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Passage to India

Par curries favor with Bollywood

Viacom has become the latest Hollywood major to beat a path to India to tap into the country’s potentially lucrative film production industry.

Prexy-CEO Tom Freston kicked off the three-day Frames showbiz confab in Mumbai on Wednesday by announcing that Paramount is mulling the co-production of pics with Bollywood. India’s vast filmmaking community turns out some 800 per year.

“We want to produce films here; we don’t want to just distribute,” he said. “We want to work with Indian producers” in what he called a young market.

“We’re also keen to explore the homevideo market: Eighty percent of film revenues in India comes from ticket sales, whereas 60% of revenues in the West comes from homevideo,” he told the aud at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

He said the experience of MTV India, which became a hit only after Viacom hired local VJs and programmers, had reinforced the conglom’s commitment to localization.

Freston’s push comes just weeks after Disney finally made the leap into Indian production, hiring Mumbai-based producer Shyam P.S. (“Rang de basanti” — Spring Colors) as its film topper to spearhead creation and acquisition of original Indian films.

That move makes good on Bob Iger’s promise of 15 months ago, before he became Disney CEO, to expand Mouse House ops in India.

Sony already is co-producing its first Hindi-language Indian film, “Saawariya” (Beloved), helmed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (“Devdas”).

“We recognize the potential and importance of the Indian market and welcome the opportunity to team up with the film industry in India,” Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton said in October. Pic will be released through Sony Pictures Releasing India.

Hyde Park Entertainment chairman Ashok Amritraj also announced plans at Frames — organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry — to co-produce a Bollywood film at the end of this year; he’s exploring setting up a joint venture with an Indian animation company.

Twentieth Century Fox’s plans to produce three Hindi films from director Ram Gopal Varma, including “Ek hasina thi” (There Was Once a Beauty), fell apart in 2002 over difficulties between Varma’s production company and Fox.

Historically, Hollywood studios have been reluctant to invest in Indian film productions due to restrictions imposed on foreign investors. But with ticket sales in India reaching $57 million in 2004, attitudes are changing.

And the country’s population of 1.1 billion puts it on a par with China, but without the sudden government changes of policy that make China so troublesome to deal with.

Hollywood has long distribbed pics in the country, but even that area can be problematic. Last March, Warner Bros. inked to distribute 20th Century Fox films in India after latter shuttered its 73-year-old Mumbai-based Indian distribution arm the previous month.

The news surprised local industryites as it came in a year of record earnings posted by the Indian distribs of Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStar.

“Spider-Man 2” grossed more than 350 million rupees ($8 million) last year to become the second highest grossing English-language pic in India after “Titanic,” which made more than $11.5 million.

Latest news comes as a report released Wednesday from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry predicts that foreign investors will help revenues in the Indian media and entertainment sector grow at nearly 20% per year to $19 billion by 2010. The industry is currently worth $8 billion.

Report said big business is buying into the media and entertainment sector, with several production and distribution companies having gone public.

“The Indian entertainment and media industry today has everything going for it, be it regulations that allow foreign investment, the impetus from the economy, the digital lifestyle and spending habits of the consumers and the opportunities thrown open by the advancements in technology,” the report said. “The entertainment and media industry has all that it takes to be a star performer of the Indian economy.”

India’s economy is forecast to grow 8.1% in the financial year ending March 31.

(Bobbie Whiteman in Hollywood contributed to this report.)