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TRADE: SO, HOW DID THE BOX OFFICE DO?

December 30, 2018

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Composed by Saad Arifi
Composed by Saad Arifi

A few months ago, on the set of Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2 (JPNA 2), Humayun Saeed and I were having a prolonged conversation about the financial outlook of his film. It was Saeed’s first sequel, and we both knew that the film would make a ton of money. The only question was:

how much?

Saeed’s last film, which also had a ‘Nahin’ in its title — Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ) — was a massive money churner, crossing the 358 million rupees mark in domestic box office ticket sales, according to Saeed. At over 558 million rupees (give or take a few thousand or million), PNJ’s global tally — a total of domestic and international business — made it the biggest box office success story of all time.

Before PNJ, the title holder was the first JPNA, at nearly 500 million rupees global box office sales.

Back at JPNA 2’s set, Saeed and I happily settled on predicting a 300 million rupees domestic business, given the films’ franchise potential. I remember him being quite adamant on the importance of the international market, estimating it at least 200 million rupees.

Another few weeks later, at a distributor’s office, we had a hard time believing JPNA 2’s distributor’s claims: the film, showing to packed houses, had crossed 250 million rupees in Pakistan, and wasn’t slowing down. The distributor, who also had a film in competition, was happy for Saeed, though skeptical of the announced figures.

By all estimates, 2018 was a bonanza year for cinemas and 2019 looks set to be even better. But why are there still no bona fide revenue tracking systems in place?

Even today, when JPNA 2 has usurped PNJ’s spot as the highest-grossing Pakistani film of all time — with a total worldwide business of 680 million rupees (510 million domestic, 17 million internationally) — people have a problem digesting the figure.

Their concern is genuine.

With no bona fide means of calculating financial performance of films, save for a few credible sources, one can only guesstimate facts or take the word of either the producer or the distributor, but not Wikipedia in general (the regularly updated ‘List of Pakistani Films’ per year is quite accurate, by the way).

Snide, sceptical mocking from industry pundits and opposing studio executives aside — a bad habit of human nature prevalent in every country’s media industry — the argument has merit.

Strange hyped-up proclamations of budget and business are a norm, especially of films that bomb at the box office. On the re-release of one particular film (some films were re-released for a day or two in select cinemas; another long story), a distributor claimed that his “blockbuster” film was shown again because of public demand. That particular film’s box office, when it was first released, was rounded off to 6.8 million rupees. Two other ‘blockbusters’ were released in the same week — but their total box office did not make much difference in the overall earnings. Without a single, unbiased regulatory authority charting box office numbers, separating fact from fiction takes a lot of sweat, text messages and phone calls.

Most distributors, studio executives and producers help as much as they can. Satish Anand (Eveready Group), Nadeem Mandviwalla (Mandviwalla Entertainment), Badar Ikram (Hum Films), Aziz Jindani (producer of The Donkey King), Humayun Saeed, Ali Zafar (producer, Teefa in Trouble), Nabeel Qureshi (director/producer, Load Wedding), have been quite helpful, even at the last hour.

ARY Films (who always came through before) and HKC (who I stopped approaching a few years back) are two studios who need to be more transparent on how much their films make. Sometimes though, it’s a Catch-22 situation. Distributors who import international films, such as HKC (Warner Bros., Sony), Eveready (Disney) and Footprint (Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox), are sometimes contract-bound to withhold box office totals from the media.

Distribution deals are up for grabs every year in June/July, and almost all deals have lesser-known titles bundled in package with high-profile releases, even if their stay at the cinemas are limited to a week or two (case in point: Christopher Robin, a Disney release, was part of a package with, say, Avengers: Infinity War).

Given the genre and nature of the releases, the performance of the local distributor, in conjunction with how they market their films and their bid, studios can choose another candidate by the end of their annual contract. In short, there is a reason for withholding financial data; not that these things stay hidden for long — especially in a steadily growing market.

There are two ways to evaluate box office conditions for the year. First, by how much the overall business has grown each year (a moot point of discussion, especially because some producers change final totals whenever you ask them); and secondly, by how much the film itself has made when compared to its budget (another exercise in futility, because real budgets are never really shared).

Sticking with the first condition, and estimating that most film’s budgets come under 100 million rupees (with exception to JPNA 2, Teefa in Trouble and Parwaaz Hai Junoon), this year has been a mix of the good and the bad.

Twenty one titles have been released till date. By release order and domestic business, they are: Parchi (102.5 million), Maan Jao Naa (19.6 million), Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor (53 million), Pari (6.8 million), Azad (0.96 million), Tick Tock (1.76 million), Cake (63 million), Motorcycle Girl (25 million), 7 Din Mohabbat In (107 million), Azaadi (84 million), Na Band Na Baraati (10 million), Wajood (34 million), Shor Sharaba (unavailable), Jackpot (1.2 million), Teefa in Trouble (330 million), Parwaaz Hai Junoon (362 million), JPNA 2 (510 million), Load Wedding (120 million), The Donkey King (250 million, and still growing), Pinky Memsaab (5.9 million) and 3 Bahadur: Rise of the Warriors (debuting at 8.3 million; still in release).

The total domestic tally of Pakistani films is thus over 1.32 billion rupees — an increase of 231 million rupees from 2017, when 16 movies came out. Unfortunately, an annual trend continues: almost all blockbusters (JPNA2, PHJ, Load Wedding, 7DMI) came out during the Eidul Fitr and Eidul Azha holidays — as if filmmakers are afraid of taking chances, or cashing in on other worthwhile dates.

Two exceptions bold enough to venture into uncharted waters were Teefa, perfectly planned as a summer tent-pole by Ali Zafar, and The Donkey King, which, surprisingly, came out during children’s exam season.

The attendance boost in Pakistani films, though thanks to just a handful of films from the list above, has given the Pakistani market nearly a toe-to-toe fighting chance with Bollywood releases in the country. By crude and incomplete data, a total of 41 Bollywood films came out in the country; their total grosses (from what I could find, though with a lot of missing data) is 1.39 billion rupees.

With 46 releases grossing ticket sales of 886 million (though without factual data, given reasons explained above), the business of Hollywood films isn’t shabby either.

Avengers: Infinity War (210 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (162 million), Mission: Impossible — Fall Out (151 million), Black Panther (76 million), Venom (45 million), The Nun (35 million — much better than Pakistani horror films, for sure), The Incredibles 2 (32 million), and Ant Man and the Wasp (17.5 million) are notable Hollywood hits of 2018. Other releases of the year brought in anywhere between Rs 1.7 million (Dwayne Johnson-starrer Skyscraper) and Rs 5 million (Solo: A Star Wars Story).

One particular trend that stood out this year was the audience’s appetite for animated films. The year 2018 is, in fact, the year of animated films. Forgetting The Incredibles 2 — which I had pegged to gross 40 million rupees — The Donkey King, Allahyar and now 3 Bahadur: Rise of the Warriors, despite their flaws and inconsistencies, proved their mantle in front of the live-action feature films. The genre has been consistent in its growth since 2013, with only one film — the atrociously animated Tick Tock — tanking at the box office.

The overall reason for growth is the solid box office collections from Punjab. Despite my best efforts, curating data from every exhibitor in Punjab and Sindh is a difficult, nigh impossible job for one lone individual. Still, from whatever information I was able to put together, the result is a fact everyone in the industry knows: Punjab outperforms Sindh by a factor of two. For every rupee a film in Sindh makes, it makes two in Punjab.

However, before we jump to conclusions, let’s not forget that Sindh roughly has one-third of the screen count that Punjab has — 36 screens in Sindh vs. 91 in Punjab, as per my last calculation.

Nevertheless, this has been a phenomenal year for cinema. The overall growth (from 2.33 billion rupees in 2017 to 4.45 billion rupees in 2018, according to a reliable source) has been up by almost two billion rupees, if not more. As incredible as it may sound, filmmakers have shown a smidgen of maturity, while distributors have become smarter as well by favouring quality over quantity.

Given the trend of big budget, star-power-driven fare, 2019 will prove to be even better for the industry with the release of The Legend of Maula Jatt (Fawad Khan, Hamza Ali Abbasi, Mahira Khan; Director Bilal Lashari), Zarrar (Shaan Shahid, Nadeem, Kiran Malik; Director Shaan Shahid), Paray Hut Love (Shehryar Munnawar, Maya Ali, Mahira Khan; Director Asim Raza), Baaji (Meera, Amna Illyas; Director Saqib Malik), Sorry: A Love Story (Faysal Quraishi; Director, Sohail Javed), Wrong No. 2 (Sami Khan, Neelam Muneer; Director Yasir Nawaz); Karachi Se Lahore 3 (Director Wajahat Rauf); Alif Noon (Shehzad Roy, the other Faisal Qureshi, also the director), Gumm (Sami Khan, Shamoon Abbasi; Directors Ammar Lasani, Kanza Zia) and Durj (Sherry Shah, Shamoon Abbasi; Directed by Abbasi), all in the pipeline.

The only problem is, almost all of them are vying for Eidul Fitr and Eidul Azha — as if they are the only two dates worth releasing in. The year 2019 is going to be a rumble folks — and whatever the outcome, the business will be huge.

Isn’t it about time we stopped having to guess box office figures or source them from individual distributors? Surely, if Pakistani cinema wants to be taken seriously as an industry, having credible official figures is a prerequisite.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 30th, 2018

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