''Gateway" is a reality show that has would-be directors competing for a shot at making a movie. Sound familiar? Sure, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck produced a similar television show called "Project Greenlight" and Steven Spielberg did "On the Lot."
But "Gateway" is different. It's a TV show that was made in India for an Indian audience. The producer is Ashok Amritraj, who has launched a $70 million film fund dedicated to cross-cultural entertainment productions.
The winner of "Gateway" will go to Amritraj's Hyde Park Entertainment in Sherman Oaks to make a film.
Amritraj travels both directions on a two-way road in the entertainment world: India's Bollywood coming to L.A.'s Hollywood, and vice versa.
"I believe that the time is right for a cross-cultural movement in entertainment between Hollywood and Bollywood," Amritraj said from Mumbai, India, where he's scouting for local talent. "Our cultures are coming together like never before in history."
Amritraj is spending millions to develop films in India and Asia that can be distributed globally. Hyde Park Entertainment has wrapped the first of three such films called "The Other End of the Line," a romantic comedy starring Shriya Saran, an Indian actress, and Jesse Metcalfe, an American actor. MGM has the U.S. distribution rights, while Hyde Park has rights to the rest of the world when it hits theaters Nov. 14.
Another Hyde Park film, "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li," is based on a Japanese video game franchise. It is currently in production in Hong Kong and Bangkok with a multinational cast, including Michael Clarke Duncan.
Amritraj said the company's Singapore office will discover new talent throughout the continent and provide a platform for actors and filmmakers to segue into Hollywood.
Kishore Lulla, chief executive of London-based Eros International, wants to bring Indian movies to the rest of the world.
"Cross-pollination is currently under way between Hollywood and Bollywood," Lulla said from his London office. "My interest with Hollywood is purely a creative one. I can produce content in India and Asia at a fraction of the cost that it takes in the U.S. and then distribute it throughout the world using our own network."
Eros International produces between 40 to 50 films and TV shows a year, and distributes its products in movie theaters and on cable TV, DVD and the Internet in more than 50 countries.
Lulla said his margins are low enough to remain profitable even if his films tank outside India.
Revenue from India's movie industry topped $2.2 billion in 2007, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, less than a 10th that of Hollywood. But by 2012, Bollywood is expected to double in size, with an annual growth rate of 13 percent, compared with less than 3 percent in Hollywood.
While Amritraj is emphasizing the cross-cultural aspect of his projects, Lulla is seeking to expose the rest of the world to Indian culture.
Their strategies are both driven by an economic boom sweeping Asia, which is creating new income among people who can increase their spending on entertainment.
While financial analysts point to China as the largest growing consumer market, India has the most immediate potential for entertainment synergies with Hollywood. The subcontinent has the largest English-speaking population outside the U.S.
'Exploding middle class'
India's middle class currently numbers about 50 million people, but by 2025 it will have expanded dramatically to 583 million people, about 41 percent of the population, according to McKinsey Global Institute. That compares with less than 160 million people considered to be part of the middle class in the U.S. today, with that number shrinking annually since 1998.
"The Indian film market is becoming more mature and they have an exploding middle class who can afford and are beginning to demand top quality entertainment," said Jared Underwood, a senior vice president of Comercia Entertainment Group. Comercia has more than 20 years of experience in the film financing business, handling more than 700 films.
Underwood and others also said the Indian marketplace is becoming friendlier for foreign investments.
"Relationships are everything in Bollywood and Amritraj is very well respected," Underwood said. "Still, the amount of money that people are getting for content is minuscule by comparison to U.S.-made films."
Many in the local entertainment industry are now looking to Asia for financing, hoping that India's industrial tycoons, flush with cash from textiles, energy and telecommunications, will step forward.
"Money is going both ways but most of the money is coming into Hollywood from India," said Schuyler Moore, an entertainment attorney with Los Angeles-based Strook Strook & Lavan.
India-based Reliance Big Entertainment, a division of the $100 billion conglomerate Reliance ADA Group, has made several development deals with some of Hollywood's star-powered independent production companies, such as Tom Hanks' Playtone Productions, Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, Jim Carrey's JC-23 Entertainment and George Clooney's Smokehouse Productions.
Reliance has been in negotiations with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen of the DreamWorks film studio to provide up to $600 million to help the studio split from Paramount Pictures.
Paramount, a unit of Viacom Inc., acquired DreamWorks for $1.6 billion in cash and assumption of debt Feb 1, 2006. The deal contains an out clause, which some of DreamWorks' top executives are reportedly looking to exercise.
It's been widely reported that the partnership would work this way: Reliance and DreamWorks would form a joint venture with $1.5 billion in debt and equity for DreamWorks to make movies in the U.S. that would be distributed by another Hollywood studio, yet to be selected.
"This move isn't about distributing DreamWorks films in India, it's about setting up a worldwide footprint in the global entertainment arena," said Moore, who advises Reliance and a number of top Bollywood players including UTV Entertainment Group, one of India's largest TV and film production and distribution companies.
Moore believes that a Reliance-DreamWorks merger would be a sign of things to come.
"I wouldn't be at all shocked to see one or more big deals like the one under way with DreamWorks come along in the future," Moore said. "With the dollar they way it is, India's industrial revolution cranking at full stream and the government freed up for capitalism, there is vast potential in India and China over the long run."
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