Distrib cashes in with direct releases

Col-TriStar India handles Punjabi, Bengali distribution

MUMBAI — These past two years, Bollywood hits have been few and far between. But Columbia TriStar India’s distribution operation is one of the few bright spots in the area.

In the past year, the distributor boosted B.O. revenues from a mere $930,000 to an solid $23.3 million. It had an impressive lineup — “Monsoon Wedding” grossed $1.5 million, “Bend It Like Beckham” grossed $3 million and the low-budget “16th December,” which was among the Bollywood movies that did well — contributed close to 30% of that revenue. In India the blockbuster “Spider-man” grossed $1.2 million in the first week, setting a record of its own and adding substantially to the bottom line.

Columbia-TriStar India has gone regional, handling the distribution of a Punjabi and a Bengali movie in their respective areas. While the ethos and sensibilities of both regions are vastly different, Columbia TriStar is helped by its nationwide presence. It allows the producer to track B.O. by show or by print in real time. This facility is lacking in the traditional distributor setup in India. The regular distribution arrangement comes up with figures in about a day in large cities and a week in smaller centers.

Ashish Bhatnagar, CEO of iDream Prods. (which bought Indian rights to both “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Monsoon Wedding” and licensed them to Columbia-TriStar to distribute and market), says, “We have been with them for seven films now. We are very happy with them. In regular distributor setups in India, typically there is some mom-and-pop setup that buys the territory. After that we aren’t even sure that we are being given the correct collection figures. With Columbia TriStar we are sure about the setup (and) figures, and there is a transparency that we count on.”

But industry analyst Vinod Mirani of Box Office strikes a cautious note. “They have a nationwide presence, true. But where are they in the smaller, more remote centers? The Hollywood circuit and the Bollywood circuits are vastly different.

“To effectively market a mainline Bollywood movie, you have to go to the village in Bihar and the traveling cinema. When it comes to that, they still have to hand over the territory to the regular distributor. Why, then, should the producer pay them and have them take it to the regular distributor, when he can go to those distributors himself?”

Col TriStar claims to be very choosy in accepting projects, seeing what it can bring to the project in terms of logistical support to take the film to another level.

As Bhatnagar points out, “With them the understanding is very clear. They do the distribution and marketing. We handle the media portion of it. They definitely take my film to another level. When I take a movie to them, they tell me if it works or not. They also come up with a cohesive marketing strategy, which we then work with to suit both of us.”

While Bollywood has yet to have a big hit this year, and local distributors despair, Columbia TriStar seems to be able to make the best of the available product.