Superstar
Superstar

On Saturday, December 21, 2019, cellphones in the industry went stark raving mad. Voices at the other end of the line were aghast and exasperated, as if the information they had heralded apocalypse. To most, the day of reckoning wasn’t round the corner — it was already here.

Sacch (whose review you can read in this issue), had bombed. Although the prediction of its demise wasn’t news to nay-saying pundits, it was the level of failure that dumbfounded people making and showing movies. On its first day, Sacch had accumulated a measly 800,000 rupees …nationwide.

This is not the first time a film has lowballed expectations; other films have made less money at the box-office in their entire run, and this was just from the first day, not even the first weekend. The industry has seen worse catastrophes.

Other titles, however, didn’t have the full-fledged support of a media conglomerate at its back, nor did they have the big-budget sheen of Indian productions.

Insecurity, egos and an absolute reluctance to raise the bar of storytelling in movies have all but killed the film business in Pakistan. Is television once again taking its place?

Sacch’s sinking simply gave resonance to the issues that had pinched and poked the industry throughout 2019. One can sense the legs quivering beneath large mahogany tables of the heaving, sighing, industry executives trying to remain calm. Everyone is afraid … very afraid, for the film industry and the following year. One mogul claims the crisis is bigger than the one in the late ’90s to end 2000s.

Laal Kabootar
Laal Kabootar

This report, then, is a horror story for New Year’s Eve. A cautionary tale of malpractice, incompetence and unheeding self-esteem. Borrowing from a Christmas tale, it’s as if Ebenezer Scrooge is being visited by the ghost of his past, present and future deeds. Scrooge, however, was one lone individual. This is a collective nightmare.

This report started like most other end-of-the-year features, summarising how things had been in the year in cinema, with one small difference: instead of one person’s analysis, people with clout in the industry would weigh in on the gradual failings of the business.

It turned out to be a bad idea.

Every statement became an inquiry (as if no one had any idea of a way out), followed by the contemptuous scoffing of business rivals. That, by itself, is nothing new; in fact, as it is in any media industry, one gets accustomed to hearing business rivals being put down, mostly for their ‘apparent lack of artistic merit’.

In only that ‘art of the put down’ came with some quality solutions for the industry in general.

Insecurity, egos and the absolute reluctance to raise the bar of storytelling in movies has all but killed the film business.

Twenty one titles, excluding one re-release (Jackpot), came out in 2019. The number is exactly the same as 2018’s … with one exception. Only three titles — Superstar, Parey Hut Love (PHL) and Wrong No. 2 — crossed the 200 million rupees business threshold this year. Last year, there were four, each with considerable business margins (our chart last year, according to blockbuster status, had Donkey King which grossed 250 million at Number 1; JPNA 2 with 500 million at Number 2; Teefa in Trouble with 330 million at Number 3 and Parwaz Hai Junoon with 362 million rupees at Number 4).

Baaji
Baaji

The difference is gargantuan, with a loss of 35 percent in overall business between 2019 and 2018. In gross box-office numbers, that is Rs 1,374 million this year versus Rs 2,103 million last year.

The titles we saw (or most of you didn’t see) this year were: Gumm: In the Middle of Nowhere, Laal Kabootar, Sherdil, Project Ghazi, Junoon-e-Ishq, Chhalawa, Wrong No. 2, Kataksha, Baaji, Tum Hi To Ho, Ready Steady No, Tevar, Heer Maan Ja (HMJ), Superstar, PHL, Daal Chaawal, Durj, Kaaf Kangana, Talash, Betabiyan and Sacch.

There were only two hits: Wrong No. 2 and Chhalawa. I’m told that HMJ is also in profit. Every other title is a loss, with Superstar and PHL slowly inching towards breaking even their cost of production.

By themselves, the assortment — and their artistic or technical merits — do not feel that much different from last year. Credible, high-profile names stand shoulder to shoulder with less-than-ideal candidates.

The dilemma threading them in a single tapestry, though, is the same. A lack of refinement, especially in the storytelling department, and a lack of finesse in packaging the content. Even the best offerings of the year have problems, especially with how they connect to the audience.

Chhalawa
Chhalawa

Filmmakers are still getting carried away with how they make movies, putting trust in their own creative oversight, rather than having faith in studios or partnering with distributors, who are now only seen as means to get movies to cinemas.

There is no strategy at play. One simply makes a movie, shows up at the distributors’ office, hoping they would land a minimum guarantee (an advance on future business, based on box-office value of their film) or some other inane deal.

Instead of trust, there are head-butts. Instead of footfalls, there are crickets in cinema halls.

Desperate to deliver audience-pleasing content, distributors, and even exhibitors, have jumped headfirst into production, developing commercially viable ideas with writers who have no idea of storytelling. Everyone, though, has their own idea of success (artistic and commercial), which is why Pakistani films are in this mess in the first place.

This brings us back to square one.

With things apparently sprinting towards imminent doom, gathering box-office figures became an even bigger challenge than last year. Credible information is scarce, even from distributors. Without a central agency tracking box-office performance, cross-checking figures becomes a nightmare. Every source I’ve encountered has a different “opinion” on what business a film may have had (even sources that may have been credible once).

The hard economy and the lack of incentive to shelve money on high ticket prices has forced people to be picky about what they see. With Bollywood out of the picture — something the Pakistan Film Producers Association (PFPA) should be quite happy about — and Hollywood still catering to a specific niche audience, the business of movies has nearly relegated to how it had been two decades back.

Heer Maan Ja
Heer Maan Ja

With very few options to show movies — and the insistence of filmmakers to stuff mega-titles on Eid holidays — multiplex owners have little choice but to close down screens.

One can argue about high ticket prices contributing to audience decline, which, at least on the surface, sounds like credible grounds for discussion … that is until one looks at the economy of running a multiplex. The numbers don’t add up.

With things apparently sprinting towards imminent doom, gathering box-office figures became an even bigger challenge than last year. Credible information is scarce, even from distributors. Without a central agency tracking box-office performance, cross-checking figures becomes a nightmare. Every source I’ve encountered has a different “opinion” on what business a film may have had (even sources that may have been credible once).

The information Icon presents in its report is by far the most credible. We, however, have chosen to not name sources at their behest. Still, it is advisable to take the box-office chart with a pinch of salt.

I’m told that box-office transparency is a legitimate concern at the PFPA, and will be addressed in one of their upcoming meetings with the government. A central agency working with exhibitors will track and release box-office figures. There are other reliefs the PFPA is proposing to the government — which has, in fact, been one of the highlights of 2019.

Meray Paas Tum Ho
Meray Paas Tum Ho

Despite the industry’s decline there are constant meetings and discussions with the government (one to two every month, I’m told), and slowly and steadily things may sort themselves out as tax reliefs, incentives and other aid come to salvage what is left of the film business.

Pakistani cinema needs all the help it can get. Especially when there are rumours that The Legend of Maula Jatt (TLoMJ) — apparently the only saviour Pakistani cinema is banking on — plans to be a Netflix exclusive release.

I wouldn’t blame the producers for going that route either. Releasing TLoMJ on a neutral platform saves them from the legal skirmish they are entangled in, and the deal they will likely receive for exclusivity will be more profitable than domestic box-office benchmarks.

With such a sad state of affairs, it’s easy to see why people — especially men — are tuning into their television sets more than they were last year.

According to MediaLogic, a prominent media tracking agency, ratings have indeed gone up for entertainment channels between 2018 and 2019.

Meray Paas Tum Ho (MPTH), with its record-breaking high TRP (Target Rating Point) of 24.9 is undoubtedly the king of television ratings this year. Its success, though, is but the tip of the iceberg because every major network (ie. the three big ones, ARY, Geo and Hum) has a hit up its sleeve, despite stiff competition.

Dil-e-Gumshuda
Dil-e-Gumshuda

Hum, once a standout winner two years back, has taken serious beating in several time slots. With exception to a handful of titles, the main skirmish for audience attention is between ARY and Geo.

Kaisa Hai Naseeban, Do Bol, Thorra Sa Haq, Hassad, Bhool, Beti, Ruswai, from ARY all clocked in rating averages between 15.7 (for MPTH) and 8.8 (for Gul-o-Gulzaar), with their lowest rated show in the year’s top 10 line-up hitting 10.5 (for Koi Chand Rakh).

Geo, meanwhile has had stellar, consecutive hits with Dil-e-Gumshuda, Kahin Deep Jalay, Bharosa Pyar Tera, Yaariyan, Mera Rab Waris, Saibaam, Makafat, Meray Mohsin, Ramz-e-Ishq, Kamzarf, Darr Khuda Say, Piya Naam Ka Diya, Mohabbat Na Karriyo, Ay Dil Tu Bataa. If one averages out the highest ratings of the top 10 of these 14 shows, the TRP comes out as 13.32. In laymen terms, that means there is a steady audience base tuning into these dramas.

At the time of going to print, Icon had yet to receive ratings data of the highest-grossing shows from Hum. Their productions Ehd-e-Wafa and Suno Chanda (Season 2), however, do occupy the third and fourth spots in Google search trends this year (MPTH has the seventh slot and Bharosa Pyaar Tera the ninth).

For those who may ask why this report is emphasising ratings, let me elaborate.

Ratings (TRP and GRPS, both calculated with different criteria), use the viewing habits of a select number of households across the country to measure who watches what, and at what time of the day. These viewing habits do not only measure the popularity of a certain programme and a network, but also provide advertisers the information they need to select shows and network to place their brands. The ratings one sees are high, low and averaged out percentages. Anything over the rating of 10 (ie. 10 percent), is considered a hit.

Definitive data from 2019 was still being calculated by MediaLogic, and will be available early next year.

Television series, despite the clichéd themes of love, betrayal and family (with some exception to hardcore, socially relevant subjects), are still a preferred, practiced-to-perfection medium for telling long-form, engaging stories. But then, it has always been that.

The main difference between films and television — and perhaps the reason why men are now preferring the latter medium — is that one forces you to forfeit a considerable sum to pay for what may be crap. Most shows, despite primarily targeting females between the ages of 15-45, are also deliberately crafting stories that may appeal to men as well.

The only price the latter forces on to you is waiting through advertisements and, even then, if the content doesn’t work, one can simply change the channel. Not so with movies. With how things have been, all audiences can do is stay away.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 29th, 2019