Bollywood pix widen their U.S. footprint

'Khan' release succeeds thanks to theaters outside urban areas

When Fox Searchlight released Bollywood film “My Name Is Khan” Stateside in the middle of February, the pic broke the record for an Indian film, with a boffo bow of $1.9 million in 120 locations.

The pic’s success was no accident. “We specially targeted the Indian diaspora here,” says Michelle Hooper, exec VP of marketing for Fox Searchlight, who points out that Fox Searchlight knows how to reach out to the South Asian auds in the U.S., since the studio distribbed not only last year’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” but also Indian films “The Namesake” and “Water.”

“We have some experience in reaching South Asian audiences here,” Hooper says. And it helped that South Asians are avid filmgoers.

The healthy audience for Bollywood films in the U.S., nearly all born in South Asia or with roots in India and Pakistan, don’t all live in major urban areas. Those fans began tracking “Khan” since August when Fox Searchlight bought rights. The film’s Berlin premiere and publicity surrounding star Shah Rukh Khan’s detainment at a Newark, N.J., airport only added awareness of the pic.

Fox Searchlight’s campaign follows the success of other Indian titles that have seen wider distribution, such as Aamir Khan starrer “3 Idiots,” which has grossed $6.6 million in the U.S. That film not only unspooled in New York and Los Angeles, cities with large South Asian populations, but also reached the heartland, playing in cities such as Rogers, Ark.; Warren, Mich.; and Peoria, Ill.

Similarly, when “Khan” opened, not only were fans in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago able to see it, but so were small-town residents who generally haven’t had theatrical access to Indian films.

“Khan,” now at $3.6 million in the U.S., is among a growing number of Indian films getting a wider release in the U.S.

Subhash Dhar, exec producer for Vinod Chopra Prods., which produced “3 Idiots,” realized bowing Indian films in more mainstream theaters would help fight piracy and draw bigger auds. The distrib doubled the usual number of prints and went into smaller towns that usually were ignored.

The alliance with Reliance MediaWorks, which owns Big Cinemas, gave “3 Idiots” a boost as the exhib was trying to expand its global footprint. Anil Arjun, CEO of Reliance MediaWorks, says the exhib decided to go for the widest release possible for “3 Idiots.”

Previously, Indian exhibs in the U.S. tended to be territorial and discouraged more than one plex in a region from showing a title. But “3 Idiots” opened in December on 130 prints and added screens the following weeks.

Arjun says Reliance, which bought up exhib chain Adlabs a few years ago and changed its name, advertised online and among South Asian clubs to let auds know that “instead of driving 25 miles, there’s a theater four miles away showing the movie.”

Persuading mainstream exhibs to show Bollywood films is not difficult, says Ken Naz, North American topper for Bollywood behemoth Eros Intl., who adds that his company has been showing Hindi films at AMC, Loews and other venues in the New York-New Jersey area for about 10 years.

Eros decided to expand in order to reach the third- and fourth-generation South Asians who wanted to see Hindi films but didn’t want to go to a rinky-dink theater for their Amitabh Bachchan fix.

“At first they were hesitant, but when we showed them the grosses, they came around,” Naz says.

Reliance’s next step is to reach U.S. states where its hold isn’t as deep, including Florida and Texas, per Arjun.

UTV Motion Pictures North American prexy Lokesh Dhar has been watching the change. In the past, a Hindi distrib would “four-wall” a theater, that is rent a screen for a weekend. Now there are more prints available and more theaters in small towns that unspool Bollywood films — as long as the box office is there.

“If you show an Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh film, (auds) will come,” says Dhar (no relation to Vinod Chopra Prods.’ Subhash Dhar).

However it’s unlikely these films will cross over to the wider American population, Lokesh Dhar says.

“American audiences are not interested in watching films with subtitles. When people make comparisons with ‘Slumdog’ and say Americans are discovering Indian films, they are forgetting that it was an English film.”