"If somebody had said 30 years ago that the Japanese car industry would overtake General Motors, people would have laughed. But that is what is going to happen in the movie industry." So says Kishore Lulla, the man labelled "an anomaly" by Management Today. That's down to a remarkably small ego for someone who has made a fortune in an industry "whose vainglorious thesps put our own self-absorbed luvvies in the shade". Having long ago cleaned up as the first international distributor of Bollywood films, this shy, London-based entrepreneur has become a fully-fledged movie mogul, bent on creating the biggest studio in Mumbai. Given the cash advantage the latter now wields over its erstwhile mentor Hollywood, "if he plays his cards right he might just become the biggest combatant in the film world".
Lulla's 'Big Bang moment' came in 2002 when the Indian government finally gave the film business formal industry status. Despite the typically saccharine nature of its output, up until then Bollywood had long been "the biggest money-laundering operation in Asia". The industry was so notorious for its mob links and violence (in the 1990s a minister of culture was jailed for shooting his secretary in a fit of rage) that no Indian bank was allowed near it. So when Lulla turned his sights back east, after an exile of 25 years, his key advantage was that his "hands were clean". When he floated his group, Eros International (LON:EROS), on Aim in 2006, he had little difficulty raising $100m from institutional investors keen on the potential for market growth (see below). Eros now covers all the bases, says The New York Times. It still dominates international distribution out of Bollywood, but it is also the leading importer of Hollywood films into India. Meanwhile, Lulla's movie studio has proved a magnet for stars including Shahrukh Khan, the heart-throb "King of Bollywood" and has 50 films in the pipeline for the next year alone.
Kishore Lulla draws his inspiration from two sources, says The Times: the old studio bosses of Hollywood's golden age and his father, Arjan, who spotted a gap in the market in 1977. Noting the 50 million Indians scattered worldwide who were "crazy for films they had no way of seeing", he began exporting Indian movies the old-fashioned way in steel tins to the UK and US and to less obvious places, such as the UAE and Israel. When Kishore joined the business, armed with a law degree, he pioneered further expansion into Malaysia, Australia and Africa. Even in those early days, "I just knew Indian cinema would go global", he says. The business grew on the back of the 1980s video boom and later benefited from the revival of cinema in the 1990s. But it is the explosion of middle-class audiences in emerging economies that's really driving growth now. "It took 25 years to globalise Bollywood," Lulla told The Daily Telegraph. "Never too late."
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Anyone who has had their fill of slick American movie bosses will find Lulla "a treat", says The Economist. He has an "endearingly unguarded manner" and makes a point of remaining on friendly terms with rivals. Even so, there's no mistaking the "very firm fist in Lulla's velvet glove", nor his driving ambition.
Can Kishore Lualla's Eros International survive economic misery?
The link between economic misery and increased movie-going is well established. But had you invested in Eros a year ago, you wouldn't have escaped the bloodbath, says The Times. Eros, still majority-owned by the Lulla family, has seen a 60% fall in its market value. Its broker, Evolution Securities, is presenting that as a buying opportunity.The numbers do look tempting, says The SundayTimes: pre-tax profits are up 31%; revenues by 55%.
But it's the outlook that's most appealing. Lulla reckons regular cinema-goers in India number some 400 million in a population of one billion, but numbers are swelling by 40 million a year and Bollywood already beats Hollywood by box office volume, with some four billion tickets sold annually. At an average cost of $1, tickets are cheap. But Lulla expects prices to rise by $2 or $3. Bollywood is at "an inflexion point", both artistically and commercially, says Lulla.Where once it was "pure song-and-dance movies and family values", it is now moving full steam into art-house, thriller and action pictures.
"There will be sex, definitely", and animation too. A major aspect of his latest deal with Sony, for example, is to build the equivalent of a Disney arm. "Once you have that in place, you can have Eros merchandising." But Eros faces tough competition, says The New York Times not least from the huge Indian conglomerate Reliance, whose Big Entertainment division recently announced a $1bn injection into eight Hollywood production companies. With some 25 independent studios in Bollywood, there is ample scope for consolidation. But Lulla should steel himself for a fight.
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