Hollywood finds formula to beat Bollywood in India

Dubbing Hollywood films like Spider-Man has led to box-office success.

By , Staff writer

In the crowded and bug-infested movie halls of rural India, something is happening that has never happened before: An American superhero is saving the world while speaking flawless Bhojpuri.

In the grand scheme of the "Spider-Man 3" massive global release, it may seem a small thing that poor villagers in central India were able to queue up the same day as audiences in Los Angeles to see the film, dubbed into a local dialect. But to Hollywood and its Indian alter ego, Bollywood, it could signal the start of a new turf war between the world's two most popular and influential film industries.

Worldwide, the film took in $230 million in its first weekend – breaking "The DaVinci Code" record by $75 million. In India, the $4.5 million opening set several records domestically as well:

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• The best opening weekend for a foreign-language film, topping "Casino Royale" by 28 percent.

• The largest single day for any foreign-language film: $1.6 million on May 4.

• The fastest to cross the $2.4 million mark (100 million rupees): in two days.

• It is on a pace to move past "Titanic," which made $13 million here, as the highest-grossing foreign film ever in India.

The success suggests that after years of tinkering, Hollywood has at last discovered a formula for more consistent success here: flooding Indian cinemas with nearly 600 copies and dubbing versions into Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Bhojpuri. The tactic of simultaneously releasing several dubbed versions on the global release date is not unique to India, but it is new here­ and is yielding results.

For generations, Hollywood films here have been overshadowed by India's own kitschy brand of cinema, based in Bombay (hence Bollywood). But "Spider-Man" opens the market for greater Hollywood profits in India and marks a fresh challenge to Bollywood's virtual monopoly of the movie-obsessed nation's cinema. "Obviously, the success of the dubbed versions is a very big threat," says Anil Nagrath, secretary of the Indian Motion Picture Production Association in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay). "This is the first of more to come."

Bollywood has much to lose. It is fond of calling itself the world's largest film industry – and by many measures it is. In total, Indian filmmakers generally release more than 1,000 feature-length films a year, roughly double Hollywood's output. More people around the world buy tickets to Bollywood films than to Hollywood films, according to a 2004 study by the British Film Institute.

Yet its strength is clearly within India, where its quirky mix of absurdist plots, melodramatic love, and spontaneous dance numbers dominate the box office. As recently as 2005, foreign films accounted for only about 5 percent of about $1 billion in theater tickets sold annually here.

But Hollywood profits in India are growing at 35 percent a year, and the US film industry is becoming more aggressive.

Nadeem Khan says he hasn't been to a single Bollywood movie this year. Instead, he is here at the Saket Cineplex in south Delhi to see "Spider-Man" – one of the last people to get a ticket before it sold out.

"I like it because of the performances and the story and the action," he says, looking the part of Bollywood extra in his faded jeans and gelled hair.

It is here in the new multiplexes of urban India that Hollywood first began making inroads. More theaters created more space, and a growing, globally aware middle class thirsted for something more sophisticated.

Yet only a few years ago, Hollywood films warranted only about 100 prints, and if there were dubbed versions, they were often released after the English-language version finished its run.

The tactic made most Indian moviegoers feel like second-class citizens and undermined what experts say is Hollywood's greatest advantage: marketing. The turning point, experts say, was last year, when some 400 prints of the James Bond film "Casino Royale" were released in India – including three versions in Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu – simultaneously with the global debut. It established an opening-weekend record haul for a foreign film.

By releasing the films widely, dubbed, and on the worldwide release date, Hollywood brought the global buzz to India – not to mention product tie-ins with fast-food chains and mobile-phone ring tones, for example. "These are avenues where Bollywood is very sluggish," says Derek Bose, author of "Brand Bollywood."

Bollywood also lacks the financial wherewithal to compete with Hollywood marketing. Movie tickets in many part of India cost $1, meaning Bollywood's global revenues are about 2 percent of Hollywood's, says Mr. Bose.

"Hollywood can spend 8 percent of its normal marketing budget for a film and get the same amount of exposure as a top Hindi film," says Sanjay Ram of BusinessofCinema.com in Mumbai.

The most lavish Bollywood films rarely cost more than $10 million. "Spider-Man 3" is thought to have cost $260 million.

Now, the release of several massive Hollywood franchises this summer – "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Shrek," and "Harry Potter" – are expected to sweep away any Hindi-language competition. In what is shaping up to be an off year for Bollywood, "Spider-Man 3" has already been blamed for taking the momentum from one of the few major Hindi releases this year, "Ta Ra Rum Pum" ("Don't Worry, Be Happy").

But experts say that the new multiplexes have created space for everyone. No one expects Hollywood to trump Bollywood in India. But this summer presages a future of more choices for Indian moviegoers, and that sounds just right to Sabayasachi Banerjee, who is at the Saket multiplex to see the world's favorite wall-crawling mutant. "We like Western movies because they are different," he says. "But we still like Bollywood movies, too."

Adds friend Reshu Kandani, "We are starting to have some variety, and that's good."

Mr. Sappenfield is the New Delhi correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

In India, "Spider-Man 3" breaks records:

• The best opening weekend for a foreign-language film, topping "Casino Royale" by 28 percent.

• The largest single day for any foreign-language film: $1.6 million on May 4.

• The fastest to cross the $2.4 million mark (100 million rupees): in two days.

• On a pace to move past "Titanic," which made $13 million in India, as the highest-grossing foreign film ever in India.

Worldwide:

• Set record for the largest-ever opening weekend returns with $230.5 million from 107 countries.

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