Seven or eight years ago, this writer and a former executive from a major Hollywood studio were developing a motion picture slate (ie. multiple films), and stumbled upon a hitch when the question of filmmaking rebates, incentives and tax breaks from countries came up.

These stimuli for filmmakers are introduced by governments to encourage local productions and entice foreign producers to choose a particular country as a filming destination. The rebates — often in the form of cashbacks or waivers of up to 30 percent of money spent in a country — help offset budgets or provide an alternate way for producers to make money.

As usual, most of the resources in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada — all of whom offer both federal and state incentives — were often used up by the major studios. Australia, for example, has been the host of many major Hollywood titles, including Wolverine, the Matrix trilogy and the Star Wars prequels, amongst many others. Germany and Russia, which were once the go-to destination for medium-and low-budget productions, because they offered big breaks for domestic investors, had started to close down on exploitative investors. The UAE — especially Abu Dhabi — and its media free zone, twofour54, was tempting international studios to set up regional headquarters with various stimuluses. India, at the time, was also tardily developing its film incentives (a policy was eventually announced in 2019).

Pakistan, however, didn’t offer anything — and despite the on-again, off-again lip service of creating a governmental support structure for the country, hoping for something to happen was a fool’s dream… Until, that is, a few years ago when, nearing general elections, last ditch attempts from the former government pushed a film bill into the Senate, where, till today, it lays dormant.

A ‘final’ draft of the government’s new film policy has been circulated and may soon find its way to the Prime Minister for approval. If this is indeed the final version, it reflects poorly on those who came up with it

The last film policy, pushed by then minister Mariam Aurangzeb prior to nationwide elections, had its fair share of shortcomings, as we investigated in Icon (The Policy No One Knows About; March 11, 2018) — but then again, that’s not a big surprise.

The problems the industry faces are manifold. And since the government doesn’t consult filmmakers, or those adept and experienced in the film business, the solutions they get — if they can be called solutions — are shortsighted, to say the least.

Roundtable discussions have been held to mitigate some industry issues without much to show. Exhibitors owe hundreds of millions in dues to distributors, distributors have bad cashflow practices hampering producers, and the blocks on Indian imports that cripple cinemas that derive up to 70 percent of their revenues from them (Living On Hope, published August 30, 2020), are just a few.

The usual suspects gathered at the table have hardly changed over time. Producers, distributors, exhibitors from their respective unions, lobbied to get their points across, hoping to get them into the eventual policy. Few others were considered or invited because, I assume, the powers that be either didn’t know about them, or they were deemed inconsequential to the discussions at hand.

Submitted suggestions were contrite, lazily worded, and agenda-driven (believe me; I’ve read some of them). Some were roughly typed, haphazardly designed power-point slides.

Most incentives and bailouts begged for by filmmakers and institutions revolved around immediate help, not long-term solutions. The matter is almost always financial, but never about quality or content — which, to be fair, shouldn’t really be the government’s issue; the government can regulate and facilitate, but not make content.

But then again, Pakistani cinema had been prospering without governmental help since Partition; the quality — and especially lack thereof — is the creator’s problem. The government can set up institutions but, given the credibility, aspirations and approach of most filmmakers (again: there is much talk of creativity, but little to show), who is going to teach the next generation?

But I digress — the point is, there has been much talk but little action. However, trumpets were sounded recently that that may all change soon.

A ‘definitive’ film policy has reportedly been in the works for the last two years (Picking Up the Pieces of Policy, published October 27, 2019) and, finally, a “final” draft of it was circulated among the industry. It is assumed this “final” draft will soon be submitted to the prime minister for approval.

If this is indeed the final version (which I hope it’s not), then a lot needs to be mulled over.

In brief, the policy talks about setting up a “Film Development Directorate” in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Islamabad. This one-window directorate, with offices in the capital, Karachi and Lahore, will be the central agency with sub-departments facilitating producers.

The idea of a one-window Film Directorate is a sensible one; in fact, this demand has been made by the industry since at least 2007. However, the rest of the policy, as it reads now, appears superficial. Missing is any explanation of the rationale for the various issues the Directorate would handle or the issues the policy is setting out to address or what it hopes to achieve.

For example, among the sub-departments and issues the Directorate will manage are: a Location Engagement Unit (permits and facilitation for productions in Pakistan), Film Deposit and Cinematheque (archival and preservation of films), a Re-Financing / Loan Facility, a Marketing Accord between networks and producers (presumably), regulation relief — including tax breaks for export and import of films — an Artist Welfare and Protection Office, a Box-Office Collectorate, a Film City and a Media University. In addition, it will also apparently manage “a smooth mechanism” to create bridges between local and foreign producers and incentives for foreign producers to film in Pakistan.

Despite the headlines outlining grand ambitions, the policy appears to have a very vague, generalised feel. At times, it feels as if every idea proposed to the government has been somehow shoved into the policy for good measure.

Rather than go into every bit in detail, let’s quickly skim through a few core aspects.

For starters: the “Moving Picture Policy 2021” — that’s the official title, by the way — may sound cool, but the term can be deemed a misrepresentation. Film, or rather, motion pictures, may be a far better name. “Moving Pictures”, technically, can be anything, from gifs to animated snapshots to three-second long videos. But this is a minor grievance.

It may come as news to the government but the censor boards (there are three in Pakistan at the moment) do not grade films based on their merit, commercial viability or artistic choice; that’s not their domain. Also, ‘A’ in censor terms actually refers to an ‘Adult’ rating.

Secondly: in the introduction, the vogue of OTTs (over-the-top streaming platforms; ie. Netflix) has compelled the ministry to sweep them into their domain. “Alhumdulilah! we [sic] have been successful in providing a policy paper, the first of its kind, catering not only [sic] the film and drama sector, but also the New Cinema: The OTT’s [sic],” the paragraph reads.

Technically, neither the TV drama sector nor the OTTs fall under a film policy’s domain. Also, film is a specific narrative medium of fictional and non-fictional work (documentaries, by the way, aren’t even mentioned anywhere in the document). OTTs, which are distribution platforms, include a variety of content, including reality television, game-shows, stand-up comedy acts, amongst others. Rules specific for one, do not apply to the other, and distribution and broadcast is a whole different conversation altogether.

Then major issues that bedevil filmmakers in Pakistan, such as the arbitrary role of censor boards and censorship, the lack of seed-financing for films (to allow them to develop good ideas into scripts) or the lack of availability of land to develop cinemas or exhibition venues for festivals find no mention in this ‘film policy.’

Another aspect that triggered a frenzied head-scratching spell for this writer was the Re-Financing/Loan Facility. The policy states that the “State Bank (of Pakistan) will provide a refinancing facility, where small businesses can access the facility”…come again?

“Moreover, to facilitate young producers a loan from the Kamyab Jawan Program of the Prime Minister is made accessible.”

Here’s a little insight on how film financing works in more developed countries. Banks need collateral, and film is a high-risk creative venture that’s, (a) custom-made and (b) is deemed unquantifiable until it is completed. To obtain film financing, a production house needs a distribution contract from established distributors that stipulates ‘negative pickups’ (a sort of minimum guarantee), a film completion guarantor (ie. insurance) and contracts from unions assuring that the film will be completed on-time and within budget. The bank then finances a percentage of the film based on that prerequisite and holds the intellectual rights of the product until it has recouped its investment with profit.

I can assure the government that neither the State Bank, nor the Kamyab Jawan programme wants to own a half-completed motion picture, nor would they be interested in potential box-office returns, especially in a risky film market like ours.

Without guarantees of completion, distribution and a bona fide assurance of box-office grosses, the bank finance model will not work.

A section titled, ‘Pakistan — The Next Film Destination’ sets up another hiccup. It proposes that, after a consultation with the tourism department of each province, if a film is fully shot in Pakistan, in “duly credited” locations, the producer will be liable for a 100 percent tax rebate and, if the film is exported, will get a 100 percent waiver on federal excise duty for the next three years. There is one caveat though: the film has to be “Rated as ‘A’ grade by the Censor Board.”

It may come as news to the government but the censor boards (there are three in Pakistan at the moment) do not grade films based on their merit, commercial viability or artistic choice; that’s not their domain. Also, ‘A’ in censor terms actually refers to an ‘Adult’ rating.

The Marketing Accord is another badly explained idea. From what this writer understands, to break the “giant media houses’ monopoly” (try: television networks), a film will get an equal opportunity to market its trailer based on the censor standards and codes, irrespective of media partnerships. Again, only ‘A’ rated films from the Censor Board will get the opportunity “to bag” the airtime.

Firstly, what is it with ‘A’ grade films and censor boards? But how will this be enforced with private channels? And if the idea is to give equal opportunity to all films, then why limit the promotion of, say, a product that may be a few notches below ‘A’ grade. Don’t ‘B’ grade movies deserve promotion as well?

The Artist Welfare and Protection Office is a noble endeavour, but one very likely to open doors to accusations of corruption. While the capital or budget isn’t mentioned in the policy, I’ve read one proposal that this office be given a five-billion-rupee limit (FYI: the 5 billion amount was also mentioned in the last government’s proposal as well). How would this money be used transparently?

In another section on local and international film festivals, it is stipulated, without detail, that the Film Directorate will collaborate with the Trade and Development Authority (TDAP) to ensure that dedicated film stalls are placed in all festivals and expos abroad. The Ministry of Commerce’s Export Development Fund shall also be utilised by individual filmmakers to promote their films abroad.

The key word, if you’ve noticed, is “abroad”. There is little to no “support” for either new, existing or dormant film festivals in Pakistan that may seek resurgence under this new policy. It is also not clear if Pakistani films that cast a critical eye on society or government would be able to avail the same facilities. We’re not even sure if the ministry understands the kinds of costs involved in setting up stalls at prestigious international film festivals abroad.

According to the policy, the newly proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (which has already been rejected by media organisations) will crackdown on DVD shops across Pakistan that sell pirated music or films. A license to sell original wares will be a necessity. Someone should inform the ministry that DVD shops now mostly sell games and cell phone accessories. Pirated films are mostly accessible via the internet.

One thing is certain though: some of the lobbying seems to have worked, because there is a long-list of waivers for producers, distributors and exhibitors, with relief in taxes or complete write-offs in some cases.

The thinking, again, is of immediate dilemmas. Bigger problems and sensible strategies can be pondered another day, from the looks of things.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 20th, 2021

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