India, China, Japan a financial movie force

At the Cannes film festival, it was clearer than ever that much of the money and energy in the global film business revolves around Asia.

India, especially, is working to shed its provincial Bollywood-centric image. Racking up better ticket sales locally than Hollywood blockbusters, and with stars who are some of the world’s most recognizable figures, the country is ready to become a major player on the world scene.

“Get used to it; there’s a lot more to come,” said Amit Khanna, CEO of Reliance Big Entertainment after announcing a commitment to invest $1 billion in movies over the next 18 months, funding a 69 picture slate of films in nine languages.

“The time is right for Indian companies to step out and take on the world,” he said.

Two days later, his company announced finance and development deals with eight Hollywood production shingles, including those of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage.

Then Eros Intl., the biggest distributor of Indian movies, unveiled a joint-venture company with Lionsgate. New outfit is intended to get Bollywood films into the parts of America beyond Indian neighborhoods and to conversely give Lionsgate’s titles a chance to reach India’s 440 million-strong middle class. The companies also will consider acquiring properties to jointly retool as remakes.

The flurry of deals are further evidence of the subcontinent’s growing “soft power,” meaning its corporations’ growing financial muscle and the spending power of its fast-growing consumer society. (The number of mobile phone users in India grew by 10 million in April alone.) Similar developments already have been witnessed by Indian companies in steel, pharmaceuticals and IT. Now, the entertainment biz is getting a piece of the action.

The Indian companies are coming with full pocketbooks. Reliance Big Entertainment is backed by a $100 billion power, infrastructure and telecom group and financier George Soros. Eros and the Indian Film Co. both have their own financial firepower and listings on the London Stock Exchange. Indeed, Hollywood entertainment congloms including Disney, Viacom, Warner, NBC Universal and Sony have spent the last two years pouring vast amounts of capital into the Indian TV sector.

Cannes witnessed Indian companies taking a more prominent place in the specialty film mainstream. Indian buyers were more active than at previous Cannes markets (a boost that comes from new TV channels addressing the well-traveled demographics.) Their sales arms in Cannes sold off rights to Indian films to distributors, notably in Europe and Latin America.

While this year’s Cannes felt like a coming-out party for India, China and Japan were also busy.

One of the biggest junkets of the week was for John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” the pic that marks Woo’s return to China after a decade working in Hollywood. Without recourse to outside coin, the $80 million pic was fully financed by four Asian equity investors. Woo said that China now has world class production capacity — “people in China have the ability to make ‘Gladiator’ or ‘Troy,” he said — and he backed up that claim by unveiling genuinely spectacular footage.

In Cannes, he revealed that his next project, civil war-set romantic epic “1949″ will also shoot in China starting in December.

Japan’s Avex Entertainment was also on the Croisette to show off its financial power with a strictly VIP party costing a reported $3 million. The talent, movie and music conglom takes a typically Japanese longterm approach to building a pan-Asian movie industry, but unusually for a Japanese concern, it is becoming deeply involved with China.

“After years of fumbling for a strategy, we now have a clear goal, to make Asia the center of the film world,” Avex co-CEO Ryuhei Chiba said.

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