Indian investment banker-turned-novelist Chetan Bhagat said the Indian film industry is only recently becoming more active in adapting books for screen, but that shoudl grow as India’s independent film production sector grows.

He noted that in India, commerical films are driven by the audience’s desire for escapism, formulaic stories and stars, but he hopes a space will always be available for arthouse films.

“A $25 million box office is considered a hit in India but you can get $2-$3 million to make an artistic film that makes $6-$7 million and that’s still a success. Some Indians want movies that give them insights into themselves and are tired of formula movies.”

Bhagat has experience with his novels being adapted into a huge box-office hit with top stars (3 Idiots), and also a more modest-sized success with lesser-known stars (Brothers For Life).

There was much discussion about the challenges and potential of integrating cultures via film adaptations.

Hong Kong-based literary agent Marysia Juszczakiewicz of Peony, who represents many of China’s top tier writers including Yan Geling (The Flowers Of War), said the rise in interest from the US studios and others in Chinese stories has been very noticeable in the past two or three years.

Stu Levy, the Tokyopop entrepreneur known for pushing manga into the US and executive producer of Priest, said people working in this terrain have to think outside the box. He referred to a still-under-wraps project he’s involved with that is a typical Hollywood film except that it will have a “very very well known Chinese star” in the lead and will be filmed, in part, in China.

US novelist and writer/director Michael Tolkin said the studios don’t want original scripts. They want stories that have already succeeded in other forms and have franchise potential: “that’s why the people at Marvel are billionaires”.

That said, best sellers don’t necessarily make the best films and it is better to look for books with a sense of emotional completion.

He emphasized that there was nothing wrong with taking just an idea from a book and taking it in a completely different direction. In other words, each treatment becomes its own thing.

Tolkin has written four novels but has only allowed The Player to be adapted because he felt the others weren’t suitable.

“The US unfortunately keeps its doors shut to other methods of storytelling,” he advised the audience. “The stronger you can make your stories the better but I don’t know if you will be able to penetrate America in the same way American movies have penetrated the rest of the world.”