The tale of a dog finding true love after being abandoned in a Mumbai slum is Walt Disney Co's first stab at a local-language film in India, and signals Hollywood's serious intentions in the fast growing market.
Disney is partnering India's Yash Raj Films for the Hindi-language animated flick 'Roadside Romeo' that opens on Friday, Disney's first local partnership for an Indian film.
Disney, which has also bought a children's Hindi-language television channel, is now eyeing regional films, as are NBC, Viacom, Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox.
"For Hollywood studios, expanding globally no longer means only pushing their product in these markets," said Smita Jha, entertainment analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).
The entertainment and media industry in emerging markets such as China, India and Russia is forecast to grow at more than double the pace in developed markets, with India growing the fastest pace, PWC said in a recent report.
China's heavily regulated market makes India a better bet, with India's entertainment and industry market revenues forecast to expand at an average rate of 18.5 per cent to more than $36 billion by 2012, PWC said.
Now, about 95 per cent of consumer spending in this market in is on local films. Now Hollywood studios, that were earlier content with just dubbing their blockbusters in regional Indian languages or financing productions, want more.
Sony Pictures Entertainment recently released its maiden Hindi film, 'Saawariya' (Beloved), while Warner Bros' first, 'Chandni Chowk to China' is scheduled for release in early 2009, and Fox Star Studios is signing on Bollywood producers.
"We can't ignore the fact that local entertainment rules in India," said Vijay Singh, chief executive of Fox Star Studios, a venture of Twentieth Century Fox and News Corp's Star.
"So we want to go beyond just signing a cheque, and underpin the Indian soul with Hollywood practices and processes."
SIGN OF THE TIMES
India, home to the world's most prolific movie industry, is notoriously inefficient, with family businesses controlling a large share of the production and distribution, resulting in box-office revenues of less than 10 per cent of Hollywood's.
But greater corporatisation in recent years, institutional finance, a move to a studio system, the emergence of multiplexes and higher ticket prices are all transforming the industry.
Wall Street and Hollywood, which already gets more than 60 per cent of its revenue overseas, have taken notice: billionaire investor George Soros recently paid $100 million for 3 per cent of Reliance Entertainment, part of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group.
Disney, NBC, Time Warner, Viacom and Sony Pictures have committed more than $1.5 billion to their local ventures.
"The Hollywood big guns can't break into the market on their own, while for the local firm there are clear financial and strategic benefits," said Vivek Couto, executive director at research firm Media Partners Asia in Hong Kong.
Still, success is not guaranteed. Sony Pictures' much-hyped 'Saawariya', for instance, was not a commercial hit.
"In a creative business there is always a risk," Jha said, adding studios are cutting risk by signing on multiple partners, making different kinds of films, and adding scale for efficiency.
Emboldened, Indian firms are also stepping out. UTV Motion Pictures has co-production deals with Walt Disney, Fox Searchlight and Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment, and is also making its first solo Hollywood film.
Reliance Entertainment earlier this year signed on eight Hollywood production houses including those of George Clooney and Tom Hanks to develop and co-finance films, and made headlines with a $1.5 billion deal with Steven Spielberg for a new studio.
With these deals, India is moving "from the fringes of Hollywood to centrestage", the Wharton School of Business said.
"It's a sign of the times that Hollywood is inviting Indian companies to share the risk," Couto said.
"They know and we know that at the end of the day, recession or not, people in India will still see movies."
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and David Fox)