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Fresh Princes of Mumbai, Building a Global Audience


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Fresh Princes of Mumbai, Building a Global Audience


Published: August 21, 2006

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 20 — When you are Will Smith, there are few places you can’t get in. Last year, one of those places was China.

Government censors allowed only 20 foreign movie imports in 2005, leaving out Mr. Smith’s romantic comedy “Hitch.” The rejection rankled the actor; China is one of the fastest-growing movie markets. So at a gathering of the Sony Corporation’s top management in January, Mr. Smith appealed to the chief executive, Sir Howard Stringer, and a studio executive, Michael Lynton, to introduce him to Chinese producing partners.

“We can be more helpful in India,” Mr. Lynton told Mr. Smith at their afternoon meeting at the Kahala Resort in Honolulu. India has a robust movie industry with none of China’s political constraints. Mr. Lynton offered to introduce the actor to Indian producers, actors and directors. And the next month Mr. Smith took his first trip to India.

Now he has a deal — to make movies there instead.

Overbrook Entertainment, the company created by Mr. Smith and his business partner, James Lassiter, announced it was working with UTV, a television and film concern run by the entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala. The two have agreed to produce two movies, neither of which will star the popular Mr. Smith.

UTV will pay the films’ costs up to a specified sum (after that amount, Overbrook has to raise the money) but the burden is on Mr. Smith and Mr. Lassiter to develop a script and hire the cast.

The deal says a lot about Hollywood’s desire to court foreign audiences. After years of declining movie attendance at home, studios and movie stars are looking for new opportunities.

Last week, for instance, Hugh Jackman made an arrangement with 20th Century Fox to produce as many as five films a year in his native Australia. Quentin Tarantino, a fan of Chinese martial arts movies, has marketed Asian-language films in the United States under the banner “presented by Quentin Tarantino.”

But it says even more about Mr. Smith’s ambition to become an international player. “It’s been said, ‘Why sell something to 10 people when you can sell it to 10 million people?’ ” said Mr. Smith late one afternoon in an interview in Overbrook’s offices in Beverly Hills. “You have to have a global perspective.”

Early on, Mr. Smith, 37, sought an international career. Born and reared in Philadelphia, he got his start in the mid-1980’s rapping in local clubs as half of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Then the teenage rapper met Mr. Lassiter, who was attending Temple University and was a friend of Jazzy Jeff, whose real name is Jeffrey Townes.

One day Mr. Smith asked Mr. Lassiter, now 41, if he would allow a record company in New York to send a contract to Mr. Lassiter’s fax machine at his home. (This is how Mr. Lassiter got into show business: he owned the only fax machine among his neighborhood friends.) Mr. Lassiter reviewed the contract, and within weeks he was Mr. Smith’s road manager.

“We saw beyond Philadelphia and had the opportunity to travel the world and have someone else pay for it,” said Mr. Lassiter. “At first it was selfish, but it turned into a business.”

While the two friends have guided Mr. Smith’s career together for nearly two decades, they are a study in contrasts. At an interview, Mr. Lassiter wore a plain white shirt and tan pants, while Mr. Smith was dapper in a lime-green corduroy jacket. Mr. Lassiter is reserved, where Mr. Smith greeted a stranger with a hug. And Mr. Lassiter balked at sitting on a pomegranate-colored couch for a photograph, saying it was too flashy.

“Come on,” countered Mr. Smith, smiling. “I like it. What do you guys think?” he said, addressing onlookers standing at the back of Overbrook’s conference room.

Indeed the two interact with an ease rare in Hollywood. “We have a very interesting yin and yang balance where I don’t have to burden myself,” Mr. Smith earnestly said. “I can let my mind go a thousand miles an hour, where it should be. It’s up to him to align our energy and make sure that the ideas will work.”

Mr. Lassiter, who had just arrived from New York, offered a blunt response to Mr. Smith’s remarks. “I can’t believe I got up at 4:30 a.m. for this,” he said, rolling his eyes at Mr. Smith and laughing.

In 1986 the two traveled to London to make an album. It was their first time in Europe together, and the trip made a deep impression on Mr. Smith.

“We met a group of girls who went to Syracuse University who were going to school there,” said Mr. Smith. “That was bizarre to me. To see how free they were. They met there. That world perspective opened me up to the idea. I realized how secluded Americans are.”

Four years later Mr. Smith joined the television sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” in which he starred from 1990 to 1996. Mr. Smith endeared himself to “Fresh Prince” fans in Spain by conducting interviews in Spanish. But he still remained in awe of the impact rap music had on foreign cultures. He recalled a visit to Tokyo in 1988 by the group Run DMC who were greeted by 5,000 fans at the airport wearing gold chains and track suits.

More recently, in 2000, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lassiter were in Mozambique where Mr. Smith was making the movie “Ali.” “One guy we hired for the movie, all he wanted to talk about was Tupac and Redman,” said Mr. Lassiter, referring to the slain rapper Tupac Shakur and the rapper and actor Reggie Noble, who performs under the name Redman.

On the same trip, Mr. Smith said he saw a woman in a village one afternoon washing her clothes in a river. She spoke no English. But as Mr. Smith walked by, she pointed and shouted, “Gettin’ jiggy wit it!” a popular line from one Mr. Smith’s songs.

“I was cracking up,” said Mr. Smith, his body shaking with laughter at the memory. “If she would have said, ‘You’re Will Smith,’ that would have been one thing. But she knew the song. She had to have seen the video to recognize me. And she probably didn’t have a TV.”

Even now the two are perplexed at actors who complain about traveling overseas. “They say they hate the food in London,” said Mr. Lassiter, sounding annoyed.

“How can you hate the food?” said Mr. Smith, laughing.

“I mean, they could go to Nobu or Mr. Chow,” added Mr. Lassiter.

In 1998, after brief stints at other companies, Mr. Lassiter became Mr. Smith’s business partner and the two formed Overbrook, which produced a hit in “Hitch,” but missed with this year’s “ATL.” Originally, Overbrook had a deal with Universal Pictures to produce movies. But after three years and no movies, Mr. Smith took his company to Sony.

“There was a learning curve” at Universal, conceded Mr. Lassiter. “The management changed. We were a little arrogant. It takes time to read the scripts and get to know the directors. We weren’t ready.”

“I was ready,” countered Mr. Smith, but he did acknowledge being impatient.

If there was a turning point in Mr. Smith’s foreign appeal, it was in 1995 with the movie “Bad Boys.” Mr. Smith said the producers expected the film would make only about $5 million overseas.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Lassiter said they persuaded its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, to let Mr. Smith go to the Cannes Film Festival to promote it; holding a news conference, throwing an MTV party attended by 1,000 people and conducting scores of one-on-one interviews with journalists. “It started out as two days and it ended up being two weeks,” said Mr. Lassiter.

The movie brought in 15 times as much at the international box office as was predicted. Since then, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lassiter pick out a new foreign market to concentrate on with the release of each movie. For “I, Robot” it was Russia; in South Africa it was “Ali.”

India now is the country they most want to explore. Already the two have met with Indian directors and actors. And they hope to announce their first movie soon, which Sony has the right to distribute worldwide.

“We don’t want to plaster Mumbai with pictures of Will Smith,” said Mr. Lassiter. “We want to make an exchange. We want to do films there as well as introduce Indian actors and directors to the United States. We have to show people we are willing to adapt to their world.”

But they acknowledge that this endeavor is risky. India’s close-knit film community is already well established. And the most popular movies are Bollywood musicals, a genre in which neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Lassiter has any experience. As a result, their live-action movie produced with UTV could be filmed outside of India. The other film will be made in India where UTV has animation operations.

“A lot of the people in India don’t know what they have,” said Mr. Smith.

Neither do Americans, he said. A case in point, he said, is the story of the Taj Mahal. It was built as a tomb in 1631 for Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of Emperor Shah Jahan who died after having the couple’s 14th child. “But there is a second part of the story you don’t know,” said Mr. Smith, recounting the history.

Shah Jahan, who was said to have killed his brothers, was later overthrown by his son. The emperor was imprisoned in a tower where the view from his window was of the tomb he had built to honor his wife.

“No one hears that part,” said Mr. Smith. “What are the other stories we don’t know?”

source via google http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/21/business...artner=homepage

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