By Tamara Walid
Brand Bollywood is coming to the Gulf and it's not just the Indian population that's the attraction.
Brand Bollywood is coming to the Gulf and it's not just the region’s burgeoning Indian population that is the big attraction. The all singing and dancing movie format is gaining in popularity among Arab audiences and leading to a wave of investment from the world’s biggest film industry.
Every Friday night the queues outside Dubai's Grand Cineplex get longer.
It could be a movie theatre anywhere in the world, except that most of the people in the line are not here to get their weekly dose of Hollywood.
They're here to watch the stars of Bollywood. The same scene is played out in cinemas across the booming emirate every weekend where posters for Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘Kung Fu Panda' and ‘Hancock' sit alongside others with titles such as ‘Love Story 2050', ‘Dashavatar' and ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na.'
Bollywood produces 1,000 movies every year, more than twice as many as Hollywood — and is looking to expand its global appeal.
Bollywood is booming across the Gulf and it's about to get bigger as a wave of investment aims to establish the Indian film industry in Dubai. With a 3.8 billion-strong global fan base across 120 countries and revenues expected to top US$30bn by 2012, Bollywood is on the march.
At the same time, Hollywood is struggling to cope with falling audiences, declining box office receipts, rising production costs and strikes.
Bollywood produces about 1000 movies every year, more than twice as many as Hollywood, and now the industry is looking to expand its global appeal by establishing closer ties with the US film industry and exporting its biggest stars.
"I call Dubai the best city in India," says Akash Arora, who is investing about US$30m in a new animation production centre in Dubai that is aimed at producing Indian and Arab-themed animated movies where characters are based on Bollywood stars and mythological stories.
"India has come of age," says Arora who has started production on his first Bollywood-themed animated movie which he hopes to premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival next year.Reliance Industries, India's biggest company, has set its sights on the region with plans to open production facilities for Indian movies in the UAE.
Its entertainment unit is considering opening a facility in Dubai Studio City, according to Reliance Entertainment chairman Amit Khanna. "We are looking at it seriously," he says.
"We see a huge potential in the Gulf and UAE markets, and are exploring various opportunities there. It is a booming economy and it makes sense for anyone interested in entertainment to look at the Middle East market and specifically the Emirates," adds Khanna.
Bollywood is now saying 'you know what, we have a brand and we have an audience, so how can we monetise this beyond the box office?'
Veteran financier George Soros bought a stake in Reliance Entertainment in February.
Soros was attracted by the underlying economic trends within the world's second-fastest growing economy and a country that will have around 128 million households with TV sets by 2010 - an increase of 21% from 2005.
NDTV, one of India's most popular new television networks, arrived in the Gulf last month with its first free-to-air Indian entertainment movie channel aimed at the Asian population in the region.
Indian television group INX Media also plans to launch two of its channels in the region this month - the Hindi general entertainment channel 9X and music channel 9XM.
The changing profile of non-resident Indians in Dubai and other Gulf cities is one reason why Bollywood and Indian television networks like NDTV are coming to the region, says NDTV CEO Sameer Nair.
"For many Indian people, this is now home - not just a place to come and work," he says.
Dubai is also set to get its first Bollywood theme park which will be developed by Dubai Infinity Holdings (DIH) in partnership with Yash Raj Films. It will be constructed in five phases with DIH investing about US$180m in the first phase.
"We've seen the gap in the market and we're responding to the unmet need. The district will serve a core demographic of the UAE - 50% of the population represents the Asian and the Indian subcontinent," says Samira Abdulrazzak, CEO of DIH.Research from the Dubai-based investment company shows that the Indian population spends as much as 68% of its disposable income on entertainment.
Abdulrazzak believes the project will become a regional hub for the industry.
"The Movie Palace will host all the major movie premieres," she says, adding that the district will also comprise of areas dedicated to movie production, retail, hospitality, restaurants, and film theatres.
India needs a bridge to Hollywood instead of waiting for Steven Spielberg to show up.
The Indian film industry's regional fan base is growing fast and not just among expat Indians.
"We are looking at merging cultures and this is a great market. I know a lot of Arabs who watch Indian movies. There's huge demand for it," says Arora.
He adds that the local population in the Gulf can relate to Bollywood stars, unlike in the US where the appetite for Bollywood films is largely confined to the south Asian population.
As the US film industry suffers from the impact of rising production costs and falling audiences, collaborations between Hollywood and Indian entertainment are getting stronger than ever.
Anil Ambani, the Indian billionaire who runs Reliance and is ranked by Forbes as the world's sixth-richest man, has been in discussions with Hollywood director Steven Spielberg over working together on movie projects.
Eros International Plc, the UK's biggest distributor of Indian movies, signed distribution agreements with both Viacom Inc and Sony Corp over the last year and is also planning a move into TV broadcasting this year.
The growing global presence of Bollywood is reflected in its full year profit which advanced 29%, helped by films such as ‘Om Shanti Om', Bollywood's biggest blockbuster last year.So why is Bollywood eyeing expansion in the Gulf now? Sheeraz Hasan, founder of celebrity website Hollywood.TV and now Dubai.TV, says that Bollywood is waking up to the branding potential of the Indian movie business, which has not been tapped in the same way that big studios in the US have generated new revenue from branding their industry.
"If you look at Bollywood movies where is the merchandise? None," he says.
"Hollywood's mindset is to take a product and make as much money out of it as possible. Bollywood is now saying 'you know what, we have a brand and we have an audience, so how can we monetise this beyond the box office?'"
What's surprising to many, believes Hasan, is why Bollywood's top stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Ashwarai Rai have yet to make the successful crossover to Hollywood.
He says that in order for Bollywood to become truly global it needs to achieve this transfer.
"India needs a bridge to Hollywood instead of waiting for Steven Spielberg to show up in Mumbai and knock on their door saying ‘I have a part for you'. Reliance is building the bridge with money."
This move could be the precursor to Bollywood's biggest stars becoming familiar faces for America's TV and cinema audiences.
"If they're going to invest a billion dollars in Hollywood then it's very easy for the person cutting the cheque to say ‘by the way, in the next 10 movies you have to include seven Bollywood stars in good roles'. The one who writes the cheques makes the rules," says Hasan.
"There is a hunger for Bollywood. In the American market, if you look at some of the TV channels, they're thriving on Bollywood content. Now they need to think globally."There is increasing evidence that the Indian film industry is starting to do just that, even if it is still some way from cracking the American box office.
"The Indian entertainment industry is aspiring to be global. However, it will take a few years before it becomes truly global," says Reliance's Khanna.
In the meantime, Bollywood will look to the Gulf to take its first steps towards achieving that goal.
And the queues of Bollywood's faithful waiting patiently outside the cinemas of Dubai every Friday night, will continue to get longer.
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