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Bollywood Breaks Borders as Indian Studios Expand Distribution Footprint

Variety logo Variety 12/14/2016 Naman Ramachandran
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Indian studios have long released their films day-and-date in dozens of countries. The studios’ core list of 50 international territories includes North America, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Australia, and — barring political tensions — Pakistan.

But Bollywood and other indigenous- language productions are increasingly expanding to newer shores. For example, the South Indian historical saga “Baahubali: The Beginning” is set for the biggest rollout in nontraditional territories of any Indian film to date, after grossing $95 million in the usual international markets. China, Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan are among the Asian markets that have released the film, with Japan and Korea scheduled for early 2017. Produced by Arka Mediaworks in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi versions, the epic adventure will also be distributed in 25 Latin American territories.

One of the studios leading the global charge is Mumbai-based Eros Intl. This year, its gender-role-reversal hit “Ki & Ka” became the first Bollywood movie to be shown in theaters in Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, and Gibraltar. The company also released one of the biggest Bollywood blockbusters of 2015, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” in Morocco, Tunisia, and Poland. And it pushed further into Central Asia with “Mary Kom,” a boxing biopic starring Priyanka Chopra (“Quantico”), which reached Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan last year. In 2013, the crowd-pleaser “Cocktail” was released across 19 screens in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and became the first Indian film in the two developing nations to earn more than $100,000.

Like Hollywood, Eros is eyeing the huge China market. Chinese film authorities have granted historical drama “Bajirao Mastani,” starring Chopra and Deepika Padukone (“XXX: Return of Xander Cage”) a slot for 2017; Eros is planning a 4,000-screen release early in the year. The studio first entered East Asia three years ago, releasing the comedic drama “English Vinglish” in South Korea and then in Japan, where it grossed $1.5 million.

Eros also has just announced an alliance with major Russian distribution and production company Central Partnership, an affiliate of Gazprom Media Holding, to promote and distribute Indian and Russian content across multiple platforms in both countries.

Yash Raj Films, another leading Mumbai studio, has expanded its distribution footprint to include Peru, Brazil, Romania, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Egypt, Portugal, and Mozambique. It was the first Indian studio to release a film in South Korea, 2005’s drama “Black,” which collected 900,000 admissions. In 2014, the company reaped $3 million from heist caper “Dhoom: 3” in China.

But that figure pales next to the $19.5 million haul of rival distributor Disney UTV in the Middle Kingdom last year with “PK,” a satire on organized religion that went out on 4,600 screens. Though promising, China and Korea haven’t yet met Yash Raj’s expectations.

“We have released a number of films there, and we still find that there’s a long way to go,” says Avtar Panesar, Yash Raj’s vice president of international operations. “There are basic areas that need to be fine-tuned that really come from the different style of working. It will happen slowly but surely. More communication and reporting will be key.”

The company’s latest film, the romantic crime drama “Befikre,” will be released in established international territories Dec. 9, with nontraditional markets to follow.

And then there’s cyberspace — Indian studios have a keen eye toward distribution via digital platforms. Yash Raj has worldwide deals with iTunes, Netflix, and Google Play. Eros’ digital platform, Eros Now, boasts 55 million registered users across 135 countries who have access to 5,000 library titles. The site is part of Eros’ strategy of being “platform agnostic,” says president of business development Kumar Ahuja. It’s a major part of his company’s goal, he notes, to bring viewers “the best of Indian entertainment across screens and networks.”

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