The Indian film industry is rapidly expanding its worldwide reach. On the eve of Cannes, Liz Shackleton looks at how the territory's leading producers and distributors are making their films more attractive to an international audience.

The Indian film industry's gradual emergence as a force at an international level has been well documented over the past few years. So-called 'crossover' films, most recently Mira Nair's The Namesake and Deepa Mehta's Water, have captured the imagination of global audiences and Mumbai-based stars are also gaining mainstream recognition - in particular power couple Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood's very own Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

To date, however, no Mumbai-produced film has had the international impact of a J-horror hit or a Chinese martial arts epic, and no Indian director working in his home country has garnered the cult status of Korea's Park Chan-wook or Hong Kong's Johnnie To.

The big challenge now for the prolific Hindi-language film industry is whether it can really have an impact at a global level, outside of the Indian diaspora, and turn the buzz about Bollywood into international sales.

Until recently, there was little incentive for Indian producers to look beyond their own shores - they have a 96% share of a $1.5bn box-office market and overseas revenues account for less than 10% of total income, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report. But there is a growing realisation of the potential of the international market and producers are starting to target new territories such as Germany, China and South America.

More significantly, this is an industry on the brink of massive growth and change - driven by the emergence of integrated studios, an influx of legitimate investment and the multiplex boom - and in many ways its ambitions outstrip those of its Asian neighbours. The Cannes market will provide a good indication of where the industry is heading and what it can achieve.

While Indian companies such as Eros International have been distributing films to the diaspora for decades (see p30), they have only started to explore non-traditional international markets in the last four or five years. They started to attend Cannes at around the same time and their numbers have snowballed ever since.

This year, around 60 exhibitors are housed under the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) umbrella, with more setting up stalls independently. Companies set to make a noise include UTV Motion Pictures, Adlabs Films, iDream Independent Pictures and newcomer Studio 18.

This is set to be India's year at Cannes. The festival's Tous Les Cinemas Du Monde section will feature two days of screenings of Indian films (May 19-20) - to celebrate the joint anniversaries of 60 years of Indian independence and Cannes' 60th edition.

Cannes veteran Avinaash Jumani of WEG India says the Indian film industry's attitude to Cannes has changed completely since his company first hit the Croisette in 1999. 'Back then there was no Bollywood presence, but now producers want to see what's happening and more actors want to go. Even if you don't close many deals at the market, you gain exposure and make contacts, and usually there's a lot of follow-up that makes it worthwhile.'

UTV, which first went to Cannes in 2004, scored sales last year with Rang De Basanti and Don, both picked up by Germany's Rapid Eye Movies for mainstream release. Deputy sales manager Amrita Pandey says there are other advantages to attending Cannes.

'It's a great platform to announce strategic business alliances or even launch films - like the unveiling of Jodhaa Akbar, which we are doing this month,' says Pandey. 'We also have the opportunity to interact with international film festival programmers and discuss our films for their festivals.'

Breaking the mould
Much has been made of how Hindi-language films are becoming more palatable to global audiences, with shorter running times, fewer songs and more international settings. In 2006, many of the biggest hits broke the Bollywood mould, including Rakesh Mehra's Rang De Basanti, about the social awakening of India's youth, and India's first superhero film, Krrish.

'The average running time of a Bollywood film is now around two-and-a-half hours and many have only one or two songs,' says Adlabs' COO distribution, Sunir Kheterpal. 'It's not because of the crossover phenomenon but because of the changing taste of local audiences, particularly in the metro areas.'

Studio 18's head of UK & Ireland, Tanuj Garg, agrees: 'Younger film-makers are encapsulating the narrative in a shorter time because the audience attention span is declining. The younger generation isn't watching three-hour films.'

Another objective of Indian companies at Cannes is to explore new frontiers in the digital and wireless space. Most of the big players are already active in licensing content to VoD, online and mobile players. 'We want to exploit as many delivery platforms as we can for our content,' says UTV's Pandey.

There will also be many meetings about co-financing and co-production, as India is increasingly becoming a partner for US and international films. UTV has been most active in this area, co-producing three films with Fox and two with Sony through Will Smith's Overbrook, while Adlabs is co-financing a slate of pictures with Hyde Park Entertainment.

Meanwhile, Indian Independent Filmmakers Worldwide (Iifw) will be attending Cannes to remind attendees there is more to Indian cinema than Bollywood. Launched last year, the organisation aims to promote non-Bollywood Indian fare abroad and has around 50 members including film-makers such as Ketan Mehta (Mangal Pandey - The Rising) and Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday).