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Illustration by leea contractor
Illustration by leea contractor

In May 24, Danyal Gilani, the new Chairman of the Central Board of Film Censors, issued a “most immediate” decree restricting the release of Indian films during the Eid holidays. The letter stated that the interdiction was temporary, imposed from “two days before to two weeks after Eid days.” The intention was “to revive and promote the local film industry in Pakistan.”

One important aspect of the Government’s embargo is that it only holds over Bollywood content. Hollywood motion pictures have no restrictions.

This limited restriction is a simple-minded solution to a not-so-complicated problem; we wouldn’t need a ban if we were making movies that could stand up to the competition.

Regardless, domestic filmmakers and distributors with vested interest in the Pakistani film industry had been demanding restrictions on Bollywood for quite some time. The reigning argument is that it damages the business of domestic films because the audience’s demand for Bollywood movies forces exhibitors to cut down the shows of Pakistani films.

The government has once again caved to protectionist demands by domestic filmmakers and distributors to ban Bollywood films over Eid. The evidence does not support their contentions

This contention is only partially correct. In 2013 — the year Pakistani film’s newest ‘new’ wave began — Eidul Fitr releases Josh and Ishq Khuda were obliterated by the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Chennai Express, which made 93.5 million rupees.

One year later, Salman Khan’s Kick grossed 162 million rupees; its Pakistani competitor was the Aslam Bhatti starrer Sultanat, an overlong, over-shot, incomprehensible B-movie about an underworld don’s conquest (the cast included Shweta Tiwari from Bollywood as Bhatti’s love interest).

The movie barely made 20 million rupees in Pakistan.

In 2015, Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijan made 230 million rupees. Bin Roye and Wrong No., also out with Bajrangi, grossed north of 130 and 100 million rupees, respectively, and proved that glossily-made Pakistani commercial films had a market in Pakistan. A week later, Karachi Se Lahore solidified that argument by grossing another 100 million rupees.

Clearly there is a formula, but at the time it had yet to register with filmmakers. So 2016’s only domestic Eidul Fitr release was the execrable Sawaal 700 Crore Dollar Ka … against Salman Khan’s Sultan which grossed 330 million rupees.

Something had to be done to give below-par domestic films a fighting chance (the better ones were doing fine).

The protest started with 2017’s Salman Khan-starrer Tubelight, whose release was inexplicably pushed to two weeks after Eid, and then left off altogether by its domestic distributor. The official reason given was the high distribution price, even if the movie did eventually find its way to Pakistani screens later.

In today’s world, a delay of two weeks can kill a movie, because everyone with an Internet connection, a DVD player or cable television would have already seen a pirated copy.

More importantly, even without Khan’s presence to boost overall cinema attendance, the Pakistani films Yalghaar and Mehrunnisa V Lub U together barely crossed the 200 million rupee mark together during the Eid rush.

According to extremely crude estimations, in 2016 Pakistan’s per-day box office potential was 38 million rupees (calculated from 96 digital screens with an average seating capacity of 200, an average of four shows per day and a ticket price of 500 rupees).

Potentially 77,000 people per day can watch movies in cinemas. Meaning, only 0.04 percent from a population of 193 million is being serviced by the industry.

Today, with 129 digital screens, the capacity has grown to 0.05 percent — or just over 50 million rupees of business every day. During the Eid holidays, which often have an extended vacation period of two to three days, a full week’s overall box office potential is 350 million rupees.

This Eidul Fitr has seven releases: 7 Din Mohabbat In (Dawn/IMGC), Wajood (IMGC), Azaadi (ARY), Hereditary (HKC), Oceans 8 (HKC), Incredibles 2 (Eveready), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Footprint) — and the last minute addition Na Band Na Baraati (Eveready/Hum), which was initially set to release on June 29, then moved to July 6 and now to Eid.

No releases are planned by distributors for the week after, giving existing films time to cash-up before other international releases join the fray.

Race 3, again a Salman Khan Eid release, is pushed to June 29 — exactly two weeks later — and shares screens with Sanju, Escape Plan 2: Hades, Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Shor Sharaba. It should be noted that Shor Sharaba is a Pakistani film, yet it would not get the same playing field as prior weeks’ releases because it would have to fend off the already-playing Hollywood and Pakistani movies.

Again, running down some crude numbers, Race 3 is estimated to lose up to 110 million rupees of business because of its two-week holdover.

Now, supposing that 129 screens are shared evenly for two weeks by Eid releases, and the screens are further divided by the June 29 releases, my estimation (based on buzz and previous history of similar genre films) for a three-week run are: 7 Din Mohabbat In, 66 million rupees; Na Band Na Baraati, 51 million rupees; Wajood, 45 million rupees; Azaadi, 76 million rupees; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, 71 million rupees and Incredibles 2 at 45 million rupees.

Hereditary and Oceans 8 currently do not have a lot of buzz, and will probably share leftover revenues. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, in my opinion, would reach out to a bigger crowd because of its big-budget summer tent-pole nature (its last part grossed over 100 million rupees).

Actual numbers heavily rely on publicity, positive word of mouth and the willingness of the exhibitor to run a film despite falling ticket sales (case in point: Motorcycle Girl and Cake).

Besides, such overstuffing is detrimental to business, especially when same-genre films such as 7 Din Mohabbat In and Na Band Na Baraati vie for limited audiences’ attention. Business will likely plummet from the second week if content doesn’t live up to hype.

This year Eidul Fitr also has another handicap: there is no extended weekend because the first day of Eid will probably fall on Friday. Also, despite Ramazan ending in the middle of summer holidays, history has shown that people favour either Hollywood or Bollywood films during this season.

As it stands, even after Bollywood is restricted, the numbers would hardly be surprising. In fact, they more or less mimic trends from the last few years.

Last year, 17 Pakistani films were released but only two were hits and only a further three managed to do decent business. That’s not really Indian cinema’s fault. In fact, a steady stream of foreign content maintains audience turnout, even when business is low. Case in point: when Bollywood films were banned by exhibitors last year, ticket sales fell by 50 percent. More recently, Padmaavat, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety and Baaghi 2 turned out to be the only big hits of the year along with Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther.

I believe Pakistani filmmakers should also release films with the right strategy, because not every movie is an Eid release. Lumbering, undeserving titles bring down overall business, because people reject films unworthy of their time and money.

The audience is smart that way. It is about time the industry becomes smarter as well.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 3rd, 2018