The cursor on the computer screen before me has been flashing in and out of existence for at least an hour, as words slip in and out of sentences before the backspace key mercilessly gobbles them up.

I’m writing up an elegy for Pakistan’s cinema industry, now seemingly in its death throes. But my mind is wandering. Thinking. Brooding. Cinemas have finally been allowed to open again after months of shutdown, but will audiences be willing to face the continuing risks of the pandemic while everything is still uncertain? Even more importantly, are there any films that can lure them back? And what of the industry’s perennial, and as yet, unresolved problems? What can be said that hasn’t been said before? What does one report, when every decision — good, bad, inane, self-serving — is still up in the air? How can Pakistan’s cinema even survive?

Why is Icon always the herald of doom? And why isn’t the film industry proving us wrong?

Between 2018 to roughly until a few months ago, Icon published nearly 20 feature articles on the devastating shortfalls in the film industry. From whistleblowing the last government’s film policy, to specific dilemmas of filmmakers and the politics of distribution, exhibition, production, unions and screenwriting, we have attempted to cover every base from a neutral but informed perspective.

But it seems that newspapers are often only good for archives or as roti-wraps. Nobody actually reads them or pays heed.

After a battering from a lack of film product and pandemic-mandated shutdowns, it seems hope is the only thing keeping Pakistan’s cinema industry afloat for now. But how long can wishful thinking last when systemic problems are not addressed?

After two days of phone calls with decision-makers of the Pakistani film industry, I am still — inexplicably, frustratingly — returning to a point where we’ve all been before: hearing subjective arguments (especially on why a high ticket price cannot be avoided) and reveries of wishful thinking.

Hiding behind “hope” (the word has popped up a hundred times in the past two days, and a gazillion times in the past decade), daydreaming of better times in the future, we’re now at the last junction. The buck stops here.

No one specific is to blame. Everyone collectively killed cinema with substandard product, venal financial practices and internal rifts. Bludgeoned it bloody with a two-by-four.

“Hope”, battered, lying on their floor, miraculously still breathes, hinging on a filmi, dramatic, last-minute save from 10 nearly completed, high-profile films that may give audiences a reason to shell out an insane amount of cash — about 4,000 to 5,000 rupees on average per film for a family of four — for three hours of fun.

The list of films to hit cinemas in 2021 comprises: Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad, The Legend of Maula Jutt, London Nahin Jaunga, Ishrat Made in China, Parday Mein Rehnay Do, Ghabrana Nahin Hai, Chakkar, Money Back Guarantee, Zarrar and Tich Button.

But the same 5,000 rupees can buy a middle class family its basic monthly rations. Is one film really worth the price of a month’s supply of food, one wonders? It shouldn’t be, yet incomprehensibly, argumentatively, it is.

The mission is revival of film, and through it, an increase in employment opportunities.” — Lt-Gen (R) Asim Saleem Bajwa

As Nadeem Mandviwalla, one of the revered institutes of the industry — a producer, distributor and exhibitor (ie. cinema owner) from the ‘good old days’ — told this writer last year: cinema is for those who can afford it. An entertainment avenue for elites, or youngsters with money to spare.

But where would even these audiences go after Covid-19 restrictions relax, and films make their way into cinemas again, if there are fewer cinemas left in operation?

Rumours are rampant in the industry of Cinepax, Pakistan’s largest cinema chain, battling severe debt issues. Several rental agreements with venues that housed their cinemas (mostly shopping malls) are on the verge of collapse. They’ve already lost their site at Lahore’s Fortress Mall because the owners of the property were not negotiating on rent, a source from within the industry confirms.

Reaching out to their executives with questions (a fine bunch of sensible people, when talking off-the-record), there is, officially, total silence at their end.

Text messages are seen, yet left unanswered. Calls aren’t picked up either. Not even a corporate-sounding “No comment.”

Unlike Cinepax, Jamil Baig, owner of Nueplex Cinemas in Karachi — an exhibitor, distributor and producer, and the one man Eveready Pictures’ Satish Anand and ARY Films’ Irfan Malik call “a thorough gentleman” because of his better business practices and relatively quick payouts to distributors — confirms in a quick phone call that Nueplex isn’t shutting its doors.

Unsubstantiated rumours had reached this writer that Nueplex Askari was on the verge of shutdown. But Baig, who has been supporting Pakistani films through his cinema chain, has a lot at stake with the production of his upcoming movie Ghabrana Nahin Hai, and two other projects primed to go on set as soon as things settle down. There is no question of him quitting the industry, he says.

“We’re ready to open cinemas to support any producer, if they come to us with a fixed release date,” Baig tells Icon over the phone.

Still reeling from the after-effects of Covid-19, other exhibitors, and some distributors, prefer a vow of silence. As if a confirmation of facts will jinx the business.

HKC, a leading foreign film distributor, plans to distribute Mulan, Tenet and Wonder Woman from the first week of September onwards, according to industry sources. But even HKC didn’t respond to Icon when approached for confirmation.

According to sources, international distributors are only giving one-week licenses for KDM’s (Key Delivery Messages; anti-piracy codes that enable cinema projectors to play movies for a pre-decided number of shows or dates). The restriction has allegedly been put in place because of payment delays from Pakistani exhibitors.

Think of this as a checkmate. A film that doesn’t play, makes no money.

We’re ready to open cinemas to support any producer, if they come to us with a fixed release date.” — Jamil Baig

This story brings us to the core issue: bad payment cycles of exhibitors — a cause of great concern and a key issue being negotiated through governmental support right now.

In the past, box-office accounting practices used to be simpler. A film made money at the ticket window, the accountant tallied the count and handed over the collection to distributors’ representative. If not the same day, then by the week’s end.

Today, for some inane reason, box-office collections are held back by exhibitors for internal roll-overs. With delays in payment, producers do not see a dime of their revenue (no matter how low or high it is), until a new batch of successful films make money in cinemas, and that amount is then used to pay off the outstanding dues of a film that ran six months ago. The cinema owners then repeat the cycle, leaving producers in hock until they get paid — that is, if the film is a hit. Otherwise the income is used to fund operational overhead.

It’s a flawed way to practice business — one that forced Punjab’s Super Cinemas to shut its doors and re-strategise its operations (every distributor is owed anywhere from two to five million rupees, I’m told).

Despite the problems, the air is clear between the distributors and Super Cinemas, according to their spokesperson M. Ramazan Sheikh. “We’re in cordial relations with distributors, and dues will be cleared in the next two to three months,” he clarifies.

Super Cinemas is but one of many cinema chains who have yet to clear their dues.

“The industry owes us distributors — DC, Eveready, ARY — about 250 million rupees, from prior released films,” Amjad Rasheed, CEO of Distribution Club tells me during a phone conversation.

“It’s not right for cinema owners to invest in businesses, or to make more cinemas from a producer’s hard-earned money,” he adds.

“What’s worrying me is that the film business does not have economic stability. If percentages aren’t cut down and dues aren’t paid on time, there is no way forward. I’m not investing in cinema to go to a studio and gawk at the surroundings. This is a legitimate business for me. I have 11 movies in the works, and over 200 million rupees invested, with some payments made as Minimum Guarantees,” he elaborates.

“In old times, cinema owners produced their own films. They had a legitimate stake in the industry. They need to do so again, take ownership of the industry, go forward,” he gripes at the current state of affairs.

In any case, irrespective of internal problems within the industry, cinemas should open by October so that momentum ramps up by December, when Hollywood eventually starts releasing its films, Rasheed asserts.

“As a distributor and producer, I’m worried that it may not be easy for an industry such as Pakistan’s to open up again that easily,” says Irfan Malik, Head of Distribution at ARY Films.

“The issue is that until the imposed lockdown from the government was in place, exhibitors had a valid reason to not resume business. Now that the government says that they don’t have any issues in opening cinemas, the exhibitors will face the pressures of paying rentals.”

“Eighty percent of the exhibitors have rentals because they are located in malls. Most will not have any choice but to open their doors and do whatever business they get to stay afloat, and try to make some sense out of the situation. My fear is that only 30 or 40 cinema locations will open up out of necessity, while others will wait it out. This [drop] will effectively take us five or seven years back,” Malik explains.

“With so few screens, it was already not making sense for producers to make films in Pakistan. But we were looking at the future, seeing screens opening one by one, so that ‘hope’ was there. Now that we are seeing a potential loss of 20 to 30 percent of the business, we would have to reevaluate our business model, bring down budgets from 100 million rupees to 50 million rupees, and build from there, facing the grinding and the hassle once again.”

Like Amjad Rasheed, Irfan Malik will not release his high-profile films until the market is stable enough. Satish Anand of Eveready Pictures officially told this writer that he will not distribute films until past dues are cleared.

The decisions, combined together, impacts most — if not all — titles of the above-mentioned slate.

Exhibition, distribution, lack of local releases, costly ticket prices… how the film business is still surviving, one truly wonders.

“The only thing is, I ‘hope’ that we have not gone to the point of no return,” Nadeem Mandviwalla sighs, as we discuss the issue.

Till when are we just going to rely on hope, I ask him — the term has become irksome for this writer.

“No business in the world works without hope or incentive. The Legend of Maula Jutt was the hope that kept us alive last year. The hope that new content was coming from producers. If there is none, then an alternate has to be created by the stakeholders or the government.

“You have two choices,” Mandviwalla says, “either open up Indian films, or by January announce 30 more productions. That is how cinemas can survive until 2022. If one hears that more movies are on the way, I will have the hope and the incentive to keep running my cinemas. If I hear that no production has gone on floors in 2021, then demise is inevitable.”

Mandviwalla agrees that business practices aren’t right. “What business has perfect practices?” he says.

“There is a way out,” he continues. As in any business, one has choices. The choice is for distributors to not give films to certain cinemas, unless dues are paid up.

“If you tell me that I’ll keep on complaining but still give you content to play in cinemas, then this [whole cycle] will never end,” Mandviwalla exclaims.

Despite this option, Mandviwalla, an exhibitor as well, has a soft spot for cinema owners.

“The last four cinema sites that opened — Packages, Emporium, Nueplex, Cue Cinemas — raised the standard of the number of screens from five to ten. These four cinemas have not yet made their financial returns because they’ve hardly been active for little more than a year. There is no way a new cinema would have recovered more than 20 percent of its capital. So there is a tremendous amount of financial liability on these projects. These cinemas need to survive for Pakistani cinemas to survive.”

Our conversation leads us back to payment cycles, and this writer’s unwavering qualms with the system. Audiences pay cash at the ticket window, so, irrespective of how cinemas recoup their capital investments, shouldn’t payment cycles be smaller? It’s not like the exhibitor doesn’t already get an enormous share of 58 percent from every ticket’s sale — so why be greedy, pile-up debt and put roadblocks for the producer?

“The exhibitors should realise that they can’t run a business without producers. If the local producers don’t give them movies, how long will they survive on foreign content? I would really like to see how fairly cinemas are treating producers post-coronavirus, given that their livelihood also depends on what content we give them,” Ammara Hikmat, the producer of The Legend of Maula Jutt, writes in a message.

Wajahat Rauf, whose film Pardey Mein Rehnay Do is set to resume production by December, jokingly, contemplates investment in alternate business opportunities. “People buy chicken, so I’m seriously thinking of opening up a chicken farm,” he laughs.

“On a serious note, I think producers will start running away and invest their time and energy elsewhere as they put in an entire year, and their money, in a film with such bad odds. We are mostly doing it for our passion for film, but nobody wants to suffer losses from unfair sharing ratios,” he says.

“What has been worrying for producers, since day one, is the revenue-sharing deal with exhibitors, which makes it impossible to recover our investment, let alone make a profit. The recovery timelines are pretty bad as well,” he explains.

Smaller independent producers, such as Akbar Nasir Khan who wrote and produced Daal Chaawal, says that one needs to consider their investments in Pakistani cinema as if one is investing in art, and a measure of self-satisfaction.

Daal Chaawal was released through Footprint and, while Khan was fortunate enough to get box-office performance sheets for his film (he appreciated the transparency), he didn’t make a single dime off his venture.

Mohib Mirza, whose directorial debut Ishrat Made in China has already gone through a world of hurt, has stopped thinking about the problems.

“Whatever I’ve heard, and from whatever guidance I got, it never made sense to me. If one formulates a business plan for movies, and looks at things from a practical angle, taking into account all percentages involved from exhibitors and distributors, nothing actually makes sense. There is no transparency of practice. Films that make a lot of money still show up as losses. So I’ve shifted my focus to my craft, rather than get worried with the business of it all.”

With internal rifts causing serious damage, it’s no wonder that an outside source has to intervene directly to set things right.

In the past two months, this writer has been hearing of a string of meetings with Lt-Gen (r) Asim Saleem Bajwa, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, a position previously held by Firdous Ashiq Awan.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Bajwa is the film industry’s last-ditch attempt to straighten itself out.

Taking a brief time-out between cabinet meetings for Icon, Bajwa, open to ideas, discussed the necessity of keeping everyone, new and old alike, on the table. He’s had discussions with producers, big, new, first-timers, distributors, exhibitors, hearing their woes and cries of hope.

The difference right now is, I’m told by the adviser, is that things are already under process. A “doer”, the SAPM has already had several meetings on the issue of payment cycles, and says that a system is being worked out where exhibitors will pay their dues in a maximum of three weeks.

Issues of taxation and film policies are also seriously being considered and, if need be, will be overhauled. “It’s all in reform,” he tells me, as I tick through a laundry list of problems with the industry.

On Zoom, Bajwa tells me that he has a soft spot for Pakistani cinema, and that he feels it to be a necessity to develop a country’s society and culture. “The mission is revival of film,” he says, “and through it, an increase in employment opportunities.”

“We’re still like an infant, it needs to be nurtured,” he tells me of Pakistani cinema. His priority, for now, is to streamline as much as possible, as quickly as possible. The SAPM is literally working day and night to ensure that a proper system is implemented, from the federal level, that can be beneficial for the film fraternity.

With a proper infrastructure in place, who knows, maybe “hope” might not sound like an empty word after all.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 30th, 2020