Disney Rewrites Script
To Win Fans in India
China, Latin America Are Also in Turnaround;
A ' Princess' in Mumbai
By MERISSA MARR
June 11, 2007; Page A1
MUMBAI, India -- On a dusty movie lot known as Film City here, a soft-spoken director counsels two actors on a love scene for the latest movie from Yash Raj Films. In typical Bollywood style, the closest the on-screen lovers get to intimacy is a longing gaze and a brush of the hand.
Enter Walt Disney Co., lured by Yash Raj's tradition of family-friendly entertainment. Disney has struggled to make big money in India with its classic American fare. Now it has persuaded Yash Raj to make Disney-branded animated films, with the voices of Bollywood stars.
The joint effort, to be announced tomorrow, is part of the U.S. entertainment icon's strategy to remake itself in high-growth foreign markets such as India. In many cases, that means discarding Disney's historic obsession with going it alone -- and instead joining with local experts to produce culturally customized fare. In China, for instance, Disney is teaming up with the state-run China Film Group to release "The Secret of the Magic Gourd," a movie about a talking vegetable that grants wishes. In India, it also is tapping local filmmakers to make a Hindi feature film of its TV hit "High School Musical," which may be set against a backdrop of cricket rather than the original's basketball.
See a stage tour promotion in India for Disney's "Power Rangers" show, and the kids who dig it.
When Robert Iger became Disney's chief executive in 2005, he said publicly he wanted half of Disney's profit to come from overseas within five years. Only a quarter of the company's revenue last year came from overseas, however, and Mr. Iger says he "still likes" his goal but it could be "difficult" to reach. Instead, he says, the company is "planting seeds today for growth tomorrow."
For the better part of a decade, Disney has made a priority of building its foreign business in television, movies, retail and theme parks -- a task initially assigned to Mr. Iger himself, when he was made head of Disney's international operations. But it turned out to be a bigger job than anyone expected. Mr. Iger says of those initial hopes: "We were heady and those were heady days." In reality, Disney was "years away from having a global business that rivaled the domestic business."
Disney's traditional approach was largely to force-feed its U.S. products from its Burbank, Calif., headquarters. The company ultimately concluded the cookie-cutter approach wouldn't work, and now it is going country by country, with a particular focus on five hot markets: India, China, Russia, Latin America and South Korea. "We're building Disney from scratch," in countries such as India, said Mr. Iger, citing the company's founder and namesake: Just "as Walt did in the U.S. over 50 years ago."
• What's Changed: Disney is focusing on a different approach as it seeks to establish itself in India: developing local shows and products, rather than relying on U.S. franchises.
• Market Potential: India's population under age 14 is bigger than the entire U.S. population, and household incomes are rising fast.
• Profit Centers: To boost growth overseas, Disney has targeted five hot markets: India, China, Russia, Latin America and South Korea.
The company has given more power to local managers and is tailoring its strategies for the local markets. In China, for instance, where state regulation of television and movies is aggressive, Disney is leading its charge in retail, selling its plush toys and Mickey Mouse clothing to consumers on a nationwide buying binge. In Latin America, where Disney is well-known but historically considered an elite brand, the company is attempting to move into the broader mass market.
Disney's new approach follows the route of other U.S. institutions' efforts at foreign acceptance. Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC menus are tweaked country by country, for instance, to include rice porridge and bamboo shoots in China. Disney's biggest children's-television competitor in India, New York-based Time Warner Inc., in 2004 launched what's now the second-rated children's channel, Pogo, with generous helpings of homegrown fare to complement its top-rated Cartoon Network there.
In India, the stakes for Disney are huge: The Indian population under 14 years old is bigger than the entire U.S. population, and household incomes are rising fast. But for years, Disney simply sold its U.S. movies and television shows to local distributors and broadcasters. Its movies, in particular, gained little traction in the market -- a problem also faced by other U.S. studios because of the strong Indian film industry. Meanwhile, with India lacking a large-scale retail industry until recently, Disney saw limited opportunity for a consumer-products business. Poor infrastructure discouraged theme-park construction.
Disney now has put television at the forefront. Indian's burgeoning middle class places near-obsessive focus on family and increasingly is paying for cable television. The company launched Disney Channel and Toon Disney in India in 2004, and then last year made a rare overseas acquisition, buying Hungama, the third-rated children's channel.
Disney also waded into local productions, spending a year developing and shooting dozens of television pilots and then launching two shows: "Dhoom Machaao Dhoom", about a teenager discovering her Indian identity after living in America, and "Vicky and Vetaal," about a boy and a friendly ghost -- trying to capitalize on Indian fascination with supernatural themes.
The goal is for television success to pave the way for other lines of business. One of those is a "Disney Artist" line of stationery stores, which emphasize school supplies featuring Disney characters to play to Indian families' emphasis on education. The stores sell larger school bags than in the U.S. because Indian schools don't have student lockers, and sell thermos flasks because many schools don't have chilled water.
On a recent weekday in Disney's store in the Gurgaon suburb of Delhi, 4-year-old Aryan Gambhir wore a Disney "Power Rangers" T-shirt and fingered through Disney-branded stationery. He said he also was a fan of Disney's "Winnie the Pooh," and picked out a "Jungle Book" pencil case, "Pooh" balloons and "Mickey Mouse" candles for his brother's birthday.
The store is a joint venture with Ravi Jaipuria, an Indian distributor who helped establish such brands as Pepsi and Pizza Hut in India. Mr. Jaipuria says he and Disney plan to leverage franchise brands and tap the country's mushrooming mall business by opening some 300 stores. The key, he says, is to make the offerings affordable. Disney previously misstepped by selling products in China that cost far more than most people were willing to spend. Disney and Mr. Jaipuria also are discussing possible stores dedicated to franchises such as the "Disney Princess" line of toys as well as making Disney-brand flavored milk and ice cream.
From left: Bollywood star Dia Mirza hosts an audition for India's Disney Princess contest. Two characters from Disney's Hungama show, 'Hero.' The first Disney Artist store, in a Delhi suburb.
Disney also decided it needed a partner in the rough-and-tumble Bollywood movie industry. With its Yash Raj partnership, Disney landed one of Bollywood's oldest and most successful studios to make "at least one animation film per year," says Yash Raj's chief executive Sanjeev Kohli.
The first venture will be an animated tale featuring the voices of Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. But though the stars are big draws in Indian cinema, Indian audiences aren't used to seeing animated features on movie screens. Disney's local movie executive, Shyam P.S., says that Disney will start with simple stories blending singing, dancing, humor and the "in your face" emotion typical of Bollywood.
Previously Disney stumbled badly in China after overlooking cultural differences. When it released its U.S. film "Mulan," based on a Chinese folk tale, a decade ago, the story was seen as too Westernized a version. When Hong Kong Disneyland first opened its doors in 2005, many Chinese visitors expected an amusement park like others in the country and were baffled by the storylines and unfamiliar characters connected with the rides. Some efforts to accommodate Chinese culture also went awry: Serving shark-fin soup at the theme park drew fire from conservationists.
Disney first started re-thinking its international ambitions in the fall of 1998, when Michael Eisner was chief executive. At a retreat held in Mr. Eisner's apple orchard in Vermont, senior executives discussed growth opportunities against the backdrop of a slowing domestic market.
While Mr. Eisner had led Disney into a new wave of growth after taking over in 1984, he had focused largely on the home market. In the late 1990s, the international business represented less than 20% of overall revenue, and a smaller share of profit, according to people familiar with the figures. Executives argued the company needed to cast its gaze further afield and they agreed to appoint an executive with a mandate to increase the overseas business. Mr. Eisner persuaded Mr. Iger, then the ABC television president, to become Disney's first international head.
At the next retreat, at Mr. Eisner's Aspen, Colo., house in 1999, executives agonized over how to structure the overseas business. Some of the business divisions bristled at the thought of giving up any control.
On his initial trips to survey the overseas offices, Mr. Iger was confronted with an army of disgruntled executives who felt they had been overlooked by Burbank for years, according to some executives. The way the businesses were organized was a mess: Disney's random expansion over the years created enormous overlap and little coordination among its offices. In Japan, for instance, Mr. Iger says he discovered that the "guy who ran the studio didn't even know who ran television."
He started cleaning up the bureaucracy, slashing jobs and introducing a new layer of overseas managers. Promoted to become Mr. Eisner's No. 2 in 2000, he realized he had attacked only the "tip of the iceberg" in the international effort, he says. One obstacle loomed particularly large for both Mr. Iger and his successor, Michael O. Johnson: Disney's different divisions battling to protect their overseas turf. Mr. Johnson left after three years.
When Mr. Iger became CEO in 2005, he ordered up a study on how to exploit overseas opportunities more aggressively, which recommended the five key markets. Disney's international president, Andy Bird, says they decided to give those markets more authority so they could act in an "entrepreneurial manner."
To help change the direction in India, Disney's Indian television executive, Nachiket Pantvaidya, spent time in Burbank learning Disney's style of storytelling and talking about Indian styles. At one recent retreat, he found himself sharing ideas with creative executives including Disney's head of animation, John Lasseter, the director of Pixar hits like "Toy Story." Mr. Pantvaidya says they combined Disney Channel and Indian values to come up with three core themes for their shows: "believe in yourself, express yourself, and celebrate your family."
In effect, he says they created a new genre of children's programming in India they call "aspirational storytelling," aimed at a generation of children with broader ambitions than their parents.
In other cases, Disney is taking U.S. franchises and making Indian versions of them, such as "High School Musical," whose Indian cast members are likely to be chosen in an "American Idol"-style competition. Disney already aired a dubbed version of the American movie, and launched "My School Rocks," a dance competition involving hundreds of schools that uses "High School Musical" songs. Disney has sold a CD of the movie soundtrack featuring Hindi lyrics and Indian instruments to spread the word further. The CD has been more successful at reaching a broad audience than the DVD because of the lower cost. Disney also is making local feature-film versions of "High School Musical" in Latin America and Russia. Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs says the plan is to invest $100 million in films outside the U.S. over the next two to three years.
The cost of producing local shows in each market adds up, but they don't have nearly the same budgets as U.S. shows. Each episode of "Dhoom Machaao Dhoom" is filmed in a day on a rubble-strewn television lot in northern Mumbai, at a cost of around $10,000 -- a fraction of a U.S. TV episode. Disney's Indian feature films will cost between $4 million and $10 million.
Mr. Pantvaidya says local shows make up 25% to 40% of Disney television programming. The company hopes local shows will build interest in its U.S. franchises such as "Hannah Montana" and "Kim Possible."
Disney's Princess line of toys, featuring characters from several animated fairy tales, got a recent push from a nationwide talent contest hosted by Bollywood star Dia Mirza to crown India's own "Disney Princess," which Disney televised. The winner was a 6-year-old from Mumbai.
Meanwhile Disney's own name is being promoted in India by merchandise unconnected to a character: Disney jeans, also sold in China and Europe. The first Disney Jeans store opened in Mumbai last year, and Disney says it plans to open 50 of them with local licensee Indus Clothing Ltd. by the end of 2008.
India's multitude of languages, dialects and religions makes Disney's strategy akin to "three dimensional chess," says Mr. Bird. Mr. P.S., Disney's local movie executive, says the company plans to release its first animated film in at least three languages: Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Later on, Disney may make live-action movies specifically for the country's south, which has different tastes in movies and has emerged as an important market. Ultimately, executives say Disney's Indian production could reach eight movies a year. Mr. P.S. says the aim is to have Indian audiences saying within a decade: "Let's go see a Disney movie."
--Geoffrey A. Fowler contributed to this article.
Write to Merissa Marr at email@example.com
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