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Bollywood is big B.O. overseas

'Kal,' 'Chalte,' 'Baghban' among top pix outside India

MUMBAI Since Bollywood is one of the world’s largest film industries, it’s no surprise that export of Bollywood product has become as important to Indian producers as selling U.S. films abroad is to Hollywood.

And last year was Bollywood’s best year overseas yet, with five films grossing more than $2 million each from the U.S. and the U.K.

Top Bollywood pics outside India were “Kal ho na ho,” “Koi mil gaya,” “Baghban,” “Chalte chalte” and “Main prem ki deewani hoon.”

The market has become increasingly lucrative for Bollywood producers. While a decade ago, an A-list film sold for $500,000, now prices range from $1 million to $2 million, with many films making 15% to 20% of their total proceeds from overseas — mostly from the U.K. and the U.S., but also from many other countries.

Two players have dominated overseas distribution — 25-year-old Eros Intl., which releases about 50 films a year, and Yash Raj Films, which started operations in 1997 and has released about 22 films so far.

But the ground rules of Bollywood overseas distribution are changing.

Several players are entering the market with promises of better deals, greater transparency and, of course, bigger box office.

UTV, an entertainment company with interests in television, films and broadcasting, released “Lakshaya” (Aim) this summer. Film, which UTV also co-produced, grossed $750,000 in the U.S. In December, UTV will release “Swades,” helmed by Oscar-nominated director Ashutosh Gowarikar. Ten other films are lined up for release in the coming months.

Zee Telefilms, one of India’s largest vertically integrated media companies, made box office waves with its first release “Mujhse shaadi karogi” (Will You Marry Me?). Film hit the U.K. charts at No. 8, eventually grossing $1.2 million.

Zee, the first private broadcaster in South Asia, heavily promoted the film on its television channels, which reach an estimated 225 million viewers in more than 120 countries. Producer Sajid Nadiadwala says, “None of the earlier films I’ve made had a pre-release buzz like this.”

Other players are also fighting for a piece of the nonresident Indian audience. Venus, which entered the market in 2002, has eight to 10 films lined up for release this year. Another distrib, Alien Nitrate, will start acquisitions early next year.

But Hindi film distribution is a tricky, imprecise business. Over the years, several majors have tried to master the market (in 2000, Sony Entertainment Television released “Mission Kashmir”) but closed shop after burning their fingers with one or two films. Piracy, which eats up an estimated 75% of the market, is a major hurdle.

UTV and Zee promise to counter the current lack of box office and tracking information.

“Our mantra is pure transparency,” says UTV’s Sridhar Sreekakula. “We are working on a system where the subdistributor and exhibitor are rewarded for their reporting.”

Zee’s film distribution head, Kamal Mukut, similarly insists that all its figures are public.

Marketing, once ignored by distributors who felt they had a captive audience, has gained in importance as well.

Eros Intl.’s managing director,Kishore Lulla, isn’t unduly perturbed about his near-monopoly being challenged: “It is a very difficult market, and only those who have the network and a huge catalog can survive.”

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