Myriad problems for Hollywood production houses to work in Bollywood

US entertainment executives lament tough conditions in Bollywood.

By Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK: It seemed like a simple enough formula for easy money to be made: hire a proven director, some big name actors or hot debutants, finance partially a Hindi film with them, and make big bucks from the box office in India. Later, wait for accolades to follow when the film is released in the US too. How wrong it all went though, starting in 2007 with the Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Saawariya, which flopped and has since left a legacy of bad luck for forays by Hollywood in India.

But that’s only one part of the story. The seamier side of it is that apart from the low returns from the box office for collaborations done by big Hollywood production houses in India, there are myriad problems making a film in India: lack of tax incentives which shaves off an actor’s earnings by as much as 50 percent, non-adherence to unions and guilds – which is sacrosanct here, but non-existent in India; scheduling problems when dealing with popular actors, and insistence by financiers on cash transactions – a practice alien to producers here, said panelists from the entertainment world at a conference organized by the US-India Business Council (USIBC), in Manhattan, last week.

But despite these cumbersome issues which are deal-breakers in a lot of collaborations – many deals fade away in the negotiation stages itself, Hollywood studio houses continue with their incessant hunger to create new markets in the country which makes the most movies in the world, and some producers hit the lottery every Friday.

“It’s difficult to shoot in India,” said Jai Khanna, who works in the Film Finance division of Brillstein Entertainment Partners, a premiere company based in California. Khanna himself is an ace at striking deals in India, and represents among others, actors Hrithik Roshan, Ajay Devgan and Irrfan Khan.

The panel discussion on films at the USIBC conference was titled ‘The cross pollination of Hollywood and Bollywood: current landscape and production opportunities in India.’

“There are no tax incentives in India, and financing is a big issue – whether funds will sit in India, offshore, or in the US. We want the money, the funds to be controlled from here, accountability and tax matters to be taken care of from here,” Khanna added, when asked by the moderator, Arnold Peter, Founding Partner of the Peter Law Group, who has served as interim President of YRF Entertainment, the US division of Yash Raj Films – on what the situation was for production opportunities in India. “India has cash transactions (in Bollywood), that’s not the way we do business here,” he added.

According to David Taghioff, Corporate Development Executive, Creative Artists Agency, getting financing in India for a Bollywood film is not the issue; more ticklish is the “trust issue” when it comes to financing.

“Artists who go from here to work in India, get hit by taxes which takes away 50 percent of their income from the work there, as there are no tax treaties in the entertainment field between the US and India,” said Taghioff.

For Taghioff – who represents several actors in India for projects here – including Priyanka Chopra, the biggest problem facing production houses here keen to get into joint ventures in India is “scheduling,” a fact collaborated by Chris Hanson, Partner, at the law firm of DLA Piper.

Actor Rupak Ginn, an alumni of Harvard University, who has acted in several small parts, including Mira Nair’s The Namesake, and recently came back from India, shooting for the film Khoya, directed by Anurag Kashyap, opined that “it’s all cultural,” the differences between Hollywood and Bollywood, pointing out the craze for money which is prevalent in Bollywood, at the cost of quality.

Ginn imitated an unnamed Bollywood actor, asking over the phone in Hindi, how much money he would get for doing the film, the first question that comes out when told about a film project that involves a US production house.

When asked by this reporter if Hollywood’s tryst with Bollywood should be considered a failed experiment, and if they should instead focus more on regional cinema in India, which for long has been the mainstay and bedrock of quality cinema, Taghioff said that there was more interest now on doing collaborations with regional film directors, especially in South India. But he also said that one of the worries for Hollywood was the distribution of films they got into, which was far easier for films emanating from Bollywood.

The panelists also talked about the reluctance of Indian actors to work in Hollywood, with senior and popular artists generally ignoring most opportunities as it was a triple whammy for them: they moved away from their fan base, risked losing their cult appeal, and made too little money when compared to what they could earn in the same time frame working on a masala film back home.

Khanna summed it up, giving the example of Irrfan Khan in the film Life of Pi, who not only acted in the film for a pittance, but also vigorously campaigned for its box office and academy success: “Talent deals are tricky,” he said, adding: “When Indian actors work here, they actually lose money.”

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