Triumphant triumvirate

Three distribs control Bollywood product around the globe

With Bollywood film festivals raging from Budapest to Los Angeles, it’s clear the global distribution of Hindi films has grown beyond the scattered roots of the Indian diaspora. That emerging popularity will translate into big dollars for Eros Entertainment, Yash Raj and UTV, three of the top Bollywood distributors in the world.

“Right now, like most of the Bollywood distributors, the U.K. represents probably 30% of our total market and the U.S. another 30%, and it’s growing,” says Avtar Panesar, head of operations in London for Yash Raj.

Eros Entertainment, with $100 million in worldwide sales annually, is still king and has been at it the longest, for 27 years, controlling 50% of the market that serves nearly 25 million expatriate Indians from Toronto to Johannesburg.

Eros CEO Kishore Lulla, whose father started the company in Bombay in 1977, says Eros now has plans to produce its own films.

“A lot of producers try and distribute on their own and find it’s not easy,” Lulla says. “We offer global theatrical distribution, video/DVD, even television through our world B4U network as well as a satellite broadcast venue.”

Eros’ first film venture, “Waqt,” stars Bollywood icon Amitabh Buchchan along with Askhay Kumar and Priyanka Chopra.

Still, Eros finds itself in a stew of global competition from itscompatriots.

“In 2004 we produced and distributed only three films, but those three were 50% (according to a BBC report) of the total business in India for the year and over 30% overseas,” says Yash Raj’s Panesar.

“Yash Raj is very selective in what they do,” says Bollywood producer Rajiv Rai, who works with Sahara One, a major player in Mumbai who’s produced more than 70 films with top talent from Aishwarya Rai to

Salman Khan. He underscores that Yash Raj produces nearly 90% of what it distributes, unlike Eros or UTV, and most of its films historically do very well. Its global sales equal $20 million annually.

UTV, which like many new companies in India started as a content provider, is giving Eros some competition.

Last year, its global sales equaled $19.9 million. UTV’s public offering in Mumbai in March closed at 29% above its initial opening, partly due to its acquiring international rights to 135 titles from Miramax.

UTV G.M. for international distribution Ashoka Holla says of 2004: “We came out with three big successful films: ‘Lakshya,’ starring Hrithik Roshan; ‘Swades,’ with Shah Rukh Khan; and ‘Phir milenge,’ with Salman Khan. So Eros is feeling our presence.”

America’s choice market numbers are on the rise, with mainstream American exhibs like Loews and Regal replacing traditional Indian-run cineplexes.

UTV North American topper Sridhar Sreekakula says the release pattern for “Swades” in the U.S. was even better than in the U.K.

But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t the only markets expanding to take on South Asian culture singing and dancing across the screen.

International markets now being scoped out include Latin America, with a vast population that distributors claim has a common ground with Indian family values; the Middle East; Morocco; South Africa; and several Asian countries where Indian communities flourish, such as Malaysia and Singapore.

Ken Naz, North American topper for Eros, recently met with the Indian consul general in Brazil to discuss more distribution of Bollywood content in Latin America.

“We’ve found that many of the Indian storylines of family and struggles find a common ground in the Latin culture,” Naz says.

“Latin America is still virtually an untapped market, but I believe it has huge potential,” agrees Yash Raj’s Panesar.

Other areas of market growth include Australia, where Panesar says the Hoyts chain has moved Bollywood films more into mainstream viewing.

He complains that if there were more distributors in the Middle East, there’d be even more growth there.

In South Africa, two major distributors control Bollywood film distribution and apparently keep excellent records, always a problem for distribs.

“South Africa is (a) good market with very good returns and a distribution that is well streamlined by New Metro chains, which takes a third, and SterKinekor chains, which control two-thirds of the cinemas,” says UTV’s Holla.

“We know which content is working there because it’s easy for us to keep track.”

Holla also points to Morocco, where Shah Rukh Khan films do extremely well. He used to send two prints and now he’s sending six. Like his competitors he adds that Europe is still a growing market, citing 2002’s Oscar-nominated “Lagaan” and “Devdas,” both of which sold 23,000 DVDs each in France.

Even Germany is getting a taste of Bollywood after RTL aired “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham” to stellar ratings last year.

But even as these players make their plans, there is competition from a fourth party.

“Piracy controls 70% of our market,” Panesar says, woefully. “And a lot of it is driven by the who-gives-a-damn Indian attitude, where they’ll buy a pirated DVD for less than standard, not realizing it costs the industry $30 million to $50 million in sales.”

Naz agrees: “A lot of the Bollywood distribution shops in America are mom-and-pop stores and clearly they pick up a lot of pirated product. We’re really working with law enforcement to crack down on piracy in all its forms.”