Of the dozen or so posters adorning Naz 8 Cinema in Fremont, only two accord with the theater's Bollywood theme. One is New York, a 9-11 movie directed by Kabir Kahn and produced by Aditya Chopra, both heavyweights in the Hindi-language film industry. The other, called Munde U.K. de, is a fish-out-of-water romance about two British-born Punjabi men who return to their heritage country to find love. All the other signs advertise the same flicks you'd find at any other U.S. megaplex: Ice Age, Night at the Museum, Star Trek, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and the like. Such Hollywood fare never reached the Naz 8 in its whole nineteen-year existence. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when a dispute between Bollywood producers and movie owners threatened the entire industry. In an effort to stave off death, theaters like the Naz 8 had to suddenly diversify their programming.
That meant a huge loss for Bollywood enthusiasts. After all, Naz 8 is as much a cultural institution as a mall movie theater. To shut off its main import stream is to drastically change the role it plays in serving one of the largest Indo-American communities in the United States. That role becomes apparent once you walk inside. The theater walls bear advertisements for South Asian real estate brokers. The smell of samosas and chai drifts from the concession stands, where vendors also hawk mango lassis, naan rolls, and lychee ice cream. Copies of the Indian newspaper Desi Tribune U.S.A. lie stacked on the countertops. Lights in the aisles are brighter and glitterier than in other theaters. Of the mixed, but heavily South Asian clientele, few ever come seeking an American movie theater experience. But that will soon change, said Naz 8 owner Shiraz Jivani.
In the nineteen years since its inception, Naz 8 has dominated the local niche market for Bollywood films. Jivani launched his business at a modest theater on Fremont Boulevard and built up a following among the city's Indo-American population. In 1999 he moved — briefly — to a larger megaplex with eight screens and 3,100 seats, then began expanding his operation, first to Fresno, then Artesia, then throughout the United States. Between 2003 and 2007 he ran about eight locations, including movie houses in Chicago, Austin, Atlanta, and the historic Bal Theatre in San Leandro. Naz 8 mostly screened Hindi movies from the Mumbai dream factory, sometimes interspersing them with films from Afghanistan, Iran, Japan, Cambodia, Pakistan, or Punjab — but not Hollywood blockbusters. (The non-Bollywood movies usually got less screen time, or might split a run with a Bollywood movie that wasn't doing so well, he said.) As the economy faltered Jivani began contracting his business, ultimately closing all but his Fremont and Artesia locations. His current flagship lies in a Fremont shopping mall among hair salons and fast-food restaurants.
Jivani thinks of himself as a tastemaker. Born in Pakistan, he used to cameo in small Bollywood movies. His father owned movie theaters and dabbled in production. "It's in the genes," he said. Still, he's a businessman first and foremost. He immigrated to the United States forty years ago, got his master's degree in marketing at Stanford University, and puttered in various enterprises before finally striking gold with Naz 8. He opened the first theater in honor of his Indian wife, Naz, who took him to Bollywood movies once a week when they started dating. But there was obviously a practical impetus, too. Fremont has a giant Indo-American community, and for the most part, that community has money to spend. Moreover, in the 1990s Jivani had virtually no competition. He was one of the only theater owners who specialized in Bollywood movies.
Sharp and quick to cast judgment, Jivani garnered loyal customers, many of whom were pleased to see an Indian-owned business that helped shore up a meaningful part of their culture. Yet Jivani was practical. He never let vision get the better of him, expanding when he had the wherewithal to do so, and shuttering when necessary. Thus, when Bollywood producers and exhibitors went on strike in April, he had to think fast. The striking producers had demanded that multiplex owners in India fork over half their box office proceeds — despite the fact that most films weren't doing that well, the theater owners complained. As a result, screens shut off in multiplexes all over Mumbai, and in areas of the United States with a high concentration of Bollywood cinemas, such as Queens. Jivani was suddenly left with an empty pipeline, and two theaters to fill. "I have a lease here for twenty years," he said, referring to the Naz 8. "My whole survival was Bollywood." He decided to do an emergency makeover.
A few weeks after the strike took effect, Naz 8 unveiled a new schedule: Roughly 80 percent Hollywood movies, with one Bollywood movie remaining. For Jivani, it was a shot in the dark. He says it worked.
On June 5 the Bollywood strike finally ended, with both sides agreeing on a 50/50 revenue share for all movies during the first box office week, with subsequent weeks determined by ticket sales and the film's budget. Last Saturday, Naz 8 manager Bhadresh Shah and assistant manager Mir Ways stood in the theater lobby, admiring the marquee for New York, the first Bollywood film to arrive since the resolution. It's an unusual film for Bollywood, said Shah, who emigrated from India about four years ago. It was shot on location in New York City, and stars British actress Katrina Kaif, who recently learned Hindi so she could act in Bollywood movies. "This is the first biggest movie since the strike," said Afghan-born Ways, who resettled in the United States in 2002. "We have big hopes on this movie."
At present, though, Naz 8 is mostly pinning hope on Hollywood films, which now comprise the bulk of its offerings. To accommodate the new format, Jivani added more screen times and began opening the theater three hours earlier — at 1 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. every day. After all, he now has to compete with regular multiplexes. Jivani says he eventually hopes to divide his program in half, meaning he'll be "very discrete" as to which Bollywood and which Hollywood movies he chooses to screen. Most of it will depend on a meticulous analysis of weekly box office statistics. He has faith that it will work, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of people come to Naz more for the atmosphere than the film content, he said. Second, the younger Indo-American generation — which constitutes a large slice of Jivani's clientele — favors Hollywood over Bollywood. "This gives parents a one-stop entertainment," Jivani said, explaining that adults now come and drop their kids off at X Men, while they go on to see the latest Aditya Chopra product. Indeed, Saturday's audience for UK de skewed older — the kids had all flocked to an action movie down the hall.
Shah and Ways, who both profess to like South Asian cinema, have acquiesced to the change of scene. They understand the logic behind it. They have yet to see a huge boost in ticket sales, but they share Jivani's hope that the Hollywood-Bollywood format will help optimize revenue at a particularly hard time for movie theaters. Now, Naz 8 just has to reinvent itself for the rest of the world. "It just will take time," Shah assured.
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