Don't celebrate Pakistan's return to the movies just yet

Updated 10 Jul, 2021 11:44am

There’s not much of a pipeline of international films and the problems of Pakistan’s film industry remain.

If the return of Pakistani cinema houses had a trailer, it would sound like this: “This summer, Pakistani cinema will be saved by one film: Fast and the Furious 9 (F9).”

By the time you read this, cinema owners would be warming up their projectors and dusting off their carpets to welcome audiences. So yeah, this is a time of great joy…just don’t pop the party-poppers yet.

Say what you will, the filmmaking community — especially distributors, producers and exhibitors — is tenacious. Ever since the pandemic and its subsequent restrictions shuttered movie screens, everyone has been relying on F9 as the saviour. And how can they not? It is by far one of the highest-grossing franchises in the country.

Call it dumb luck or karmic timing — both the reopening of cinemas and F9’s release dates have been repeatedly pushed back since the coronavirus pandemic hit. According to executives F9 — and the upcoming James Bond title No Time to Die — were always deemed to be rejuvenators of Pakistani cinema…provided that our screens opened at the same time.

The good news is cinemas are re-opening. The bad news is there’s not much of a pipeline of international films and the problems of Pakistan’s film industry remain as they were…

But F9 is just one film, and one title cannot help the industry get back on its feet, especially when the film has already been out on movie pirate sites for the past few weeks.

Everyone in the film biz disagrees.

People who want to watch F9 will watch it on the big screens no matter what, I’m told. Box office predictions range from 150 to 300 million rupees (I agree with the former figure). Nevertheless, a big question remains: can one title be spread-eagled over every screen at the multiplex?

Some, bewilderingly, nod yes.

And what about the issues the industry had when it closed down? Won’t those carry over when cinemas reopen as well, since few are resolved, as per this writer’s knowledge.

Let’s tackle the problems one by one.

The biggest impediment are governmental prerequisites.

According to the NCOC (National Command and Operation Centre), to reopen, cinema and distributors associations need to vaccinate all staff members — a no-brainer — and there are two catches: (a) the occupancy cap would be 70 percent (an aspect still under negotiation, last I heard); and (b) only customers with vaccination certificates will be able to buy movie tickets.

The crowd one sees in stores and bazaars have already forsaken masks (most never wore it), sanitiser sales are down, so don’t expect audiences to carry vaccination certificates in their pockets when they go to movies, nor expect the rule to be regulated after a week or so of its implementation.

And what about those under 18 years of age, who have no vaccinations available to them? Will they have to stay away from the cinemas?

An alternative would be to enforce social distancing in shows, which cuts down the occupancy to half. Since a screen needs 20-30 percent occupancy (depending on screen size and seats) to maintain operational costs, running a cinema at 50 percent is a no-go.

The second issue is the number of titles being released.

Before Covid-19, Pakistan saw an average release of three to four big titles per week from Hollywood. The regular inflow of variety gave audiences a reason to come back to cinemas. The business wasn’t spectacular by any means, but it was enough to keep cinemas running.

Now, take a gander at the international release schedule: the number of releases has slid down to one — or in some cases two — per week.

Here’s the list for the inclined: June 25, F9: The Fast Saga (Fast and Furious 9); July 2, The Boss Baby: Family Business, The Forever Purge; July 9, Black Widow; July 16, Space Jam: A New Legacy; July 23, Old (from M. Night Shyamalan), Snake Eyes; August 6, The Suicide Squad; August 13, Free Guy; August 20, Reminiscence; August 27, Candyman.

That’s 11 titles in two months. Most big titles, such as the Tom Hanks-starring science-fiction drama Finch, for example, have been shifted to Apple TV+. Previously, Hanks’ Greyhound, was sold to Apple TV+, and the international rights to News of the World went to Netflix.

Infinite, a Mark Wahlberg science-fiction action-thriller was shifted at the last minute from theatrical to Paramount+ in a bid to entice new subscribers to the OTT platform. Luca, a major Pixar title, was shifted to Disney+ as well.

International releases of some OTT’s titles are open to negotiations; however, they hold little value because high quality pirated copies ripped from OTTs make their way to the web on the same day.

Mulan and Tenet failed miserably at the box-office in Pakistan last September, when the strategy of releasing films that were already available online in pristine quality was tried out.

Despite the steep decline in business, some cinemas chose to open for a month, but the strain of regulations and the lack of audience interest forced them to close shop.

While audiences may yet go to see F9, since it hasn’t been sold to a streaming platform yet, I don’t see much sense in importing titles that are already available to audiences via OTTs or piracy.

Pakistani films — especially the ones that matter at the box-office — present their own share of complications.

First some good news: most major titles are on the verge of completion (the only major title yet to finish its shooting schedule is the Humayun Saeed-starrer London Nahin Jaunga which, as the title expounds, needs to be shot in London).

Major titles raring to go are: Ghabrana Nahin Hai (JB Films), Tich Button (ARY Films), Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad (Eveready), Parday Mein Rehnay Do (Eveready), Chakkar (Eveready), Money Back Guarantee (Distribution Club), Neelofer (Distribution Club), Dum Mastam (purportedly, Hum Films) and The Legend of Maula Jatt, Zarrar, Ishrat Made in China (no distributor attached yet in these cases).

If staggered on a monthly basis along with riskier titles (Yaare Vey, Peechay Tau Dekho, Sheenogai), box-office would reach a new benchmark.

Now the bad news: expecting a staggered approach from the industry is hoping for too much.

More bad news: with Eid-ul-Azha holidays right round the corner, everyone will once again start fighting for Eid slots.

Cinemas should start with a bang, that’s for certain, and the only titles I see coming out on Eid-ul-Azha, which coincidentally is two to three weeks after F9, are Ghabrana Nahin Hai, Tich Button and Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad.

With a steep annual decline between 2017-19, the October till March period has always been bad for the business of cinema. Ho Mann Jahaan, directed by Asim Raza, was the only breakthrough that grossed over 200 million rupees worldwide. Sacch, the last big release before the coronavirus pandemic, stupefied the industry when it grossed a mere 800,000 rupees during its entire weekend run; the box-office, even on bad times on these dates, is assumed to be between four and 10 million rupees.

With distributors still choosing Eid dates to release films, I see no difference between now and the years before. It’s like reliving a cruel rut time after time.

Then there is the issue of cash flow and dues between exhibitors and distributors, which blew up after Bollywood was banned. With less business coming in, the income from the ticket window was used to run the film exhibition business. Because of long payback times — sometimes up to six months — Pakistani distributors weren’t able to repay international distributors.

Cinema chains — with exception to Jamil Baig’s Nueplex — collectively, still owe distributors around 500 million rupees in dues.

When movies reopen, neither the past dues nor the present ones may be paid off in time. During discussions, cinema owners will argue that fewer titles are being imported in Pakistan, or that operation costs are too high, or that there is a scarcity of big releases during non-holiday months.

An agreement, purportedly, has been reached, where exhibitors have a two-week window to repay distributors. How that holds up is a topic for future deliberation.

As a cinephile whose job is reliant on movies, the news of cinemas reopening is spectacular. Realistically though, wishing for an intelligent resolution to issues, and industry-wide camaraderie, is an idealistic dream.

For the consumer who has nothing to do with the industry’s problems, being able to go back to the movies may just be great news, period.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 4th, 2021

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