By AMOL SHARMA
India's Reliance ADA Group is in talks with Universal Studios to build a $1.5 billion theme park and resort in India, seeking to capitalize on rising demand for entertainment in one of the world's fastest-growing markets, a person familiar with the matter said.
Reliance, a media-to-energy conglomerate backed by billionaire Anil Ambani, would be full owner of the park but would pay Universal royalties and fees for using brands and content linked to popular Hollywood movies such as "Jaws," "E.T.," "Spider-Man" and the "Harry Potter" franchise, this person said.
The park would look much like Universal's other major theme parks in Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., and Japan, with a variety of roller coasters and rides, shops with movie-related merchandise and nearby hotels. The complex is expected to stretch over 400 acres, which would make it one of the biggest such sites in the world, the person familiar with the matter said.
Reliance's Big Entertainment subsidiary and Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, still are discussing terms, but could reach a deal this year. One person familiar with the matter warned, however, that talks are at an early stage, and could yet break down.
A Reliance spokesman said his company doesn't comment on market speculation. Universal declined to comment.
In addition to Universal's stable of Hollywood productions, the park would incorporate content from Mumbai's prolific film industry, known as Bollywood, potentially adding to recent crossovers between the U.S. and Indian entertainment worlds.
The costs of the theme park, including land acquisition, licensing of intellectual property and construction, would be about $1.5 billion, a person familiar with the matter said. The main cities being considered for the park are New Delhi and Mumbai, which are densely populated and have relatively affluent populations for India. Building the theme park could take three years.
The companies believe India is an attractive location for a big theme park because rapid economic growth is lifting incomes, and urban consumers are looking for new ways to relax and experience entertainment.
Moreover, one-third of India's 1.2 billion-strong population is under 14. While shopping malls and movie theaters are popular weekend destinations for young people, Reliance believes there would be huge demand for theme parks as well.
A deal with Universal would be the latest in a series of moves by Reliance to team up with U.S. entertainment companies as it seeks to fashion itself into a global media giant. Reliance is one of the key financial backers of Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios and is separately funding film projects for Hollywood stars including Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt. The company also operates more than 500 movie theaters globally. In television, Reliance is forming a 50-50 joint venture with CBS Corp. of the U.S. to launch Hindi- and English-language TV channels in South Asia. Final details of the CBS partnership are to be worked out in coming weeks.
For Universal, India represents a chance to extend its brand to a new frontier. Universal has just a handful of theme parks. It is sole owner of its Hollywood park, which opened in 1964, and is a partner in the Universal Orlando Resort, which opened in the 1990s and includes the Islands of Adventure park. In June it unveiled a 20-acre addition to the park called the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which features rides based on the "Harry Potter" movies.
Universal licenses its brand to parks in Japan and Singapore. Universal Studios Japan opened in 2001. The Singapore park partly opened in March.
In addition to licensing its extensive roster of movies, Universal provides planning, development and operating-management services for Universal-branded theme parks in locations throughout the world for a fee.
Reliance was drawn to Universal as a partner because in addition to its own properties, Universal acquires intellectual-property rights from other Hollywood studios, such as the "Harry Potter" series from Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros., according to a person familiar with the situation.
Last year, U.S. cable giant Comcast Corp. agreed to buy control of NBC Universal, Universal's parent, and is seeking regulatory approval to close the deal.
—Lauren E. Schuker contributed to this article.