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SAN JOSE, Calif.- It's 8 p.m. Friday and the Towne Theatre downtown is sold out. About 500 moviegoers have crowded into the three-screen movie house, paying up to $12 a ticket to watch not the latest Hollywood blockbuster but instead the premieres of three Indian movies that are opening simultaneously in India.
"If you go to the AMC theater, they don't play South Indian movies. This is our only option," said Sudhakar Desireddy, a software engineer for Cisco Systems Inc. and a Towne Theatre regular who sometimes attends showings twice a week.
Welcome to one of the few bright spots for the stagnant U.S. movie-theater industry: Indian cinema. As the Indian film industry has mushroomed - surpassing Hollywood as the most prolific producer of movies - distributors of Bollywood and regional Indian films have been eager to broaden their global appeal, especially in the U.S., which accounts for as much as 70 percent of their movies' foreign box office.
The U.S. has a fast-growing, affluent population of about 2.5 million Indian-Americans. The Bay Area alone is home to an estimated 215,000 ethnic Indians, many of whom work in the Silicon Valley's high-tech industry and are hungry for Indian entertainment.
Hoping to cash in on that appetite is Big Cinemas, India's largest movie-theater chain. Big Cinemas is a division of Reliance, the Mumbai-based conglomerate controlled by Indian billionaire Anil Ambani that is also bankrolling Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio. In the past 18 months, Reliance has assembled a group of 18 theaters, with most offering a mix of Indian and Hollywood films and some, like the theater in San Jose, exclusively featuring Indian movies.
Big Cinemas' goal: to build the nation's first theater circuit catering to Indian-Americans and other ethnic groups passed over by the major chains. It plans to open half a dozen more theaters targeted to Indian-American audiences in Los Angeles - it already has a theater in suburban Norwalk - and in Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Tampa, Fla..
"What we found is that there is a critical mass of audiences in the U.S., but they are underserved," said Uday Kumar, who oversees Reliance's Big Cinemas operation in North America. "We saw an untapped demand."
Big Cinemas is spending $12 million to renovate theaters - many of which it acquired from mom-and-pop operators - with new digital projectors and sound systems, computerized accounting controls, stadium seating and Indian-food concession stands.
At the same time, Reliance reached out to Indian film distributors, offering to act as a "one-stop shop" to deliver their movies via a company-owned fiber-optic network that pipes films directly from Mumbai to New York.
Although some major theater chains show Bollywood films at a few locations, they don't pose a serious threat to Big Cinemas, said Phil Zacheretti, manager of Big Cinemas' operations.
"They are not going to serve samosas," he noted.
"Our theaters become the gathering place where families can meet in the lobby before and after the movies."
The company also is looking beyond Bollywood to screen movies for other "niche audiences."
"There's no reason we can't do the same thing for other (ethnic) groups," Kumar said.
by Richard Verrier (los angeles times)
You may also be interested in GaramChai Movie Section and our comprehensive listing of Theaters Screening Indian, South Asian movies in the US and The Bollywood-Hollywood Connection section of GaramChai.com