That’s Entertainment in India

In India’s entertainment biz, two behemoths dominate: Bollywood and cricket. Things may be about to get a lot more interesting.

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Digitization, aided by a burgeoning middle class with more money to spend on leisure activities and an increasingly global view, is leading India to sample movies beyond Bollywood, and to follow sports other than cricket. “The rise of digital and handheld devices gives fans beyond Tier I cities access to choice,” former professional tennis player Neha Uberoi, co-founder of South Asians in Sports, observed at the 13th Annual India Business Conference held recently. That interest, in turn, sparks investment in content, infrastructure, sponsorships and talent, which, in a virtual cycle, propels fan interest.

Here are six takeaways from the panel discussion at the conference, which was organized by the South Asian Business Association at Columbia Business School and cosponsored by the Chazen Institute.
In sports:

  • Investment is pouring in from celebrities, business leaders, hedge funds and others, noted Uberoi. What’s more, money—and the talent it attracts—is arriving from China, the United States, and countries far and wide. For example, local cricket superstar Virat Kohli co-owns the FC Goa, a professional football (soccer) team whose coach is a former Brazilian footballer and whose marquee players come from Brazil and France. Chinese smartphone maker Vivo Electronics is lead sponsor of the eponymous Vivo Indian Premier League (IPL), the country’s cricket league.
  • Speaking of leagues, they are forming across multiple sports. Perhaps surprising in such a cricket-fanatical country, the IPL was launched just nine years ago. It has acted as a template for new leagues devoted to soccer, golf, tennis, Formula I racing and wrestling. The second most watched sport in India is the traditional game of kabaddi, whose league was formed in 2014. Principal owner Star India, which holds the in-country broadcasting rights to the league, has doubled its budget this year with plans to increase the number of kabaddi franchises from eight to 12.

 

In movies:

  • Bollywood has the potential to move to the world stage as it graduates beyond Masala song-and-dance romances to dramas and biopics. Neerja Narayanan, creative, Sony Pictures Entertainment, sees the propensity of Indian cinema to launch sequels as displaying a new confidence in its audience. “Home-grown branded franchises are not about Hollywood moving the needle any more,” she said. Simultaneously, filmmakers are venturing beyond formula. Right or wrong, no India-made movie has ever won an Oscar in the Foreign Film category. Prem Parameswaran, group CFO and president of North America for Eros International, said a new emphasis on quality content could make India a contender. To gain international respect, “Indian cinema needs the validation of awards,” he said. ("Slumdog Millionaire," which won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture, was a British film.)
  • Multiplexes are coming to India’s smaller cities. Access to film is coming not just through streaming services and hand-held devices, but also big screens, with industry watchers expecting the 2,200 screens currently in India to grow to 3,000 by 2019. What’s more, much of the construction is taking place in Tier II and Tier III cities. Observers anticipate an eager audience. “America has 140 screens for every 6 million people; India has just one for every 6 million,” said Narayanan.

 

In entertainment technology:

  • It’s become an axiom that the ubiquity of hand-held devices capable of downloading both sports and movies has driven entertainment popularity. Although Indians have balked at paying for streaming subscriptions, Parameswaran said that is slowly changing. Eros, which is based in Mumbai and deals in Hindi-language film production and distribution, has concentrated on serving the diaspora in other countries, while offering only limited subscription services within India—so far. “Netflix is very niche in India, and only 8 percent of Indians watch foreign movies.” But, he said, Eros will tap revenues garnered elsewhere to open Indian floodgates when the time is right.
  • New production techniques are enhancing the entertainment experience. The rise of 3-D and augmented reality is a global phenomenon, of course, and spilling over into diverse fields, including healthcare and defense. But its incursion into Indian entertainment is leapfrogging intermediate technology, and most of those new multiplexes and stadiums under construction will come equipped with the latest technologies. Former rifle-shooting Olympiad Roopa Unnikrishnan, who is head of strategy, connected car division, Harman International, explained that technology could be “the tipping point” in helping India produce more athletes: Since every round of ammunition costs money, “we weren’t able to use live ammunition in practice,” she said. “Now virtual reality lets the kid who couldn’t afford ammunition practice.”

 

One panelist discussed the crossover between movies and sports, and how a movie about an Indian sports star could propel interest in a “new” sport. Last year Dangal, a wrestling drama about two sisters and their hard-driving father, became the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time. Popularity gets a jump-start, said Uberoi, when audiences are engrossed in a personal drama unfolding on screen. “Behind-the-scene stories are educating Indians beyond cricket,” she said. “Most new sports won’t become a reality until they are validated by Bollywood.”

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