Bollywood Weds Hollywood

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June 20 – BOLLYWOOD'S songs are hummed in Morocco, its films are rented in California and its stars are cast in wax at Madame Tussauds in London. But India's new money has an appeal even its melodrama cannot match. On June 17th the Wall Street Journal reported that one of India's biggest conglomerates, Anil Ambani's Reliance group, was in talks to form a film-making partnership with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio, owned by Viacom, a media giant. Mr Spielberg and David Geffen, the studio's co-founders, want to regain their independence when their contract with Viacom ends, and are looking for funding.

The Economist reported that Reliance had already announced at the Cannes Film Festival in May that it would provide funding to eight film-production houses headed by some big Hollywood stars. It hopes to develop some 30 scripts, and put perhaps ten into full production. “We are re-enfranchising the talent,” said Amit Khanna, chairman of Reliance's entertainment division and a talented Bollywood songsmith, last month. “We will allow full creative freedom, but we won't allow creative anarchy. Sometimes they just go crazy.”

New to Hollywood, Reliance has been in entertainment in India for only three years. Domestic rivals are impressed—and intimidated—by its boasts (it wants to be worth $10 billion) and its bulk (it has 69 films and 20 TV stations in the works, and owns 45 radio stations and India's biggest cinema chain). Its foreign ties will not help much at home: Hollywood films claim only a 3-5% share of India's box-office, according to Ernst & Young. Mr Spielberg's second “Indiana Jones” film was temporarily banned in India, not least for showing an Indian eating chilled monkey brains.

Reliance scripted its Hollywood entry more than eight months ago according to Businessweek. Last year, Reliance invested in Phoenix Theatres, a Knoxville (Tenn.)-based film management company. It bought Burbank (Calif.)-based Lowry Digital Images, a film imaging and restoration outfit, in April. Early this year, Reliance, which owns more than 170 cinemas in India, quietly acquired 250 cinemas from mom-and-pop operators in 28 cities in the U.S. including San Jose, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

The U.S. isn't the only country where Reliance is expanding. In May, it bought a chain of 25 cinemas in Malaysia. Like the purchases in the U.S., the Malaysian cinemas were targeting the large Indian diaspora and also other Asian communities such as the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. The plan is to exhibit Bollywood movies, as well as regional Indian films in languages like Telugu and other Asian languages.