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Ticket to Hollywood

By going to Hollywood, Anil Ambani has the best chance to make films that appeal to a wider audience than the NRIs, writes N Chandra Mohan. Will Spielberg make dreams work...?

india Updated: Jun 29, 2008 22:56 IST
N Chandra Mohan

The fast-globalising Hindi film industry’s forays are no different from India Inc’s efforts to secure a place in the global sun. Anil Ambani’s impending deal to bankroll Steven Spielberg’s Dream Works SKG, thus, is similar to Tata Motors snapping up the iconic British car brands of Jaguar and Land Rover. Just as Bollywood has found a growing appeal for its films globally, it has attracted megabucks from Hollywood. Walt Disney’s controlling stake in UTV Software Communications Ltd, thus, is also akin to Daiichi Sankyo taking over the promoter’s stake in Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd.

Ambani’s efforts to secure a foothold in Hollywood so far include only financing possibilities. At the recent Cannes Film Festival, he made waves with plans to provide development funding to production houses owned by Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage. Here again, Hollywood is no different from Wall Street in its need for outside money, thanks to the US subprime crisis. The studios are having more luck with Ambani while West Asian sovereign wealth funds have obliged troubled firms like Citigroup.

The big question is how far will Ambani go? Throughout its history, Hollywood has always secured funding from outside but has never ceded control over creativity. He joins a long list of billionaires including Howard Hughes, commodity speculator Marc Rich, Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, among others. During the 1980s, Japanese investors took over studios like Columbia and MCA-Universal, followed in the 1990s by the Germans. The money trail is again shifting towards Asia.

The temptation, of course, is to get besotted by the glamour as most others did. But Ambani has ambitions to be a strategic partner of Dream Works SKG to make half-a-dozen films a year. The tie-ups with other Hollywood production houses could also yield up to 30 scripts, at least 10 of which will be green-lighted to go into production. Besides securing the rights for these films in India, Ambani also intends to expand in the US and has acquired more than 200 theatres. The issue is how long can he last in Hollywood that has only required capital but with no interference on creativity.

This is where the global forays of the $2.5 billion Hindi film industry offer valuable insights. UTV has blazed a trail in this regard forging co-production deals with Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures and Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake was also made into a successful film. So, too, was a science fiction thriller The Happening starring Mark Wahlberg. Ambani’s ambitions are pretty much in the same league but are much bigger in scale.

Hollywood, too, has compelling reasons to engage with India. Thanks to our software prowess, it has begun sourcing creativity from India in a big way. The advance of digital technologies has redefined the way animation and live-action movies are made, blurring the distinction between the two genres in the 21st century. The marriage of movies and the computer has resulted in a division of labour in which film-making takes place on the sets with actors and camera crews while a computer graphics contingent often sits elsewhere, including places like India, to add digital effects to the movie.

A high point of sorts of India’s growing stature as a preferred outsourcing location for animation was the making of The Chronicles of Narnia that incorporated the creativity of 50 Indians. This same firm has also been responsible for special effects for The Incredible Hulk. Around 30 per cent of work for this film was done here. Economics clearly is the driver of this process: when the cost of producing a half-an-hour animated programme in the US is $2,50,000 to $4,00,000 when compared to $60,000 here, the differentials are attractive enough for Hollywood to head to India.Walt Disney Pictures, Time Warner’s Cartoon Network Enterprises and Sony Pictures Entertainment have begun outsourcing work to India’s inexpensive but top quality computer programmers and animators or set up local operations. Co-production agreements are steadily on the rise. Walt Disney has partnered with an Indian studio, Yashraj Films, to make an animated film Roadside Romeo. Sony made its own debut in 2007 when it released Saawariya, Hollywood’s first made-for-India film.

Demographics, however, has a bigger role to play in this regard. While the outsourcing opportunity, no doubt, has been a catalysing force, the fact is that the future of the world’s entertainment industry lies at home. There is a high concentration of people between 15 to 35 years who constitute the biggest market for animation and live-action movie business. Such a huge domestic base is a great advantage that spurs greater synergies between Bollywood and Hollywood.

By going to Hollywood, Ambani has the best chance to make films that appeal to a wider audience than the NRIs. The mainstream Hindi film industry’s focus has solely been this broader Indian community from Louisiana to Ludhiana. With easy pickings from such nostalgia-driven outposts, there has been no great pressure for upgrading product quality. The combination of Indian resources with Hollywood’s creativity augurs well for evolving a new genre of crossover cinema that is truly international in appeal.