In June 1938, Loew’s, Inc. opened a new movie palace in Bombay to secure exhibition of its MGM films. Seventy years later, the same Metro Theatre is now the flagship of a global BIG Cinemas chain with theaters in India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and the United States.
While not all of BIG Cinemas’ 107 screens in the US exhibit Indian films exclusively, many of these theaters hope to become important community, and not just entertainment, centers. Phil Zacheretti, who manages the US circuit, notes that while other theaters may book films like My Name is Khan (2010), those venues “are not going to serve samosas. Our theaters,” he adds, “become the gathering place where families can meet in the lobby before and after the movies.” The BIG Cinemas in Niles, Illinois retains patrons with its “Ebony Lounge” and a restaurant and bar open until 2:00AM.[i] The chain’s concession stands also serve mango lassis, papdi chaats, samosas, chai, Indian fruit breads, and more. When Aadhavan (2009) opened at the BIG Cinemas Towne 3 in San Jose, California, patrons were given laddu (an Indian dessert) by the film’s distributor and wished a “Happy Diwali” in Tamil.[ii] With its mix of Indian films and atmosphere, BIG Cinemas already account for up to 35% of Hindi film and over 70% of Tamil and Telegu grosses in the US.[iii]
BIG may be part of a new wave of foreign exhibition circuits in the United States. CGV Cinemas, a South Korean chain, recently opened its first cinema in Los Angeles and “aim[s] to one day become an industry leader in the United States as in Korea” with a “community-oriented atmosphere” and a mixture of Korean and subtitled American films.[iv] Toho operated a few theaters in the US beginning in the 1960s, but this wave of foreign exhibitors is far more capitalized. BIG (and CGV), though, should be mindful of the many Spanish-language and Chinatown theaters that once dotted the United States and have since vanished. Is their rise and fall a possible outcome for BIG Cinemas? Only time will tell.
For now, the success of BIG Cinemas is a symbol of changing demographics and of the global popularity of Indian cinema. Foreign exhibitors like BIG and CGV are finding new opportunities in the US market by catering to diasporic audiences hungry for films, food, and community. As evidenced by the clip to the left (a screening of Endhiran (2010) in San Jose), this is not an average night out at an American megaplex or an unimportant industrial and cultural phenomenon.
This is BIG.
[i] "AdLab's "Big Cinemas" Opens BIG in Chicago, IL" BIG Cinemas Press Release, May 19, 2009. http://www.behindwoods.com/tamil-movie-news-1/may-09-04/big-cinemas-19-05-09.html; Andreas Fuchs, “Popcorn & Poppadum: Phoenix and India's Adlabs Align Forces for America,” Film Journal International, July 18, 2008. http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/esearch/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003829242; Richard Verrier, “Bollywood Movies a Bright Spot for U.S. Cinema Industry,” Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ct-bollywood26-2009oct26,0,3160762.story
[ii] Verrier, “Bollywood Movies a Bright Spot for U.S. Cinema Industry."; BIG Cinemas Opens In California, India Journal, December 31, 2009. http://www.indiajournal.com/pages/event.php?id=9464