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SPOTLIGHT: THE DILEMMAS OF PAKISTANI CINEMA

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Composed by: Leea Contractor
Composed by: Leea Contractor

Last week, Sherdil producer Noman Khan addressed his concerns on the timeliness of film reviews in a group made up of producers, distributors and journalists. Khan’s primary contention wasn’t with the negative reaction from reviewers — he accepted that they will help him become a better filmmaker; he just wanted reviews to come out a week after release so the negative press doesn’t hurt ticket sales.

In Hollywood, negative reviews are held back by the press, he argued incorrectly in a bid to endorse his point, so why can’t we, as patriotic Pakistanis, do the same?

Khan’s anger is a cliché by itself; a remake of heard-to-death statements from producers who become self-conscious by the rebuff of critics, and want to lash out without causing an even bigger ruckus.

Industry squabbles, an unwillingness to learn from mistakes and steep ticket prices are making things worse for the country’s cinema industry, already reeling from the sharp reduction in footfalls at theatres after the removal of Bollywood content

Sherdil has already made money, the distributor told me during a phone conversation, a little while after Khan’s audio came out. So why don’t bad reviews influence audience turnout? And why, he asks, does a film like Lal Kabootar, which has received near-universal acclaim, struggle at the box-office?

Sherdil’s success is due to its well-timed release, and certainly not because of its content or craft. The film has, so far, done as much business as any other average entertainer (it should have crossed the 10 crore rupee mark by the time you read this) — and that’s not factoring in ticket price inflation; the footfalls, in comparison, would be fewer.

In honesty, questions such as the one Sherdil’s distributor asked — whether in naivety or out of sly hypocrisy — are tiring. Feigning innocence or lack of understanding has made our film industry what it is today: a burning rubble of behind-the-scenes politics, play-it-safe business strategies and damaging business practices. Amateur filmmaking is just a small cog in this hulky machine, whose glossy exterior is a façade, and whose interiors have rusted beyond repair.

Before reviewers had become the enemy (and let’s be honest, at one time the press was scolded for not carrying Pakistani film reviews), Pakistani filmmakers had been rallying against Bollywood films, or were blaming Indian star power (or even lack of it, in some cases), as the root cause of domestic films not doing business.

Our filmmakers’ ire — mostly a product of their own incompetence in not producing finessed content or box office-drawing star power on a regular basis — is never about what they were not able to achieve. The condemnation is often on the lack of infrastructure or arcane equipment — never on arcane thinking.

Hollywood has been around forever; its drawing power in the subcontinent was always slight yet consistent. It doesn’t, however, have the muscle to erect new cinema complexes. Bollywood, on the other hand, drives footfalls. Exhibitors (read: cinema owners) — especially those catering to the lower class masses — love Indian films; even the duds. An exhibitor once professed to me that he would rather play a flop Indian movie for a week, and change it with a better option, than depend on a dubbed Hollywood film or a Pakistani film that does not have repeat value (only a handful of these exist in any case, as of right now).

If the industry wants to have a consistent state of growth, the audiences’ need to visit cinemas to watch films should be muscle memory. That, of course, isn’t possible with products like Sherdil, Project Ghazi or any of the other 20 of 25 films we produce in Pakistan every year.

Laal Kabootar
Laal Kabootar

Unheeding Pakistani producers argue, by and large, that Indian content should not come out on the two Eids, but are fine fodder for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, exhibitors and distributors suffer massive losses when Indian films are stopped due to whatever reason. Crude, unofficial calculations indicate that the audience loss in the past few months has been between 50 to 70 percent. Add to that growing ticket prices, and everything goes to Hades.

Normally, people would rather go out and eat in fancy restaurants than watch mundane movies for 800 rupees per ticket, not counting the price of popcorn and fuel prices. A family of four cannot afford weekly visits to the cinemas; it’s simply not in their budget. This is precisely why, in Karachi, there aren’t any affordable cinema venues for the masses. Cinema, then, has become an elitist form of entertainment now, targeting only the affluent.

Industry politics and unhealthy practices, then, also make things worse. Captain Marvel, the latest Marvel blockbuster, was held back two weeks because exhibitors — who get immediate cash on ticket sales — hold back the distributors’ share from the income. Why this happens, no one knows. The answers one gets are never satisfactory.

Sherdil
Sherdil

This dilemma also has another perspective: Pakistan only has a handful of notable distributors that bring regular content to cinemas. A few of them have their own cinema chains. One supposes that cash flow problems wouldn’t affect cinema chains who are also distributors, right? Without timely monetary returns, however, distributors are not be able license new content for exhibition — whether that content comes from Bollywood, Hollywood or Pakistani filmmakers.

True story: one notable filmmaker was happy when he finally received the last of his dues from a distributor more than a year after his film had come out. For his next film, however, he still chose that same distributor, arguing that he had no choice. That particular distributor is part of a media conglomerate, and can easily push advertisement campaigns on its television network to draw audiences. It’s a Catch-22 situation with no way around it.

Project Ghazi
Project Ghazi

However, not every media conglomerate is the same. Lal Kabootar’s television partner didn’t promote the film as it should have. With no real push, and a genre that, historically, doesn’t appeal to a great big chunk of the masses, the film’s box office gross is hardly satisfactory for a film with such critical acclaim.

Rather than point fingers, let’s tackle the solutions step-by-step.

First, we need to restructure exhibitor, distributor, producer and cash-flow issues. Finances should be disbursed from cinema owners to distributors by the following weekend, if not earlier (I am made aware that there are some old exhibitors who still practice this). In-flows and out-flows of finances would help strengthen distributors and attract financiers to the industry.

This brings me to our second necessity: the need to have a studio system. With exception to a handful of producers — Humayun Saeed, Imran Raza Kazmi, Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza — we don’t have producers who make films on an annual basis. Where are the Jerry Bruckheimers, Brian Grazers or the Karan Johars of Pakistan?

Bruckheimer or Johar — both are supported by studios, a distributor and co-producing partner who has an equal, if not more, stake in the business. Creating a studio system isn’t easy, but it can be done. The most obvious roadblock would be the creative clash. A studio would, of course, want the producer to play it safe, or play it logically, so that the film could get more footfalls. Filmmakers are often caught up in their own ‘creativity’; they never listen — but they need to, to both critics and distributors because both, ultimately, want the filmmaker to succeed. Nobody wants to see a bad, or amateurishly made product. That’s money and time wasted.

This brings us to our third — and most important point — the price of a cinema ticket. We need to reduce ticket prices. A ticket price of 400-500 rupees feels affordable. It would give the average viewer an incentive to watch a film with premium experience, and not google a torrent and watch it on their phones or PCs.

Now, I concur: building, maintaining and running a cinema is an expensive proposition. But it sure beats closing cinema screens when audiences don’t show up, or stopping shows when badly made films only succeed in selling less than five tickets (true story: it happened to yours truly when Gumm came out).

Finally, rather than bicker, or get carried away by ego and creativity, our filmmakers need to think clearly about the films they are making. As I had mentioned in a previous issue in Icon, lack of astuteness in screenwriting is still one of the root causes of unpleasant cinema experiences.

For now, filmmakers should consider cliché and formula their friends. Being formulaic or structuring one’s narrative doesn’t constrict creativity; that depends on the talent of the filmmaker. And even if it does, the end product, more or less, should subconsciously appeal to the masses.

What’s there to lose other than one’s ego or the problems the industry has mired itself in?

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 14th, 2019