Indian Attractions Boom Beyond the Backlot
A dozen kilometers from the outskirts of Hyderabad—where street-side vendors hawk footwear, hand-carved religious masks, and sugarcane, and the horns of lorries merge with the revving engines of three-wheeled autorickshaws—lies an oasis. Here awaits an accidental theme park that has grown into a mecca for Indian movie buffs.
Some 1.7 million parkgoers from across India visit Ramoji Film City every year to tour the sets of their favorite films, ride the carousel, see a Wild West show, dance in a fountain, or even give the reverse bungee a go. With several new attractions in the pipeline, company officials expect attendance to jump more than fivefold by 2025.
India has the world’s largest film industry, in terms of the sheer quantity of movies made and number of tickets sold. At Ramoji Film City alone, some 2,500 films have been produced since the studio opened in 1996. In addition to an attraction, Ramoji Film City is designed as a one-stop shop, with every imaginable professional service needed by a filmmaker, so he or she can “walk in with a script and walk out with a canned film.”
One of the highest grossing Indian films of all time, “Bahubali,” was recently filmed here. It took nearly three years to produce on a 2-acre set surrounded by blue screen so computer-generated imagery could be added in post-production. Other sets—the railway station, temple, airport, hospital, a typical South Indian street, and even European homes—are easily repurposed with the change of a sign and have served as the backdrop for multitudes of hits.
In a country of film fanatics, perhaps it should have seemed obvious that people would want to visit, but that was not initially part of the plan.
An Accidental Theme Park
“Ramoji Film City was intended to be the world’s largest film production facility,” recounts Ramoji Rao, the 82-year-old founder and chairman of the Ramoji Group, who never aims small. Rao achieved that goal, with a seal of recognition from Guinness World Records for the 1,666-acre complex. Born into a family of farmers, Rao is one of India’s accomplished entrepreneurs. He made his start in the 1960s in community finance. Today, the Margadarsi Chit Fund serves 5 million people and has an annual turnover of more than US$1 billion. After launching an agricultural magazine, it didn’t take long for Rao to become a media mogul, with newspapers, as well as radio and TV stations. Recently, he moved to digital with the launch of ETV Bharat, an around-the-clock news and entertainment platform with “hyperlocal” coverage in 12 Indian languages and English. His company also owns hotels, a popular pickle company, and a handicraft store that promotes local artisans. The Ramoji Group remains a family business and employs nearly 30,000 people.
Back at Ramoji Film City, it didn’t take long for the requests to pile in. Fans wanted to see the sets. For US$4 a ticket, Rao began offering backlot tours.
“We had a bus of 50 seats and small team of tour guides,” recalls Ramoji Film City CEO Rajeev Jalnapurkar, who designed top-tier fitness centers until Rao asked him to research how to build an attraction.
Several years later, Ramoji Film City added flat rides, shows, a family play area called Fundustan, and then a highly popular 12-day New Year’s festival. Today, for a 1,150 rupee ticket, visitors can also enjoy a bird park, a butterfly park, and a themed area called Ramoji Movie Magic, among other attractions. The resort has an adventure park, too, where visitors can play paintball, shoot a rifle, or go “zorbing” for additional fees. Destination weddings, which can run as long as a week, are popular in the park, as are corporate events.
Not content to sit idle, additional expansion starts now. Starting in September, Rao will open the park for four hours every night, offering a separate US$16 ticket, and adding evening-only laser shows, fountains, projection mapping, and holographic displays.
A state-of-the-art, US$5 million, family dark ride that follows the park’s mascot Dadajin to film sets across the globe debuts this year in the Ramoji Movie Magic zone. Another sci-fi ride in the same area is being upgraded with a local storyline, 3D effects, and more seats. Looking ahead, 15 acres are allocated for a water park, another 10 for a dinosaur park, and five each for a snow park and aquarium. Master planning is underway, and the new attractions should open within five years.
What’s fueling the growth? On a local level, travel to Hyderabad is on the rise, but more broadly, the entire Indian attractions industry is on the verge of a breakout.
“People are now coming out for tourism and spending on leisure. This was not the case five to 10 years back,” says Ramoji Film City Managing Director Vijayeswari Ch.
Indian Attractions at a Crossroads
“There was a time in India where the amusement industry was limited mainly to traveling carnivals,” explains Jalnapurkar, who is also director of IAAPI, the Indian Association of Amusement Parks and Industries. “Lately, though, we’ve started seeing more people investing in [fixed-site] attractions. It started with the malls having 4D and 5D cinemas, and the family entertainment centers creating walk-through experiences, instead of just offering video games. Then if you look at the Indian heritage sites, like the forts, they used to have simple light and sound shows. Now, they are slowing adding projection mapping and beginning to invest in special animations and holographic design.”
Until recently, creative resources in India were largely channeled to one industry: filmmaking. But park owners are beginning to add more theming, and they’re seeing these investments pay off at the front gate.
“Themed entertainment was unheard of in India—the rides, coasters, water slides were common—but no one was in the business of storytelling, which was my passion,” Jalnapurkar says. “The scene is changing drastically. Parks are looking for more quality experiences and also advice on how to run professional attractions. People are hiring lots of consultants on staff from the West.”
“We have been approached by many, many people who are willing to invest a little more than what they used to every year, and they are now ready to come up with story-based attractions,” says Sanjay Dabke, director of Guardian Media and Entertainment (GME), whose portfolio includes a new indoor theme park outside New Delhi and the country’s first spiritual theme park, Sai Teerth. GME has also developed a show control system, LiveStream, that is “minutely modulated” so it can be deployed on any scale.
That’s a key in India, where cost and pricing are major challenges. In a country of more than a billion people, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is about US$2,000 or just US$175/month. There’s no clear definition of what constitutes India’s middle class, but industry players agree that ticket prices, and investment costs, need to reflect Indian reality. Tickets to major attractions range from about US$10 to US$25 per adult.
“As long as the attraction is relevant, so many people will visit,” says Rao.
“I’m not worried at all about the number. But we cannot afford, like the United States, to invest huge money and then try to recover it with higher prices,” Rao says. “We believe that the pricing has to be absolutely affordable.”
“The industry is taking off, and anybody who is working in it at the moment, who has got enough experience to create something, is at the right place at the right time,” says Dabke.
“I feel India’s tourism, theme parks, and attractions are in their infancy. They have to go a long way. India has tremendous potential for tourism, and I think we have not even exploited even 10% of it,” Rao concludes.