SPOTLIGHT: THE FEAR OF SQUARE ONE

March 29, 2020

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Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Illustration by Samiah Bilal

On the main page of the Hollywood entertainment publication Deadline, there is an image of a man in a face mask and protective overalls, wiping the overhead baggage compartment of a passenger train, hoping to scrub out invisible traces of Covid-19. The headlines around him on the website read of impending disaster: studios cancelling releases, cinemas closing down for six to twelve weeks, projects — big and small, for cinemas, television and streaming platforms — postponed. The world of entertainment production has all but shut down.

Back in Pakistan, the cinema-going audience had already stopped caring about movies five months ago.

As I scroll down my recent call-list from the past two days and recall my conversations — with film distributor, exhibitor and producer Nadeem Mandviwalla, distributor and producer Satish Anand, film and television magnate Mohammad Jerjees Seja, producer Ammara Hikmat, and producer-director Wajahat Rauf; each of them either making or supporting a major title this year — one thing is certain. The problem isn’t just the coronavirus; its presence has only compounded the predicaments the industry is facing.

Mandviwalla’s cinema, ME Cinemas (commonly known by its former popular title: Atrium Cinemas), has seen a steady state of decline between the months of December to March since 2017.

The problems of the Pakistani cinema industry have just been exacerbated with the advent of the Covid-19 threat and the closure of cinemas. But the real fear is that, even with the health crisis receding, the existential issues plaguing the industry will still be around

From data shared by Mandviwalla, between 2017-2018, ME Cinemas ran 1,093 shows in total with an occupancy percentage of 55 percent; the following year, occupancy fell to 29.14pc from 979 shows; the curve continued its nosedive to 12.8pc occupancy from 842 shows between December 2019 till March 2020.

In a nutshell: if there aren’t any good products to watch, the audience isn’t interested.

“Pakistani cinema is already facing its biggest challenge to survive,” Mandviwalla says. Even with a string of high-profile releases, the situation will only change for four or five months in summer — from Eidul Fitr to the beginning of Muharram — and then once again turn into the same situation the industry faces every year, because there will be no major releases, he foretells.

“Also, things are very difficult after the repercussions of the coronavirus,” he adds.

Although government directives had imposed a three-week closure on cinemas, Mandviwalla tells me that his cinemas are closed off until Eidul Fitr. With just a two-week window between the proposed relaxation of the government ban and the month of Ramazan, opening cinemas and waiting for the audience to muster the courage — and the cash — in times of economic and emotional distress, would be a waste of effort.

To make matters worse, studios worldwide have chosen to push most of their high-profile releases back. Part nine of The Fast and Furious franchise has been pushed back more than a year, to November 2021, with other releases following suit. So far, Wonder Woman 1984 is the only title holding to its June 5 theatrical release date.

International cinema chains AMC, Regal, Landmark Theatres, Cineplex Odeon and Alamo Drafthouse have closed over 3,000 locations (ie. theatres, not screens) in America and Canada from March 17. China, one of the biggest film markets in the world, with one of the highest toll rate in the pandemic, also needs ample time to bounce back from the crisis.

One major Pakistani title to suffer from the crisis is The Legend of Maula Jutt (TLOMJ) — the pre-acknowledged ‘saviour’ of Pakistani cinema. With an impending release in China and other countries, presumably in three or four times the screen count of Pakistan, it is in TLOMJ’s best interests to wait the crisis out.

“As glamorous as the film industry might look to a layman, it’s harder than ever to make money from films right now all over the world,” says Ammara Hikmat, the producer of the film.

“The money we have spent on TLOMJ was never going to be recovered from the domestic market [ie. Pakistan] alone, that is why we aimed for a wider worldwide release plan. Choosing Eidul Fitr as the release date was for the same reason. The Eid holiday abroad attracts more desi cinema-goers than the rest of the year,” she clarifies.

Talking about films that are in production, Hikmat says: “From what it seems, making a film would be an unwise adventure for independent producers these next few months. Like all other industries, filmmakers won’t be too immune from this financial downturn either. It’s going to take our industry a little while to bounce back.”

One of the films reeling from the Covid-19 sucker-punch is Pardey Main Rehnay Do (PMRD), a Wajahat Rauf-directed comedy “with a strong social issue at its core.” The film stars Ali Rehman, Hania Aamir, Javed Sheikh, Munazzah and Sadia Faisal, and is written by Mohsin Ali.

Rauf, aware of the aggravating state of Pakistani cinema, feels that big releases may turn things around for the industry. “Irrespective of the Covid-19 crisis, we didn’t have many big releases last year. We didn’t have a film from Humayun [Saeed], or Nabeel [Qureshi] and Fiza [Ali Meerza]. From the middle of the year onwards, we have The Legend of Maula Jutt, London Nahin Jaunga, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad, Money Back Guarantee [MBG], Chakkar, Ghabrana Nahin Hai [GNH], so we’re seeing a rise of both quality and quantity this year,” he affirms.

Pardey Main Rehnay Do | Courtesy Wajahat Rauf
Pardey Main Rehnay Do | Courtesy Wajahat Rauf

Rauf, once hoping to finish his filming by April, was forced to stop filming the week following our conversation. He hopes the aftereffects of Covid-19 will be over in three months’ time so that the industry can start regaining some of the momentum it lost last year.

“My wish and prediction are that we will not see a decline like last year’s, this time. We will cover the -38 percent gross revenue from last year, and beat that with 20-25 percent [additional] revenue in 2020,” Rauf says.

Pakistani cinema is already facing its biggest challenge to survive,” Mandviwalla says. Even with a string of high-profile releases, the situation will only change for four or five months in summer — from Eidul Fitr to the beginning of Muharram — and then once again turn into the same situation the industry faces every year, because there will be no major releases, he foretells.

ARY Network CEO and producer of the Humayun Saeed-starrer LNJ, Mohammad Jerjees Seja, shares Rauf’s prediction, but with a little less enthusiasm.

“Unfortunately, the film industry was already going through a major crisis, but now it will be much, much worse. There was some hope earlier, now I don’t know how many movies will release on Eidul Fitr or on Eidul Azha. And I don’t know how many movies and serials, which are still on set, will be able to continue,” Jerjees adds.

Jerjees doesn’t know how LNJ’s shooting schedule will be impacted. The film was once scheduled to resume filming in London, in April.

“April is still too far, if you look at it. A lot has happened in the last 15 days, and a lot can happen, positively or negatively, in the next 15 days, so we’re not rigid on anything. We’re saying, let’s face things as they happen. Our primary concern is safety and we don’t want to take any hasty decisions,” he says, affirming his network’s resolution to not risk lives in order to make a movie that may eventually get delayed.

“I’m a firm believer in content. If good content comes out, has the right feel and reaches the right audience, then it will do good business whenever it comes out, irrespective of release date,” he says.

GNH from exhibitor-producer Jamil Baig and producer Hassan Zia, and the Nida Yasir-produced and Yasir Nawaz-directed Ahsan Khan-starrer Chakkar, the last films to go on the sets in the middle of March, had no choice but to close down production.

Zia tells me his film, which had an expensive set set-up at a location, was barely three days into shooting when they had to shut down their cameras.

“With over a hundred people on set, one simply could not take chances, no matter how many precautions one took,” Zia says. “No one will be able to make the dates they initially planned,” he says.

Zia, like everyone, is hopeful of the quarantine’s success and guesses that the audience, likely fed up of being cooped up in their homes, will rush to the cinemas when they open. There is a limit to how much entertainment one can stream or watch on television, he postulates.

GNH — an apt title concerning the crisis — was one of the three big releases slated for Eidul Azha along with LNJ and Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad. The new line-up of the second Eid’s releases, the writer assumes, would be the Shaan Shahid-acted-written-directed Zarrar, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad (which only has a few pick-up shots of the city left to film), MBG and TLOMJ — films that are in their final stages of post-production.

Despite the four tent-pole titles almost ready to go, Satish Anand of Eveready Pictures, raises a point no one else has: the audience’s willingness to spend money on films.

“We don’t know what the situation will be — not just with the coronavirus, but the monetary situation [of the public] in general,” he says.

“Expensive films such as Shaan Shahid’s Zarrar and TLOMJ, for example, have already waited for a long time. If the producers aren’t imprudent, they will wait the tide out.”

Anand, who has a legacy in Pakistani film production and distribution, and has been distributing films from Disney and many high-profile films from India, has taken a hardline on matters graver for the film industry than Covid-19: the state of affairs of the film industry and especially on how people running it continue to conduct business.

Despite having more than six films on his slate at Eveready, including Chakkar, PMRD, the Sami Khan-starrer Lafangay, and their in-house horror-comedy production Peechay Toh Daikho (starring Yasir Hussain), Anand is wary of the good things the government has been promising the industry of late.

Their line of action, according to Anand, is all wrong. Even if Covid-19 is taken care of, the industry would still have the problems it was faced with before the health crisis, he argues. The main problem is between the flow of the cash from the exhibitor, to the distributor and then to the producer.

Cash flows from exhibitors have been a problem since the industry began anew. Payments are stalled for months, if not nearly a year, at times.

Ghabrana Nahin Hai
Ghabrana Nahin Hai

“I’m in two minds to not release Lafangay at all, especially if I don’t get the environment to release it,” Anand says. “We were hoping to sit down with the exhibitors, and they would have come to a point of realisation and the necessity to change, but that didn’t happen.

“Eveready is unilaterally pulling back its distribution business unless there is a restoration of trust. We are not releasing any film unless the rules of the game are in place.”

The government, he says, should be streamlining processes to produce movies. Business will come from movies, not building cinemas, he says.

Attesting the decline in audience footfalls from Nadeem Mandviwalla’s data earlier in this article, Anand says that cinemas running empty shows of less-than-stellar films, and a lack of quality content produced by Pakistani filmmakers, are bigger problems than anyone cares to comprehend.

“I cannot be a party to an episode in the Pakistani film history where I see everything happening and let myself be pulled down by the people who lack vision,” he says of the government.

“As a last resort, if my producers aren’t going to get their money back, I’m willing to reduce my commission by a considerable margin so they can continue making films,” Anand announces.

“You have to keep them engaged. I don’t know how most producers managed to muster up the investment in such a bad economic climate to pursue their dreams,” he sighs.

Cinema will survive, as will the rest of the world, Anand adds perceptively. The time away from business may give producers, distributors and exhibitors an opportunity to find a solution for the betterment of the industry, he hopes.

In Pakistan, the struggle has always been grave, with each decade bringing its own set of problems. Covid-19, and the temporary closure of cinemas, is just the tip of the iceberg. When cinemas finally reopen, the bigger fear is that everything will be back to square one.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 29th, 2020