STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of India's largest conglomerates has been making headlines in the United States because of its reported plans to set up a new movie venture with Steven Spielberg. The company is called Reliance. It's based in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Its $500 million investment in a new movie-making venture with Spielberg has not been confirmed, but as NPR's Asma Khalid reports, the Indian company is already slipping into U.S. cinemas.
Unidentified Man #1: Two tickets for (foreign language spoken), 7:15 show, please.
Unidentified Man #2: Two for (foreign language spoken), two for...
Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, can I get two for "Love Story 2050?"
ASMA KHALID: We're at the movies in Edison, New Jersey. The smell of buttery popcorn fills the air, but the concession stand at Movie City 8 also sells lassis, an Indian yogurt drink, and samosas, a fried dumpling snack. And while half the movies at this multiplex come from Hollywood, the other half come from Bollywood. That's India's multibillion dollar film industry. Tonight, one of the big hits is "Love Story 2050." Like most Bollywood movies, boy meets girl, they fall in love, sing, dance.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)
KHALID: This movie's distributed by the Indian media company Reliance. Reliance also operates this multiplex. Over the last year, Reliance has acquired more than 200 screens across the U.S., mostly in cities with large south Asian populations. And it bought a majority stake in a U.S. cinema company called Phoenix to manage the operations.
Mr. PHIL ZACHERETTI (CEO, Phoenix): Business has been great.
KHALID: Phil Zacheretti is CEO of Phoenix.
Mr. ZACHERETTI: In some of the theaters that we're playing the Indian films, they can outgross the top Hollywood product of that week two to three to four times.
KHALID: That's despite higher prices theaters charge for Indian movies.
Mr. ZACHERETTI: The loyalty is just phenomenal. We see people driving 40 to 50 miles to come see these films.
(Soundbite of cash register ringing)
Unidentified Woman #2: Enjoy your movie.
KHALID: At Edison's Movie City 8, the air conditioning's not working. That's typical of the run-down mom and pop theaters that show Indian films. But Reliance plans to spend a million dollars on new seats, new carpeting, new bathrooms, a new projector and hopefully working air conditioning. It's planning similar upgrades at other theaters, but the goal is not just to improve the Indian moviegoing experience. Reliance is building up a chain of cinemas to distribute its own films.
Mr. UDAY KUMAR (Reliance Movie Investments): We realize that U.S. is a very big and key market for cinema from India, and we found that the Indian cinema suffered because of lack of good theaters.
KHALID: That's Uday Kumar(ph). He runs Reliance's movie investments here. He admits this is an experiment. But Patrick Frater, Asia editor at the entertainment publication Variety, is skeptical the company can find appeal outside immigrant communities.
Mr. PATRICK FRATER (Asia Editor, Variety): India cinema industry has been talking about the day that the Bollywood industry will cross over into mainstream globally for years and years, and it hasn't happened.
KHALID: He thinks Reliance's foray into the U.S. isn't really about making money. It's more about going global, something many of India's top corporations are trying to do now.
Mr. FRATER: They want to learn the U.S. market from the inside. It's much easier to do that if you're actually running a business rather than looking in from the outside and saying, hmm, I think that's how it works.
KHALID: Uday Kumar doesn't deny that.
Mr. KUMAR: The focus of the group is now to make this business a global business, rather than just an India-centric business.
KHALID: Acquiring a couple hundred rundown movie screens might seem like a minor move, but Reliance is also reportedly investing in a new movie venture with Steven Spielberg. And the company's struck agreements with production houses run by top U.S. actors like George Clooney. It's all part of a multi-pronged approach to becoming a more prominent player in the global movie industry.
Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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