Indian press. The Big W could be the man for the job.