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Disney’s Bollywood Boom: Why the Mouse Re-Focused Local Production in India

Trio of local titles to get the studio’s brand — with an eye to wider distribution

Disney is making a bold move in India next year, releasing three high-profile Bollywood movies under its own label in a territory that has been notoriously tough for U.S. studios to crack — a potentially lucrative market that until recently has largely resisted Hollywood movies in favor of local-language films from a prolific film production industry.

Until now, Disney, which owns the market-leading film and TV group UTV, had been content to leave the UTV brand and its low-budget Spotboy label to their own devices.

But since the integration of Disney and UTV in India last year, the studios’ team has been looking for the right stories to develop into the first set of Disney branded local productions, said Siddharth Roy Kapur, managing director of studios for Disney UTV. “We are confident we have a slate of movies that capture the essence of the Disney brand — heartwarming, uplifting and fun for the whole family,” he said.

UTV has also taken on the Indian release of selected Disney movies under the UTV banner.

The trio of films — “PK,” “Jagga Jasoos” and “ABCD 2” — are all being made under the wing of Disney-UTV.

Using the Disney label by itself in the territory poses the question of whether the Mouse House is slowly getting a bigger hold of India, or if it’s India that is reshaping a Hollywood conglomerate.

All three of the new Disney titles can loosely be described as family films, and all are expected to be released in 2014-15. “PK,” which is in production, marks the re-teaming of helmer Rajkumar Hirani with Bollywood star Aamir Khan, the director-actor team behind global hit “3 Idiots.” “Jagga Jasoos,” which begins shooting in November, reunites “Barfi !” director Anurag Basu with that film’s star, Ranbir Kapoor, in a musical comedy about the zany adventures of a young detective. Bollywood leading lady Katrina Kaif is also onboard.

“ABCD 2” is a sequel to 3D dance film “Any Body Can Dance,” and will again be directed by celebrated choreographer-director Remo D’Souza and feature terp star Prabhudheva.

A few years back, Disney experimented with producing and distributing local-language films in several countries around the world, reflecting the growing power of international markets in Asia and Latin America. But in most places it has retreated, leaving UTV and India as its sole non-Hollywood production base.

Disney’s involvement with UTV grew slowly. In 2006, it bought UTV’s Hungama channel and took a 15% minority equity stake in UTV, before upping its position to 32% in 2008. Then — almost by accident — Disney ended up with an economic majority, but not management control, when an open share offer made during the great financial crisis allowed other investors to dump UTV’s plunging stock. Last year, Disney bought the Indian op for $454 million.

Significantly, when Disney finally gained management control, instead of installing an American team at UTV, the Mouse House took the opposite approach; it gave UTV’s founder and CEO Ronnie Screwvala oversight of all of Disney’s operations on the sub continent.

Screwvala and Kapur now seem to have identified the franchise potential that can be developed from the three films and, with the world’s largest media group behind them, can now do more about taking them worldwide. They calculate that “Jagga Jasoos” has the longterm potential to emerge as the first Disney-branded franchise out of India, delivering sequels, merchandise, comics, a television show and online games, although no deals have been struck.

Screwvala, in particular, has long understood the synergies to be enjoyed by a diversified media group. When UTV was just UTV, he acquired and expanded Indiagames, a company specializing in crossover properties straddling film, TV and gaming, and also acquired vidgame publishers Ignition Entertainment and the U.S.’ True Games.

One Disney UTV marketing exec notes that Disney’s move to release Indian films locally complements the portfolio of the company’s imprints. “We already have the UTV, Spotboy, Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm brands. This just expands and enhances those properties,” the exec said.

(Pictured: “ABCD” featured dance star Prabhudheva, who reprises his role in sequel “ABCD 2,” to be released under the Disney banner.)

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