Many would be hard-pressed to focus on business when in the presence of one of the world's most beautiful women.
Not so for Cineplex Inc. chief executive officer Ellis Jacob. In August, 2007, at a luncheon in downtown Toronto with the heavyweights of the Indian film industry, he had other things on his mind besides the stunning Bollywood superstar at his table, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. He was focused on the buzz that the "Bollywood Oscars" - the International Indian Film Academy awards (IIFA) - could be coming to Toronto.
Mr. Jacob knew it would be a marketing coup for his company to be involved with the festival. Cineplex had been showing Bollywood movies since the nineties, and in some of its theatres Indian titles out-gross Hollywood ticket sales by a long shot. Mr. Jacob wanted to make sure the community of Bollywood lovers would continue to see his theatres as a destination.
"We've been committed to it as a company for the longest time … There's a great desire for us to continue to grow that business," he said in a recent interview.
He had to wait a while. But in January this year, when IIFA announced that Toronto would be the first North American city to host the awards, the organizers came to him.
"Cineplex was our first point of call because we know that they are so involved with showing South Asian films already, and they have a wonderful presence with this community," IIFA project head Noreen Khan said.
This weekend, Cineplex will be the exclusive cinema partner for the film festival accompanying the awards. Cineplex will also host two invitation-only film premieres during the festival: Double Dhamaal - a comedy directed by Indra Kumar, a sequel to his 2007 film - and family comedy Chillar Party, produced by Bollywood star Salman Khan.
The market in Canada for Bollywood movies has been on the rise in recent years. One-quarter of all visible minorities in the country are South Asian; 1.62 million people identified themselves as South Asian in 2006, making them the largest visible minority group in the country. And with that growth, Cineplex's Bollywood business has boomed: It recorded its highest-ever ticket sales for the genre last year.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to appeal to the South Asian community during his campaign this election season, he scheduled an appearance with a Bollywood star, Akshay Kumar, and he did it at a Cineplex theatre (the SilverCity complex in Brampton that will host the massive Double Dhamaal premiere on Thursday.)
In fact, Bollywood has been a testing ground for the company in moving beyond the Hollywood box office. The success of its Hindi and Punjabi offerings led Cineplex to branch out, first with Tamil movies and then to other foreign-language films, such as Filipino and Chinese. Cineplex's burgeoning "alternative" exhibition business - which encapsulates everything from these international movies to its popular showings of opera performances, screenings of Olympic events last year, and upcoming 3D broadcasts from Wimbledon next week - all stem from the fact that Bollywood proved there was money to be made beyond U.S. blockbusters.
Mr. Jacob was not surprised by this. Born and raised in Calcutta, he immigrated to Montreal in 1968 at the age of 15, and remains a Bollywood fan.
The test for the IIFA events is not just whether Cineplex can expand its footprint within the South Asian community; but whether so-called "alternative" Bollywood content could be marketed to a mainstream audience.
"I think very much so. It will be a great help in getting the level of interest and awareness up," Mr. Jacob said.
Ms. Khan has seen it happen. After IIFA went to Amsterdam in 2005, for example, cinema partner Pathé began showing Bollywood films in its theatres, capitalizing on the buzz of the awards.
"It's grown hugely in the last few years wherever we've gone. … There's so much song and dance in Bollywood films, it's a universal language."