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Iram Parveen Bilal. -File photo by Alisia Pek/Dawn.com
Iram Parveen Bilal. -File photo by Alisia Pek/Dawn.com

I must say that when audiences ask us questions like “when are “you” releasing your film?”, we just think they are oblivious and proceed to educate them; that it isn’t “us” who releases films, it is distributors who release films.

One realises just how much of the film business is a mystery to the world in terms of how long it takes to make films, distribute them and also in terms of common ethics of distribution (like the tens of fans that ask us on our JOSH Facebook page, where they can download the movie from?!). It isn’t their fault that they are this clueless about the process. Clearly, there isn’t a proper infrastructure of the entire industry, from finance to screen. And this is all a part of the process. Once the industry grows, so will the general understanding of the process and its protocols.

However, when journalists and people who seem to display having insider knowledge of the film industry, write about how independent filmmakers need to get over themselves and get with the game and distribute their films early, I am appalled. Is it that easy or are we that clueless that if it were in our hands to distribute, we aren’t? I can say with full certainty that the small budget, “indie” filmmaker cannot afford to do that.

I can’t speak bout my peers but I can certainly speak for myself as a filmmaker. For four years, I have tried and tried and can proudly say that I have left no stone-unturned first in the financing of the film and now in its distribution. I have tried to get distribution for the film from the script phase. Be it every single telecom company in Islamabad, to every private investor group in Karachi to a few, good old producers in Lahore, I have pitched the film since 2010.

No one is willing to take a look at a project unless the cast is very well known and the filmmaker has a long track record. It is irrespective of the merit of the film. I was also told that even Shoaib Mansoor had to struggle for Khuda Ke Liye and that was also picked up by Geo only after the film was shot.

The domestic market also always had reasons to say “no”. We just live in a market of “no’s” and film industries across the world follow the “no” system even more. Those that live in an idealistic world and blame filmmakers and their films for the lack of distribution should really just shadow one of us from script to screen.

The idea that filmmakers are doing PR way before they need to, is also a bit harsh and judgmental without seeing it from their point of view. On one hand, these critics say that we aren’t doing enough to get our films distributed, and on the other hand, they allege us of doing too much too early when the film is still half-baked. Waiting until a product is finished is good if you can afford to do it, but it seems like a luxury, and refraining from promoting an independent film early is outright suicide in my opinion. I would rather have some buzz and a few impatient fans than no fans at all especially given that distributors don’t have a good marketing budget, or no budget at all.

Apart from a few films we do not need to mention that started splashing PR buzz way before their shoots were even over, films that are premiering in prestigious international festivals and getting acclaim and awards are of course going to create a PR buzz because as much as it is assumed that PR doesn’t affect distributors, it very much does. A leading distributor told us to wait on Cannes as that would really help with the marketing. So foreign film festivals aren’t just a requirement or desire by filmmakers themselves but very much so by distributors as well. It helps take away the marketing burden off distributors if there is already a built in audience thanks to buzz especially because out of pocket marketing budgets offered by media partners are zilch.

For indie filmmakers who don’t have an upfront distribution deal (which seems to happen only if you have a long track record or are related/good friends with an exhibitor or distributor), there is no other way than to get some sort of acclaim to impact the viewpoint of distributors. The distributors then watch a film and then decide what window they want to push it on. We are at their mercy for trying to get the film out. For most cases, we do not control “when” the film goes out.

Because of the lack of knowledge of how tedious and time consuming this process is, awaiting audiences end up getting impatient. They want the film to be out two months after they hear about it on Facebook.

A proper, uncompromised postproduction process takes six months at the fastest in my opinion and 9-12 months at usual pace. Most indie films in the rest of the world don’t find distribution on average even a year after that. For instance, an award winning and acclaimed Kashmiri film, Valley of Saints, announced a sales acquiring in Feb 2012 (over a year after its first festival showing) and they still don’t have screen dates. This is typical. The issue right now is that filmmakers are making films for a global audience and whilst the world’s infrastructure is built, Pakistan’s isn’t for small films, hence there is a delay for local distribution and thus, an understandable frustration on the local audience’s part. We don’t even have a proper local film festival anymore where we can at least launch the film on the festival circuit from home.

So what are we supposed to do? Just be quiet when any festival buzz happens or not even utilize free marketing tools on social media such as Facebook and Twitter? For JOSH, Facebook has been incredible and we had to build it for two years to get here i.e. our US tour, where we are heavily relying on its marketing and on finding volunteers in our host cities.

Given a limited budget, there is only so much filmmakers can do. We should be encouraging all spectra of films and not be so impatient with the quality, budgets and efficiencies. What is happening in Pakistani cinema right now is amazing. We are for the first time in the history of the country getting independent voices come forth, so of course they are not going to have the well oiled and well funded machine behind them. This is a grass roots movement and I always think, a ground up movement is a sign of a healthy, innovative society. That’s a power that is very hard to break. When people rise, you can’t shut them down so easily. So the best thing that can happen to Pakistani cinema is happening. We should be careful of our criticism.

Also important is the fact that our cinema-going muscle also needs to be developed. I urge you all to stop downloading films and instead buy tickets and support films when they are in theatres. Despite having brilliant films in cinemas, people are not going - it is almost as if people have forgotten to make cinema trips a part of their lives.

In just two years, I feel the industry has developed a lot further. When we shot JOSH, we hardly heard of anyone who was making a film except Raafina. Now, I hear of 10s of films. We are caught in a new wave and waves are always erratic. There are ups and downs. We need to be celebrating and not discouraging. Urging all film fans to go out and watch independent productions so there is support of the system and more variety of films are made.

Lastly, we are happy that someone is challenging the monopoly of distribution and media partners in the game, someone who is out there for independent filmmakers. JOSH is going to hit cinemas across Pakistan this Eidul Fitr thanks to THE PLATFORM, an initiative by Mandviwalla Entertainment and ARY. It has been chosen as their curtain raiser film and shall hopefully pave the way for a lot more independent productions to make it to screens. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the show!

Iram Parveen Bilal is a fimmaker and director of the movie JOSH.