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Is the revival of Pakistani cinema sustainable?

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

Local filmmakers have changed the face of Pakistani cinema in 2015 but more is needed to make the revival sustainable.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Pakistani cinema has reached the tipping point. With a record 11 local films (10 feature films and one animated film) in 2015, at least three of which were massive hits, the long sought after revival of local cinema has happened.

Gone are the days of the gujjars and gandaasas, seamlessly replaced by a mix of artsy biopics, big budget entertainers, kitschy coming of age numbers and rollicking, if raunchy, comedies. Decrepit and dingy cinema halls have been traded in for slick cineplexes equipped with plush seats, modern technology and the promise of a film ‘experience’. Going to the cinema has become not only an acceptable but a desirable activity as well, and the choices, whether in terms of show times, cinema locations or the films themselves, are extensive. For a country where an entire generation grew up without ever having seen the inside of a cinema, a new cinema going culture has arrived and is by all accounts being embraced with the greatest of enthusiasm.

The lifting of the ban on the import of Indian films in 2009 can safely be credited with bringing about the greatest change to Pakistan’s cinema environment. Prior to this, film supply was so limited that there was no business case for establishing a cinema, and in the absence of cinema halls to screen films in, producing local films was out of the question.

Mohsin Yaseen, GM Marketing at Cinepax Cinemas, which owns 22 of the 83 screens in Pakistan, says that when the owners of Cinepax thought of building a cinema in 2005, they knew they would have to create the supply chain first. So they established a distribution company called Box Office (now Footprint) and became the official distributors of Sony, Paramount and Universal in Pakistan. This gave them a much needed boost and they started building a cineplex in Rawalpindi but it wasn’t until the import of Indian films began that the expansion began in earnest.

Yaseen says that “the fact that the government is allowing the import of Indian films is a major incentive. We would not be able to survive without them.” He adds that at present Indian content accounts for 50% of their business while Pakistani and English films account for 25% respectively.

A time to film

An increase in the number of screens coupled with the success of pioneering efforts in the form of Khuda Ke Liye, Bol, Waar and the more recent Na Maloom Afraad, provided the impetus that local filmmakers needed to start producing films.

The results have been encouraging: Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, produced by ARY Films, broke all previous records (including those set by Indian and English films in Pakistan) with earnings in excess of Rs 300 million at the box office. Bin Roye (by Hum Films) and Wrong Number (by Yasir Nawaz Films) collected Rs 150 million and Rs 130 million respectively. While not all of this year’s films have been big earners, some have more than made up for that by receiving critical acclaim, especially Shah, Manto and Moor. Of course, there were flops, such as the much touted but disappointing Dekh Magar Pyaar Say and the downright ridiculous Hulla Gulla, but what has come through as a result of these endeavours, whether successful or not, is that after decades of shunning local productions, Pakistani audiences are now willing to watch Pakistani films, and perhaps more importantly for producers, that there is money to be made by making local films.

Top grossers: Jawani Phir Nahin Aani broke all previous records with earnings in excess of Rs 300 million at the box office while Bin Roye and Wrong Number collected Rs 150 million and Rs 130 million respectively.
Top grossers: Jawani Phir Nahin Aani broke all previous records with earnings in excess of Rs 300 million at the box office while Bin Roye and Wrong Number collected Rs 150 million and Rs 130 million respectively.

Therefore after a relatively successful year, the value of Pakistani cinema, based on local box office receipts for local films, is between Rs 700 to 800 million. According to Yaseen, the influx of local films has also brought a whole new audience into cinemas, particularly the ultra conservative sections of the population who are not keen on watching Indian and English films.

Pakistani audiences are also being lured in by the diversity of subjects on offer. Granted that many filmmakers are borrowing themes from across the border, but there are also original thinkers like Adnan Sarwar, Sarmad Khoosat and Jami who bring their own vision to the screen.

More to the point, says Jerjees Seja, CEO, ARY Digital and ARY Films, is that unlike TV, where audience preferences are very clear (and ratings determine content), film has no set rules. “You can make any type of film as long as it clicks audiences.”

What ‘clicks’ is a subjective discussion, but filmmakers like Sarwar (producer and lead actor of Shah), are clear that bringing new storylines to the screen will eventually be the bread and butter of local cinema, especially once the novelty factor wears off.

“Pakistani cinema has to create its own niche otherwise it will become harder to compete [with Indian films]. In the long run, we have to be to Bollywood what British cinema is to Hollywood.”

Content, however is dependent on producers, and while there are drama directors, ad filmmakers and individuals from related fields (such as music and theatre) jumping into filmmaking, the fact that the highest grossing film of the year was essentially a Pakistani version of an Indian film, does not necessarily bode well for a future of diverse storylines. However, it is early days yet and things could go either way.

Show me the money

Content, however is just one part of the filmmaking equation, albeit an important one. At the risk of stating the obvious, making films is an expensive business, all the more so when the industry is at a nascent stage and filmmakers often have to learn from their mistakes. Shah, which may well have been the cheapest film made this year in terms of production cost, was delivered on a shoestring budget of less than Rs 15 million. However, large commercial releases had production budgets that were easily in the region of Rs 50 to 100 million.

From cast and crew salaries to location and camera rentals (most production houses rent cameras as it is too expensive to buy them) and a host of other big and small expenses, all films (even the big budget ones) need outside investment. To ensure that filmmaking remains a sustainable venture, production companies cannot afford to put all their money behind one film when there is no guarantee of returns. However this uncertainty about ROI is precisely why outside investors also shy away.

Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood, Pakistani films do not have to contend with piracy, which Zulfiqar Ramzi, former Chairman of the Sindh Censor Board, says is the result of many pleas and threats from local filmmakers and has led to a sort of “honour among thieves” situation and an understanding that the latter will only sell pirated copies of foreign films. This is a major advantage for local cinema and ensures that local releases are not screened on cable TV or released illegally on DVD. This has certainly contributed to the growth of cinema, but it is not enough.

According to Seja, local films need to run in the cinema for at least more than two weeks in order for the producers to have any chance of making a profit and therein lies the problem.

Out of the 83 screens in Pakistan, approximately 50 are in cineplexes and the rest are standalone cinemas. Only two out of the 33 odd standalone cinemas are equipped with the technology to screen films made using digital cameras – the rest still use 35mm reels. This in effect means that new films can only be released on about 52 screens. With three to five films released every week (including Pakistani, Indian and Hollywood titles), many of which have international star power as their greatest advantage, Pakistani films are pushed off the cinema roster quicker than they would like, and as a result do not get the screen time they require to secure their ROI.

Additionally, local producers feel that film distributers (many of whom are also cinema owners) are biased towards Indian films because they require a lower investment and offer a greater and more certain ROI. Producers like Seja think that while Indian films are important for the survival of local cinemas, cinema owners need to facilitate Pakistani films. He gives the example of Wrong Number (released by ARY Films) which was on the screens the same weekend as India’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Despite the fact that Wrong Number did good business, Seja believes that had the cinema owners divided the screen time between the two films more equitably (instead of giving Bajrangi preference), ARY would have earned at least Rs 40 to 50 million more.

Yaseen responds to this by saying that if producers feel that there is competition for screen time, they should produce more Pakistani films. He says that most cinema owners will keep a film on for another week if seat occupancy is 50% or above. “If it is below that, then we have to inform the producer that it will be difficult to continue screening the film because there is a new one coming.”

Not all the local producers, however, hold Seja’s view. Ali Murtaza, Founder and CEO, AAA Motion Pictures and Digital Entertainment (and the producer of Dekh Magar Pyar Say, which was in cinemas for less than a week), says that although Pakistani cinema is a cinema owner’s market (as opposed to a producer’s market), the solution is two-fold.

“Investment in film, whether it is individual or in partnership with others, makes more of a business case when there is more than one film involved. You have to take a long term view and produce two or three films or at least be working on them simultaneously. Secondly, we need to be sensible when it comes to budgeting. We cannot set the wrong standards [by making big budget films] because someone may look at that number from the outside and come to the wrong conclusions about the business model...”

Essentially the point is that Pakistanis need to make films with tighter budgets and fresher storylines to ensure audience interest, a longer run at the box office and better ROI.

Enter the brands

Lack of investment in marketing and promotion is yet another reason why some Pakistani films, despite having a good cast and storyline, fail to generate their requisite share of audience interest. Although ARY spent Rs 150 million marketing Jawani Phir Nahin Aani thanks to their deep pockets, most other producers do not have that luxury.

Sarwar, for example says that he had “very little support as far as marketing was concerned. All our media partners came in at the last moment and our first promo went on air 10 days prior to the release of the film.”

He believes that had promotions for Shah begun three months before release (standard practice in the rest of the world) the film would have done even better commercially. Despite the film’s short run, Sarwar was able to recover all the money that went into production of Shah and make a profit. The reason was simple: corporate sponsorship.

In the absence of sources of funding for film production and marketing, producers are increasingly turning to brands and corporations to secure investment. Under pressure to reach out to their consumers in the face of increasing media clutter and fragmentation (especially on traditional media), brands are latching on to the opportunity offered by a booming and extremely buzz-worthy film industry – and giving money in return for content integration.

In theory, brand integration creates a win-win situation for producers and brands; producers get the money they need to make their films and market them without having to share their profits with the brands (the investment in the film is classified as a marketing expense), while brands get a captive audience and an opportunity to really connect with their target market by virtue of their integration into the storyline of the film (as opposed to being ignored by audiences during a 30-second TVC).

The reality, however, is somewhat different. If the integrations in this year’s local films are anything to go by (I’m looking at you Sprite and Cornetto), it would appear that brands have learnt absolutely nothing from their awkward and unsubtle attempts to integrate themselves into television content.

Raheel Pasha, Marketing Director, Personal Care at Unilever Pakistan, which has done its fair share of brand integration in films such as Jawani Phir Nahin Aani and Karachi Say Lahore, believes that this process is “at a nascent stage and we are still learning. Typically, the brand will want to communicate their proposition but communicating this in a film requires the art of storytelling and this is very new here.” Marketer turned producer, Murtaza (his last posting was Director, Brand Communications at Mobilink) believes the reason why brands get integration wrong is because “they treat films more like TVCs [without realising that] cinema audiences do not like it when a brand is in your face.”

If the integrations in this year’s local films are anything to go by (I’m looking at you Sprite and Cornetto), it would appear that brands have learnt absolutely nothing from their awkward and unsubtle attempts to integrate themselves into television content.

Considering that, as Pasha reveals, brands use integration to “drive top of mind and saliency” and select films based on the popularity of the cast and the director’s credentials (as opposed to ensuring a fit between brand and storyline), it is hardly surprising that some local films this year have ended up looking like extended TV commercials.

Yet, for cash strapped filmmakers, the benefits of integration outweigh the disadvantages. Industry insiders suggest that the fact that even an off the beaten track film like Shah managed to secure corporate support (from Bank Alfalah) is a sign that confidence in the potential of film is growing.

Back to the future

Although brands are likely to remain a major part of the support structure for local films (and the success from this will encourage more investment in film), increasing the number of cineplexes and screens is the only sustainable way to ensure the stability of the recently jumpstarted local film industry. And this is where the government has to play a role.

Ramzi explains that when India was trying to establish more cineplexes, the Indian government gave cinema owners benefits, such as a five- year break from paying entertainment duty if a cineplex of more than three screens was built, electricity at a reduced cost and a three-year income tax holiday. In contrast, Pakistan’s government offers no such incentive, although doing so would not only help establish more cinemas, it will also create hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs, not only in the cinemas but also in every film related field. Having more cinemas, in turn, would make it possible for local films to have longer runs on screen instead of being pushed out by new local and international releases, thereby increasing their odds of making a profit.

However, despite the lack of incentives and with the costs of establishing and maintaining cinemas soaring, groups like Cinepax for example are planning an expansion of about 28 new screens in the next year or so. Whether or not this expansion will help bring down ticket prices (which currently range from Rs 500 to 1,200) and make cinema accessible to a wider cross section of the population, is a question mark and will ultimately depend on the cinema owners’ profitability.

In the meantime producers are working on other ways to shore up profits. Releasing films internationally and appealing to the large expatriate Urdu and Hindi speaking populations in the West is one way of doing this.

According to Seja: “when the Indians make a film, they recover their costs by selling the rights to satellite channels like Star. What they make from the local box office is profit and what they make from the international box office is a bonus. In Pakistan, the local satellite market is too small and we cannot earn money that way; the idea is to recover our costs from the Pakistani market and then to make a profit or bonus from the international market.”

Despite concerns regarding the profitability of cinemas and films, most industry insiders are optimistic about the future of local cinema. Seja predicts that there will be 200 to 300 cinema screens in the next five years and an industry that will be worth over a billion rupees. He believes that as local producers make more films, economies of scale will come into play, thereby reducing production costs.

Others like Saeed Shiraz, a member of the Sindh Censor Board and owner of Adviews – who with Ramzi witnessed the golden age of Pakistani cinema in the 50s and 60s and then lived through the decline and the current revival – is somewhat cautious.

“There is no guarantee that we will have three hit films next year because we had them this year. Local filmmakers need to work on storylines, scripting and screenplay as there is a dearth of talent in those fields.”

Ramzi adds that perhaps local technical talent and directors should spend some time in India learning the ropes before making more films.

The good news, despite the challenges is that the success and popularity of this year’s efforts in film will encourage others to venture into this field next year. We may or may not have better films, but what is certain is that there will be local films and in all likelihood, more of them.

Welcome to a new age of Pakistani cinema, one that is set to change the entertainment scene forever.

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