Of Chai and Samosas: Indian cinema and exhibition in the U.S.

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Distribution and exhibition of Indian films (mostly Hindi language Bollywood films) in North America have been un-organized sectors for nearly five decades now. In cities/regions with a large concentration of South Asians – New York/NJ, California, Toronto, and so on – a desi family would often run a weekend business that involved screening films at university halls or by renting a screen (for one weekend) at a local cinema theatre. While things have changed in larger cities – from dedicated screens to entire multiplexes (Naz8 in California, for e.g.) for Indian films – there has been no concerted effort to organize distribution and exhibition across the continent.

However, given the ways in which the “NRI market” has been targeted in increasingly sophisticated ways by the film industry in Mumbai, perhaps it is not a surprise that a Bollywood company has decided to launch a major exhibition venture. According to a story in India West, Adlabs is in the process of acquiring close to 200 cinemas in cities across the U.S. (link):

The new theater chain will likely be branded as Big Cinemas and will program a mix of Hindi, South Indian, and first-run and second-run Hollywood movies.

It has already begun a quiet rollout: the company’s first West Coast property to open is the Norwalk 8 Theaters in Southern California, which will screen the subtitled Hindi thriller “Tashan” and the unsubtitled Tamil romance “Santhosh Subramaniam” starting April 25, along with a mix of second-run features such as “Fool’s Gold” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

If Adlabs does succeed in establishing a chain of theatres across the U.S., I have no doubt it will change the way Bollywood imagines and mobilizes an “overseas market.” In addition to bringing about a shift in distribution and marketing practices, this will also allow filmmakers to track revenues in a more organized and reliable fashion.

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