’’It’s a lost cause. Mera nahin khayal cinema waisay hi suhagan ban sakay gi jaisay thi woh! [I don’t think cinema will have the glow and splendour of a newlywed bride again],” Shaan Shahid says on the phone from Lahore in a solemn declaration.

Shaan’s latest film, Zarrar, written, acted, produced and directed by him, has been lying on the editing machine for at least two years now, waiting for the right opportunity and circumstances for its theatrical release.

It’s been a while since cinema owners unhooked power to their projectors, and closed the drapes over their 50-foot screens; nearly two years, in fact.

As the final quarter of 2021 looms, Icon analyses the situation with respect to what the future holds for cinema in Pakistan — as we’ve been doing since Covid-19 hit Pakistan (it is the ninth article on this particular topic in the last two years). Is there, realistically, any glimmer of hope? Afterall, film businesses worldwide are slowly peeling off their band-aids, in a bid to return to normalcy, so why should Pakistan be any different?

The Covid-19 NCOC (National Command and Operation Centre) directives last time around had hinted that cinemas may open with strict stipulations — entries would be allowed only to people who showed their vaccination cards. But the rule didn’t come into effect in Sindh, because the cinemas never really opened. From July till August, a few cinemas did open, however, in the Punjab region with negligible box-office earnings (exact box-office grosses are unavailable, according to sources).

Now, if industry-wide hype is to be believed, cinemas will start welcoming audiences again by the end of September, after the NCOC comes to a decision sometime in the next two weeks, with roughly the same rules in place.

All the previous problems of the Pakistan film industry pale in comparision to its biggest challenge right now — theatres remaining shut. Have the curtains finally fallen on cinema screens nationwide? It certainly seems so...

It might sound like a plan, but it’s not.

The movers and shakers of the film fraternity, and the government have yet to come to an understanding, so don’t expect to go back to the movies just yet.

According to the people who make and show films, the film industry is in desperate circumstances — but then again, hasn’t it always been in that state? Perhaps yes, but it’s more dire now.

According to Nadeem Mandviwala, a producer, distributor and exhibitor (he manages Centaurus and Atrium Cinemas), cinema owners need a complete bailout from the government. If one isn’t given, then there is no cinema business, and without cinemas there will be no film industry.

In comparison to other countries, the cost isn’t as substantial, he affirms. Unlike the US, where there are thousands of venues, Pakistan only has 70-odd cinema sites, he explains.

But Mandviwala has little confidence for cinemas’ revival during the last quarter of 2021; maybe it would make a difference in 2022’s first half, he suggests.

He feels few screens would open even after the NCOC’s rules were put into effect right now, with few big-name producers taking the risk to release high profile movies. In any case, all of it is dependent on there being no further lockdowns and the pandemic not turning up with a new variant, he says.

Pir Saad, the chief of Cinepax Cinemas — Pakistan’s biggest cinema chain — and Footprint Entertainment, which releases films from Disney, Fox, Paramount and Universal, is all praise for the NCOC’s plan, but believes that cinema has no hope in what’s left of 2021.

Although the industry is facing problems, he feels that it is prudent to wait it out. A key point that is dissuading cinema owners from reopening, according to him, is the release strategy of movies.

If films are not staggered throughout the year, and are only released at preset festive seasons during Eid or the winter holidays, then what will cinema owners run during the span of the year? Hollywood movies, which have their own limited audiences, don’t really appeal to the masses at large.

Umer Khitab Khan, a distributor whose label Metro Live Movies thrives on independently produced, mid-to-low budget movies, says that he is ready and willing to release his entire slate as soon as cinemas pull up their shutters.

With six completed titles in hand (five with filmmaker Abu Aleeha, mentioned below) and three more under negotiation, he knows some of his films will not perform well, but “for the sake of cinema” he and his producers are willing to take that risk, he says. He may be a rarity and his courage may also be because he has less at stake in terms of the costs of the films he markets.

According to Shaan, filmmakers should look for new avenues and the charge should be led by the government. Deals to release films globally, or via streaming platforms should be encouraged because, like Mandviwala, he doesn’t really believe that cinemas will open anytime soon.

According to Shaan, filmmakers should look for new avenues and the charge should be led by the government. Deals to release films globally, or via streaming platforms should be encouraged because, like Nadeem Mandviwala, he doesn’t really believe that cinemas will open anytime soon.

Instead of going for cinemas, those who are genuinely concerned about the entertainment business should invest in a homegrown OTT (‘Over-The-Top’, streaming platform), he says. The investment could be a billion rupees, but it will help filmmakers in the long-run, he believes.

Composite illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi

Hassan Zia, the producer of Ghabrana Nahin Hai with Nueplex Cinema chain owner Jamil Baig, says that the uncertainty of film business is generally ebbing filmmakers’ confidence.

According to him, after striving long and hard, a handful of filmmakers have finally gotten the hang of the craft; these delays will only dissuade professional filmmakers from taking the industry seriously and, if things turn from bad to worse, then only those with excessive cash will entertain the idea of making a movie — and that too as a hobby.

Pakistani cinema’s survival is squarely dependent on the opening of cinemas, Zia states during our conversation. Unlike more developed countries, where cinema culture thrives, Pakistan doesn’t have OTT platforms, or other ancillary avenues to make money. Selling to television doesn’t give producers much in terms of financial returns, he explains.

Also, Zia suggests, he has no idea how many screens will be back in business, owing to their prior financial difficulties.

This will probably be the last time we will discuss the issue and its historic intricacies at length, so here’s a little recap for context:

There are three factions in the film business, the cinema owners (referred to as exhibitors), the producers who make the films, and the distributors who get the films to the exhibitors.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, cinemas closed shop and producers rescheduled their shoots. During the course of the last two years, producers — both independent and big names — gradually completed their films (the only exception is the Humayun Saeed-starrer London Nahin Jaunga, which still has to film its London bit; the film is expected to be one of the five biggest titles in the eventual line-up).

Some filmmakers, such as Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza, and Abu Aleeha, even went on to make more movies (Nabeel and Fizza have just completed Khel Khel Mein starring Sajal Aly and Bilal Abbas, immediately after finishing Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad with Fahad Mustafa and Mahira Khan; Abu Aleeha has finished Udham Patakh, Lockdown, Once Upon a Time in Karachi, Sheenogai, and is about to wrap production on Javed Iqbal).

With over 20 high profile films ready, and approximately 30 to 40 films in various stages of completion, Covid-19 at least gave the film industry more than enough titles to make a grand comeback; typically, a year would have five well-known Pakistan titles, now there are 20.

Distributors, as a result, started locking deals with producers, growing their library of releases for the day when cinemas reopened. The stockpile would also strengthen the distributors’ case when negotiations about dues from exhibitors come into discussion. If push came to shove, the distributors would have the upper hand in pulling movies from cinemas until proper cash flow terms were put into effect.

Outstanding dues from exhibitors to distributors were a big problem between 2018 and 2019. The payments, collectively owed by exhibitors, approximated Rs500 million (while some payments have been made, the exact figure is hard to figure out now). The amount had been mounting since audience footfalls dwindled after import/ export of Bollywood movies was outlawed by both Pakistani and Indian governments and nixed by distributors.

Because Hollywood couldn’t sustain Pakistani cinemas, and our own wares, far fewer in numbers, fluctuated greatly in aesthetic and technical qualities — with big titles only releasing during Eid holidays, where they battled each other for box-office supremacy — the industry was already reeling.

The infighting continued, and a question was raised multiple times in the press: Why can’t the release of big films be staggered throughout the year to supplement both low-budget ventures and Hollywood releases? Wouldn’t such a strategy encourage audiences into making weekly trips to the movies rather than just over Eid, and wouldn’t that eventually lead to a more regular habit of going to the movies?

Alas, it all fell on deaf ears back then, and the box-office numbers continued nosediving until late 2019. No one was willing to take the risk.

The exhibitors’ payment cycles — which were deemed acceptable at the time — grew from four to six weeks later to four to six months later and then some, between 2017-2019. The reason was the low income and high running cost and rentals of locations.

Even then it shouldn’t have been a problem if business practices were honest.

Income from ticket sales were usually routed to pay for cinemas’ upkeep, and long payback times to distributors discouraged producers from regularly making local movies to fill the void left by Bollywood (eg. a film released in December, was usually paid for from the income of a film released in May).

Technically though, cinemas already charge between 600 rupees to 1,500 rupees per ticket — the latter of which is equal to Netflix’s monthly subscription cost — and out of that ticket price, exhibitors charge 50 percent as their share. Running businesses from their own fair share could have saved a world of hurt.

It has been argued, time and again, that the government should intervene and set things right. The fact of the matter is, that until now, the government still has no idea how to tackle — let alone resolve — any issue raised by the film fraternity.

But then again, it’s not really their fault; at times the information presented to the Ministry of Information and Broadcast, and the Directorate of Electronic Media and Publications (DEMP) — which handle film matters, including the drafting of the recent, inane, film policy — is dependent on what data and facts are presented to them. The government’s job is to facilitate, but how can they, if they are pushed and pulled in different directions by exhibitors and distributors.

But that’s all in the past. Today, the plan is to have no plan.

Multiple discussions between fraternities — including some hosted by the government — failed to reach consensus. The strategy, as I observed, is to have no strategy and wait to see who bows first.

A battle of wills and stalemates is the last thing the audience needs; they want movies and these fracases only dissuade people from taking cinema culture seriously.

By and large, we’re still catering to less than one percent of the population anyways. As per pre-Covid-19 box-office figures, that audience was already losing interest in movies. Now, when there are ample movies ready for release, we’re facing the dilemma of not opening — or at the very least, delayed opening — of cinemas.

While there are some legitimate concerns — e.g. of same day OTT releases from Warner Bros. and Disney; the utter reliance on a few big name titles such as the James Bond film No Time to Die or F9; or issue of high ticket prices — these problems aren’t impossible to tackle.

Also, any and all questions about the administration of NCOC’s rules only come into effect after movie screens come to life.

For now, the entire business is dependent on one aspect: the reopening of cinemas.

If multiplexes and single screens don’t open shop, there is no place for filmmakers to show their films. Without films, there is no cinema culture, and without cinema — as it had been for years — there are but one or two other avenues for entertainment.

Let’s not go back to the way cinema was between 1990s and 2012, shall we?

The dining business has made peace with SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). Malls are open. Offices have opened. Cinema, unfortunately, remains the only big casualty.

As Shaan says, “It’s a lost cause” — and he is right; but the cause is lost because of all the wrong reasons.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 5th, 2021

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