To a casual eye, Warner Bros' foray into film production in India may look like a small step. After all, this is the studio that makes the Harry Potter movies -- each of those blockbusters cost about $150 million in recent years. This is also the studio behind The Dark Knight, a $180 million film that has grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide. The studio plans to produce six Hindi films in the next few years, as well as films in other Indian languages. The budgets for these films would range between $5 million and $20 million, small affairs by Hollywood standards.
But don't tell Warner Bros that.
"It is a very big step for us," asserted Richard Fox, Executive Vice President of Warner Bros International, speaking on the eve of the New York premiere of Warner's first Indian film, Chandni Chowk To China.
"We went to India because we wanted to," he added, with a chuckle. "They don't need us in India. They have Yash Raj and Reliance. We worked very hard to start this process. We had an audition in India, if you will."
Apart from advancing its commercial interest, Warner also thought it would be great to work in India whose culture is being appreciated far more now than a few years ago in the new global age, Fox continued.
"In India, we are looking at a country with over 1 billion people," he mused. " Our English language films reach just a small percentage of that population. We would like the Warner Bros banner be seen by one billion people in India. And then there is the Indian Diaspora."
Like high profile, big budget Indian films released recently, CC2C is getting simultaneous release in more than 30 countries in Asia, Australia, Africa and Europe. In North America, it would be playing on 130 theatres across 52 cities.
"We are hoping for a very big opening for this film," said Fox. "And we expect the film to have really strong legs."
CC2C is arriving in North America on the heels of two recent hits, Ghajini which is headed for a strong $2.3 million run and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which is not far behind.
Warner's dream for India includes producing Indian films that have crossover appeal, Fox says. "We want to make a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and see it reach not only the Indian Diaspora but people of many nationalities. We want to see the film play in mainstream theaters and win an Oscar. Warner Bros surely wants to have that honour."
Made in 2000, the subtitled film by Taiwan-raised Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger grossed over $120 million in North America and won the best foreign film Oscar.
Fox, who was honoured recently with the Italian Republic's Commendatore of the Order of Merit title in recognition of the Warner's commitment to local film production in Italy, has been nurturing Warner Bros' local-language operations in 20 countries since 1992. Supervising dubbing the films in foreign languages and promoting them led him into getting local language films made in France, Italy and other countries.
Three years ago, he was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Under his leadership, Warner Bros International has been involved in such successful film projects as Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un Long Dimanche De Fiancailles, which became one of the most widely distributed French film in history; Spain's Academy Award winning director Pedro Almodovar's movies including Talk to Her and Volver.
And now, he has added India to his portfolio.
"I found high professionalism and punctuality with our first production, and working with Nikhil (Advani), Akshay Kumar and Deepika was fun. We liked Nikhil's approach so much we have a three film deal with him," he continued.
Fox says, Warner Bros -- which has co-production deal in half a dozen countries in Europe -- realised years ago that Hollywood cannot sustain itself solely with the English language films. Though Hollywood movies gross a huge $10 billion outside North America, Fox feels that the days of concentrating on films conceived in Los Angeles and made in English language mostly with Hollywood stars and directors are over.
It is not enough for a Hollywood or British company to go to a foreign country, say India, and make films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited, he feels. While those films are indeed welcome, working with the local talent and local content is even more interesting and fruitful.
"We want to make wholly locally conceived and executed films," he added "Chandni Chowk to China was conceived in India by an Indian writer, and it was made by an Indian director and has Indian production companies involved in it."
He adds that the Warner Bros in India spun into action in no time once the parent company in Hollywood decided to do films in India.
"They (Warner India) felt they are advancing Indian cinema," he added, "and they are doing it with the local content."
During his Indian sojourn, Fox met with many filmmakers and actors. "Right from the start, we knew we wanted to do more than Hindi language films," he said. "And that is why I went to Chennai. Now, not every film we will make in India would have a big budget. But surely we will also be working with the likes of Akshay. And when we think of the South, wouldn't it be wonderful to have Rajnikant in one of our films?"