Steven Spielberg is no stranger to India. He shot part of Close Encounters of the Third Kind here in 1977 and the second Indiana Jones installment was set in a temple and dungeon complex in colonial-era India. (The movie was initially banned in India by angry politicians who said it perpetuated negative stereotypes.) Now Spielberg may be going back to the subcontinent not for a new movie but for cash, thanks to a reported tie-up with Reliance Big Entertainment, part of the sprawling conglomerate run by Bombay-based billionaire Anil Ambani. The deal, first reported by the Wall Street Journal last week, would see Reliance providing between $500 million and $600 million to Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG, financing that would allow Dreamworks to split from Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures.
The teaming of Hollywood and Bollywood seems, at first glance, an odd idea. Western audiences have never really taken to the epic song-and-dance routines of Indian cinema; and Hollywood features, with some notable exceptions, rarely threaten the box office mojo of India's star-filled Bollywood fare, movies that, in any case, are increasingly copying the themes and styles of Hollywood blockbusters and giving them an Indian twist.
But this deal is more about money than any hybrid art form. Dreamworks gets at least half the funding it would need to get out of its troubled marriage with Paramount, ensure its independence and still make six or so movies a year. Meanwhile, Reliance, which runs huge telecommunications and financial services businesses in India (and shouldn't be confused with Reliance Industries Ltd., another massive conglomerate owned by Anil Ambani's even richer brother Mukesh), gets an entry into Hollywood and some of the biggest names in the business. "If they [Reliance] identify a particular segment as high-growth they go all-out for it," says Smita Jha, an analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). "This has as much to do with the way Reliance does business as it does any overall industry trend."
Movies are certainly a growth industry in India. A study by PWC and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry earlier this year put annual growth in "filmed entertainment" over the past three years at 17%. The industry is now worth $2.4 billion a year. Though that is less than a tenth of Hollywood's take, India's industry should double in the next five years, while its American counterpart will be lucky to grow 15% or so in that period. The business side of Bollywood, once a byword for dodgy tax deals and shady financing, has gone legit in the past few years, too. Indian companies are now more professionally run, and a few innovators are far ahead of Western rivals in experimenting with things like distributing films over the Internet.
But despite the hype around this would-be tie-up the head of Reliance Big Entertainment refused to comment to TIME on the speculation and while many smaller deals will strengthen ties between Hollywood and Bollywood, don't expect a succession of deals of this magnitude any time soon. For one thing, there simply aren't any other players out there with cash reserves as deep as Ambani's.
The relevant trend here, says Ronnie Screwvala, CEO of rising movie company UTV Software in Mumbai, isn't Bollywood buying up Hollywood, it's new, cash-rich Asia buying old, status-rich America and Europe. Think Tata Motors buying Jaguar and Land Rover, or even last month's announcement that the Times of India group will buy Britain's Virgin Radio. The tremendous growth in some parts of the Indian economy over the past few years has created a group of companies that can suddenly buy assets globally. "Internationally they are very competitive and thanks to the downturn in places like the U.S. there are assets that are now available at much lower valuations," says PWC's Jha. "The next step is inevitably overseas." With Reporting by Jyoti Thottam/New Delhi