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Illustration by Saad Arifi
Illustration by Saad Arifi

“In a way we’re the biggest stakeholders, and this is a high-risk business,” Jamil Baig, owner of Karachi’s largest multiplex Nueplex Cinema tells me.

“If a director’s film doesn’t work, they have the luxury to fall back on to something else or do television. When someone makes a cinema from scratch, we don’t have any other option but to show movies. If foreign films, especially Bollywood ones, stop coming to Pakistan for some reason,or our filmmakers stop making movies, we can’t simply pick up the site and move.”

Baig’s current plans are primarily about brand-building, as he expands his interests in cinema from being an exhibitor to distributor and producer (with Excellency Films). Profit — at least for him — it seems is a long way off.

Sitting at his tastefully decorated office in the Defence Phase 8 mall that houses the five-screen multiplex, sipping coffee out of a disposable Nueplex cup, we talk about the scarcity of cinema complexes in Karachi, and why the task is dependent on a handful of people.

Everyone agrees that Pakistan needs more screens for the cinema business to take off. But the pace of development of cinemas is excruciatingly slow especially in its largest metropolis, Karachi. Icon talks to the movers and shakers of the exhibition business to understand what’s holding them back

“No one from my family was ever into the cinema business. When we started the Nueplex project in 2011, we didn’t have any experience in making cinemas. My main vision was to create a state-of-the-art, international level multiplex. I didn’t want to compromise on quality — especially because I personally didn’t want to have any regrets,” he tells me.

A new Nueplex site is now near completion at Askari IV in Karachi’s densely populated east. Although I’ve yet to visit the location (it should be visit-worthy in the next week or so), the nine screens being installed will seat over 1,600 people. The cinema is a purpose-built multiplex — meaning it is not a part of a multi-storey mall or an existing complex.

“We’ve deliberately kept a singular standard in cinema. There are no recliner seats, [but] the quality isn’t being compromised on,” Baig says.

The standalone complex is bucking the trend in these times. In general, it is quite difficult to make such a cinema in Karachi because of escalating property costs. On average, the land costs three times more than the construction of the multiplex. This is why most cinema-owners try and combine their projects with malls and why planning a cinema takes so long.

The standalone complex is bucking the trend in these times. In general, it is quite difficult to make such a cinema in Karachi because of escalating property costs.

Cinema business is all about location. This city has a dense population of nearly 20 million (or more by some reckonings) and even four screens of adequate size require at least 4,000 square yards, which is hard to come by, Baig explains.

The exterior facade of the new Nueplex at Askari IV
The exterior facade of the new Nueplex at Askari IV

Nadeem Mandviwalla, Managing Director of Atrium Cinemas in Saddar — the more affordable option for the masses after Nueplex and the first proper multiplex to come up in Pakistan — tells me via a WhatsApp message that he has no concrete plans to make a new cinema in Karachi. Yet he is still nursing the wounds from when his flagship Nishat Cinema was burnt down during a riot in 2012.

However, Mandviwalla, who is in the United States at the moment, believes that Karachi can house another 100 screens. He is right. Even almost 40 years ago with less than a third of today’s population, Karachi was home to over 130 screens, while only a dozen and a half or so exist today.

Irfan Malik, ARY Film’s Head of Distribution, tells me that ARY is getting into the film exhibition business as well. “We are starting from Karachi with five screens, hopefully early next year, then we will move on to the smaller cities.” ARY’s concentration is initially on major cities, Malik says, and they are locking down worthwhile locations.

“This is not our main business, it is [only] for the overall betterment of the industry,” Irfan tells me. “We plan to develop 50 cinemas in the next two to three years.”

Unlike Nueplex, however, ARY’s upcoming multiplex (its brand name is yet to be decided) is going to be a part of a mall. It is a purpose-built construction, Malik clarifies. “This particular facility, at 5,000 square feet, is specifically made for a cinema. It is not being placed into an existing complex.”

Like Nueplex, the site is situated at main Rashid Minhas Road. “There is a great demand in that area and there is no competition there at the moment,” he says. I asked him about the close proximity of the two sites. “[Nueplex] have their strategy, we have ours, they have their business models, we have ours.” Malik is not able to disclose more at this point before the official announcement, which is still about a year away.

Cinepax Ltd, arguably the largest cinema chain in Pakistan at the moment, also has plans for Karachi. What those plans are, however, nobody knows. The plans have been in the works since at least 2003.

The interior of the new Nueplex at Askari IV
The interior of the new Nueplex at Askari IV

In March 2016, Cinepax had closed a $12.76 million loan from OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a development financing institution of the United States Government) for the “expansion of multiplex movie theatre chain in various Pakistani cities.” The cinema group recently finalised another investment deal with The Abraaj Group to develop 80 new screens across multiple locations over the next four years. Details of both investments and the projects they funded are trifling at best. Icon reached out to Cinepax’s CEO, Mariam El Bacha with questions but has yet to receive her replies on the matter.

Until recently, Cinepax ran one of the most profitable cinema sites in Karachi at City Auditorium, Aisha Manzil, which was torn down by government order at the conclusion of a dispute settlement with a political party.

That site, despite being a single-screen cinema and not a multiplex, ran house-full shows till 3am on weekends. Ticket prices were also dirt cheap, in comparison to multiplex cinemas elsewhere in the city.

“If done effectively, the single-screen business is quite good,” Malik tells me. “A single film can survive a week in a single-screen cinema, if the cost is effective and the location is good.

“We are also working on high quality single screens, where the operation cost will not be that high,” Malik says. “It will be the same kind of experience that you get from multiplexes, catering to families. These would be additional cinemas, located where there are no cinemas within a 25 to 30-mile radius.

“Entertainment bari mehngi parrh jaati hai [doesn’t come cheap],” Malik continues. One would have to work towards making cinema more accessible, by bringing down ticket and concession prices, he stresses. “The population that lives around you will guide that ticket price,” he says.

At the new Askari IV Nueplex site, ticket prices have not yet been set either because Baig wants to cater to the masses as well. The site is expected to launch this Eidul Fitr, with Pakistani films Wajood, 7 Din Mohabbat In and Azaadi — though Baig and industry insiders believe that the audience would flock to see the Jurassic World sequel with more enthusiasm.

Jamil Baig
Jamil Baig

As our conversation continues, Baig confirms that Nueplex owns 16 to 18 percent of Pakistan’s overall box office business. With its new site, the numbers may jump up substantially, he estimates.

However, despite claims of rapid development of new screens, there is an evident stagnation in the business. The reason could very well be the quality of domestically produced films and the lack of big Bollywood releases during the Eid holidays.

Perplexingly, the industry in general seems to have a silent agreement to unanimously support only Pakistani films at Eid — despite their level of quality — and shut out Bollywood, when in reality Bollywood films amount for the bulk of the industry’s earning throughout the year (Padmaavat, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety and Baaghi 2 being recent examples).

“Believe it or not [Pakistani films] are our films more than that of the filmmakers,” Baig says in response to the decline in Pakistani films’ ticket sales. “When the audience isn’t satisfied, they blame the exhibitor not the filmmakers.

“Cinema needs a weekly dose of fresh movies, if not every week, at least twice a month,” he says. “Today, a film only has a two-week life [and] quality movies can only be made if we have serious players making cinema [in Pakistan].”

The government, though, still isn’t helping. Details on the tax rebates, grants and development incentives promised by the government for cinema owners are still sketchy. “It’s not clear what the relief from the government [actually] is,” Baig tells me.

The Place in Phase 8 (top, left) and various models of the underconstruction Nueplex at Rashid Minhas Road
The Place in Phase 8 (top, left) and various models of the underconstruction Nueplex at Rashid Minhas Road

Overall business, regardless of its risk, is still fairly profitable. “Whether it’s a 50 lakh or a 10 crore rupees cinema, it is the revenue model that is interesting,” Malik says. “You break even at 25 percent occupancy, and there is a growing market. Nuqsaan ka dhanda nahin hai [It isn’t a loss-making enterprise].”

It must be true because Baig also has another site locked in Karachi with the groundbreaking ceremony scheduled right after this Eidul Fitr.

Yes, there are problems (popcorn prices alone are enough to make any cinema investment profitable — which is bad news for the common folk), and yes there are intelligent people talking a good game. Just how fast Karachi’s boom in cinema catches up with the rest of Pakistan is anyone’s guess.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 27th, 2018