Sudhanshu Vats, group CEO of Viacom 18 Media, sees India, a nation that follows local tastes in cinema, as a market that will be ripe for Hollywood movies within the next few years.

Hollywood fare accounts for just 10% of the market, says Vats, whose Viacom 18, a joint venture between U.S. media conglomerate Viacom and India’s Network 18 Group, is a major Indian film studio. Over the next four to five years, he projects, India’s screen count will increase (it currently stands at just 12,000 for a population of 1.2 billion, compared with some 32,000 in China for a population of 1.3 billion). The increasing screen count along with the acceptance of English-language content by a young, upwardly mobile population and rising per-capita income will, he says, help boost Hollywood’s market share in India, which is around 10%.

Viacom 18 Media has had its share of Indian hits — including co-productions “Gangs of Wasseypur,” “Kahaani” and “Queen” — but the country has not yet had a breakout global blockbuster like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Vats believes that Indian filmmakers need to factor in consumer research and data to develop their ideas, substantially increase budgets to compete with international productions, and tell stories that are more universal.

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t build your future without knowing your history.”
Sudhanshu Vats

Viacom 18 also operates several TV channels in India, but is a latecomer to the linear movie channel segment, having launched Hindi movie channel Rishtey Cineplex in February, competing against established movie channels operated by Star India, Zee Enterprises, Disney-UTV and Sony Pictures. He adds that Rishtey Cineplex won’t automatically acquire a film produced by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures. “They do get a first look at it, but it has to be at the right market value internally,” Vats says.

Vats notes that although streaming is gaining traction in India, conventional channels hold sway, and will for the next few years. The key barriers to the growth of streaming, he says, are bandwidth availability and data costs. Bandwidth “will get corrected as we go forward, with a lot of 4G players coming in, but it will take some time,” he explains, adding that payment mechanisms also need to evolve.

Vats is bullish about India’s past — specifically, the nation’s often-neglected field of film preservation. Viacom 18 has invested a substantial sum in filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation, an institution with ties to the National Film Archive of India, as well as to the Intl. Federation of Film Archives, the Film Foundation, the George Eastman Museum and L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t build your future without knowing your history,” Vats says.