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Continental shift for SKG

The studio's Indian suitor and its wealthy owner seek a higher Hollywood profile.

June 19, 2008|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Anil Ambani is a major player in Bollywood. He has designs on being the same in Hollywood.

The Indian billionaire owns movie production facilities and theater chains in his homeland, as well as a piece of an Indian post-production company, Prime Focus Group, that lately has been acquiring similar firms in Hollywood. His wife is Tina Munim, a famous Bollywood actress and former Miss India.

Now Ambani is making a play for a major share of the Hollywood limelight. His Mumbai-based Reliance ADA Group is in talks to help finance a move by DreamWorks SKG, the studio founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, to become an independent company again.

Just last month, a Reliance division, Reliance Big Entertainment, announced deals to provide production financing to Hollywood A-listers such as George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt. At the time, the company said it planned to spend $1 billion on entertainment projects over the next year and a half.

Ambani's ambitions go beyond trying to win Americans over to Bollywood films, which are popular around the globe but have had limited success in the United States.

"He wants to do that," Gunjan Bagla, author of the forthcoming book "Doing Business in 21st Century India," said of Ambani's plans. "But he signed the production deals with George Clooney and others, and he's making this move toward DreamWorks, because he has ambitions of owning a studio in Hollywood and participating in the revenue stream that Hollywood generates."

Ambani, 49, is a scion of the dynasty founded by industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, the patriarch of one of India's best-known business families.

"Think of Rockefeller, Bill Gates and Howard Hughes combined," Bagla said. "That's how well the Ambani family name is known in India."

After the elder Ambani died in 2002 without leaving a will, Anil and his older brother Mukesh engaged in a very public brawl over the family empire. According to the family, the truce that was finally negotiated in 2005 was largely the doing of Anil and Mukesh's mother, although major Indian banks that had invested heavily in the Ambani empire apparently played a role as well.

The deal broke Reliance into two parts. Besides his entertainment interests, Anil Ambani has holdings in telecommunications, healthcare and financial services. Mukesh heads petrochemical giant Reliance Industries.

Both brothers prospered. Last fall, the Times of India estimated Mukesh's wealth at $55 billion, Anil's at $33 billion.

The wealth gap rankles the younger brother, according to published reports. And the siblings rarely if ever talk to each other.

Anil, who studied business at Wharton (Mukesh went to Stanford), has shed the playboy image of his younger days and developed a reputation as a savvy business pro. That could help him avoid the mistakes Japanese companies like Sony and Matsushita made when they launched abortive forays into Hollywood almost two decades ago.

"This is not a whim," said Bagla. "If the Steven Spielberg of India were making an investment in Hollywood, I'd be skeptical, but this is one of the smartest financial people in India making this investment."

If Reliance ends up with a significant piece of DreamWorks, it would be the latest sign of the growing clout of Indian corporations on the global stage. As the subcontinent's economy has grown in recent years and government strictures on business have loosened, companies like Reliance have become increasingly aggressive in investing overseas.

They have been especially eager to buy high-profile global brands, such as the Tata Group's recent purchase of carmakers Jaguar and Land Rover.

"As Indian companies come of age, they realize they are no longer restricted to just playing in their home market," said Jyoti Narasimhan, an analyst with consulting firm Global Insights.

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martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Reliance ADA Group

Headquarters: Mumbai, India

Chairman: Anil Ambani, the world's sixth-richest person

Businesses: Financial services, telecommunications, electricity generation and distribution, healthcare and entertainment

Largest subsidiaries: Reliance Communications, Reliance Power, Reliance Capital

Movie deals: In May, subsidiary Reliance Big Entertainment announced plans to spend $1 billion making films with Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Chris Columbus, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and others.

Sources: Reliance ADA, Forbes

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