"People are going to restaurants and malls. Why wouldn’t they go to the movies?” asks director Nabeel Qureshi.
His movie Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad, starring Fahad Mustafa and Mahira Khan, is ready for release and Nabeel and Fizza Ali Meerza, his producer at Filmwala Pictures, are considering a December 2020 release date.
It’s a declaration that has Pakistan’s film fraternity raising skeptical eyebrows – cinemas are mostly still closed due to the coronavirus although a small smattering has started opening up.
Most major cinemas are only willing to resume business once they have enough content to air on their screens so that they can make up for their running costs.
This may happen by November this year when Agent 007 is expected to stalk into our lives and begin saving the Pakistani film industry. But even so, there is a chance that the fear of getting infected by the virus may dissuade audiences from buying tickets in droves.
There is also the niggling concern that once cinemas do open, the number of available screens may have dwindled.
Some cinemas may have closed down, unable to recover from the losses endured all through last year – a year when money-minting Bollywood movies got banned and the local industry released a spate of flops – with a final unequivocal blow delivered by the coronavirus lockdown.
The paltry 75 screens that Pakistani cinema had so far built up may have receded to much less. Less screens means less profits.
Knowing this, even though a number of Pakistani movies wrapped up production some time ago and are all set for release, most local filmmakers are opting to wait until a time comes when visiting an enclosed cinema is no longer a health hazard. This could take several months.
We may be looking at summer next year when, inevitably, movie releases may habitually cluster around an Eid date. But Nabeel and Fizza have weighed the pros and cons and are not inclined towards waiting for so long.
“We released our first movie, Na Maloom Afraad, to limited screens back in 2014. We’ll just do it again,” says Fizza. “And yes, there may be less cinemas but that will be the case even next year. Why wait? I do think that people will come and see the movie. We are all social animals and we naturally gravitate towards going out, meeting people and doing things together.
There have been so many times when people have predicted that cinema will die: when TV channels launched, VCR’s became popular, Netflix took over and now, during the coronavirus crisis. But the love for going to see the movies has never died.”
If events go as planned – and the world doesn’t come to another halt by another spike of Covid-19 – then Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad will be the first Pakistani movie to venture into cinemas in many, many months.
It will probably be joined by major Hollywood releases, James Bond being one of them and Wonder Woman 1984, delayed by three months, and now eyeing Christmas 2020.
But as far as local releases go, QuaideAzam Zindabad will be the first to take the lead; a flag bearer indicating that other production houses also need to take a risk.
“We may have fewer screens now but if local content doesn’t release because of this, there will be even less screens by next year. We can’t let that happen,” says Fizza.
2021 could turn out to be fabulous for Pakistani cinema
Other producers are not willing to forsake the chance to earn greater profits just to save cinemas. Jerjees Seja, CEO of ARY Digital, says that he’s going to ‘wait and see’ before he releases ARY Films’ latest production, Tich Button, a movie that is complete and would have originally released on Eid this year.
Ammara Hikmat, producer of the long delayed The Legend of Maula Jutt, only wants to release at a time when the movie can be seen by a maximum audience, thereby making up for the heavy costs incurred in its making. A large chunk of Wajahat Rauf’s Parde Mein Rehne Do, starring Ali Rehman Khan and Hania Aamir, had already been shot when the coronavirus lockdown weighed in.
Now, Wajahat has opted to work on a TV drama before resuming the movie’s shoot in December this year so that it can be primed for a summer 2021 release.
Adnan Siddiqui, whose cinematic production debut, Dam Mastam is complete, says that he has poured his ‘heart, soul and dime’ into the venture and will only release it at a time when cinemas are operating normally again.
This may mean that, the coronavirus notwithstanding, 2021 will be a great year for the release of local movies. “Next year may turn out to be so great that cinemas’ losses over the past few years may get covered,” predicts Wajahat Rauf hopefully.
But amidst this talk of a thriving cinema in a post-Covid 2021 and of saving screens so that cinema does not die, the elephant in the room does not get addressed: What’s going to happen in 2022?
2022 may be the toughest year for Pakistani cinema
Nadeem Mandviwalla, producer and owner of Atrium Cinemas, may be expecting thriving ticket sales in 2021 but he’s also dreading the inevitable dearth of local content come 2022.
“Pakistani producers are all going to release their movies next year which means that very few movies will go under production for 2022. Even if four to five movies do get completed, they won’t be enough to keep local cinemas going.”
He continues, “even before the coronavirus, cinemas were suffering huge losses. In my own experience, this is the Atrium Cinemas’ 10th year and our revenue never slid down to negative numbers until last year.
Bollywood movies got banned and our ticket sales immediately went down. The coronavirus has only made things worse. We are counting on 2021 to bring back revenue but cinema-owners and private producers have suffered a lot. We need incentives in order to continue investing into the local film industry.”
There was a time when these incentives for profits were ably supplied by Bollywood. Adnan Khan, the Head of Marketing and Sales at Cinepax, feels that this is no longer possible.
“Indian movies won’t be screening in Pakistan as long as the Kashmir issue remains unresolved. Also, the Indian government has banned the airing of their content in our country. Bollywood is not an option anymore.”
What other incentives could there be? “The government could invest into local productions,” suggests Nadeem Mandviwalla.
“That’s the only way that cinemas will continue to run. If 30 to 40 movies are annually financed by the government, there will be enough local content to keep bringing in revenue. Also, with enough screens available to ensure maximum viewership, private producers will feel encouraged and will make more movies. From 2001 to 2006, 250 cinemas closed down in the Punjab and the Pakistani film industry fell into ruins. We can’t let that happen again.”
Does he think that the government may take an interest in the plight of cinema owners and filmmakers?
“The government has so many priorities but we need to bring our concerns to its attention. We need to make sure that we get prioritised. And we need to do it now.”
Remaining oblivious to the potential crisis in 2022 could be disastrous for the local film industry.
“If the Pakistani film industry only realises the crisis before by late next year, it will be already too late. We need to cry out ‘May Day!’ right now so that by next year, 20 to 30 movies go on the floor and more new content keeps getting created,” says Mandviwalla.
How else could cinema be revived after 2021’s heavy influx of movies wanes away? Actor and producer Shaan Shahid, whose high-budget action thriller Zarrar is also slotted for a release next year, points out that ticket prices need to be reduced in order to bring in more crowds.
“Theatres in Lahore are running to full houses right now,” he points out. “But cinema has now eliminated the masses by becoming a medium for the elite. Punjabi cinema kept the industry going for 50 years before its demise. People may have criticised our movies but they brought in the crowds and revenue.
The new breed of Pakistani filmmakers talk about reaping crores of profits when they are selling tickets at Rs 700 or more. Back in the late ‘90’s, Syed Noor’s film Chooriyan hauled in huge earnings despite tickets costing Rs 150 apiece.”
Thinking beyond Eid
Coming back to Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza, the filmmakers feel that there is hope yet. “If we release Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad this year, then we will definitely make two more movies next year,” plans out Fizza. “And we intend to support other independent filmmakers with their projects. There will be new content coming out. Things may be bad and profits may be low for a while but we’re willing to risk that.”
Nabeel muses, “If we just had business in mind, we would have probably wanted to time our release for next year as well. But we’re very passionate about what we do. We have so many more stories to tell.”
At a point when it is yet to gain strength and is crippled with yearly losses, it is passion – and only passion – that can save Pakistani cinema. Incidentally, prior to this, Filmwala Pictures had always opted to release their movies on Eid-ul-Adha. It has taken the coronavirus, and their love for making movies, to convince them to target a new, non-festive date.
Other filmmakers need to follow suit: bear with lower profits so that they can save the industry and gain greater profits in the long term. They also need to start thinking beyond Eid release dates. Pakistani cinema is barely surviving right now and next year, movie releases need to be spaced out equally. An Eid gridlock is the last thing it needs.