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Dr Strange, Pakistani Eid releases and what no one understands

The problems are many and can't be reduced to the release of a single movie or the timings of a single cinema.
Published 12 May, 2022 04:34pm

On May 7, filmmakers and distributors associated with the release of Chakkar, Dum Mastam and Parde Mein Rehnee Do (surprisingly missing were representatives of Ghabrana Nahi Hai) held a press conference to bring an important matter to the public eye — according to the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979 (published March 8, 1980), Rule 31, sub-sections 1 and 2 stipulate that foreign movies that have acquired censor certificates can only play on 15% of the screens in Pakistan if domestically produced films are competing for screen space.

This forward-thinking directive was made to ensure that Pakistani films don’t get trampled by international productions that are — obviously — better made, and in front of whom our own wares may not be able to hold up.

However, Saturday's press conference came too late to make a difference. Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (henceforth referred to as Dr. Strange) — the purported destroyer of local movies that also gave cinema a grand payday with its (so far unconfirmed) advanced ticket sales of Rs30 million — had already made it to the screens a day earlier.

Photo: Arts Council Pakistan
Photo: Arts Council Pakistan

The big domestically-produced Eid releases mentioned above, including Ghabrana Nahi Hai and Tere Bajre Di Raakhi, hardly had three days’ run on the screens. As far as competition goes, they had no chance.

Lines formed at the ticket windows for Dr. Strange — suddenly the ticket prices that ranged between Rs500 and Rs1,500 became chump change for buyers who often complain about the high cost of going to the movies.

According to inside reports, Pakistani films had negligible (if any) advance ticket sales. But that was expected, and so were the walk-in customers, according to distributors.

And show up the people did — in throngs nonetheless (as witnessed by yours truly) — from the second day of Eid after word of mouth spread for local films. After all, Pakistani films this year were of better quality than most of our routinely produced wares. All they needed was the right momentum to kick-in.

Waiting for miracles to happen

I didn’t go to the press conference because I knew what the filmmakers would have talked about — there would be pleas to the government, followed by proclamations of not producing films from this point onwards if exhibitors (ie cinema owners) didn’t play fair.

But with no fair-play policy in place and the government pulling a magical disappearing act after weeks of dogged pursuit (the last push came from a distributor just yesterday; the current minister of information, however, is not in country at the moment), what can one do?

Looking at the situation from an impartial point of view, it’s not like distributors and producers didn’t know that Dr. Strange had a May 6 release date months back — or that it would take all of them down in a single fell swoop because of deliberate and damaging scheduling from cinema owners (showtimes for Pakistani films are horrendous in some cinemas; they are given mid-day or afternoon shows, while Dr. Strange has every prime-slot in the evening and night).

I had suggested to the filmmakers and decision-making stakeholders that if they wanted to indulge in a press conference, it should have taken place mid-Ramazan. The filmmakers and their distributors, however, waited for miracles to happen.

But then again, the root of the problem — or should I say “problems” — stems way further back than last month.

The root of dissidence, the (not so) ‘risky’ solution and yet another sign of looming doom

The first issue at hand is with the gradual opening of movies, bad economy and the lack of interest from general audiences.

Charting annual business returns of nationally-released Pakistani movies between 2013 and 2019, one sees unmissable signs of maturing audience tastes (an analysis of this topic needs a lengthy feature of its own).

People only buy tickets for films that have stars they want to see and quality they can appreciate in genres that appeal to their sensibilities.

Most of these productions are high-profile popcorn selling entertainers, dramas and comedies that have proven to only work on Eid, thanks in no part to our industry’s default thinking of exclusively capitalising on a holiday where the masses are happy to shell out big bucks of their own volition. What distributors almost never pushed for were non-Eid event dates, like Valentine’s Day or summer holidays (FYI, we’re not getting into a debate of whether celebrating events like Christmas or Valentine’s Day is right or not, we’re looking at the dates from a business point of view where audiences, especially youngsters, have shown interest in coming to the movies).

Bachaana, a romance-action film released by HUM Films and Eveready Pictures, was the only film that made use of Valentine’s Day. Teefa in Trouble was the only film that cashed in on the mid-summer dates — it was a crafty play by Nadeem Mandviwalla and Ali Zafar. The third example that comes to mind is the Asim Raza directed and ARY Films distributed Ho Mann Jahaan, which came out on the unlikeliest of dates of January 1 — and still performed.

If the industry doesn’t put in the legwork to take risks in creating audience interest on dates other than Eid, then you can’t blame people for not caring about cinema for the rest of the year. But then again, the problem goes back to my childhood, so it’s not a new dilemma or trend.

A simple resolution to the problem would be to “risk” releasing tentpole productions that are too big to fail on dates other than Eid. For example, releasing Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad or The Legend of Maula Jatt (whenever the latter is due) in mid-summer or September — typically a time when the box-office goes in decline — would be ideal…if that is, getting audience interest in movies is a priority for the film fraternity.

Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad, by the way, is set to release this Eidul Azha, competing against the Humayun Saeed starrer London Nahi Jaunga. Reportedly, so will the Fawad Khan multi-starrer heist-actioner Money Back Guarantee (but this news is unconfirmed so far).

Call it sheer coincidence, but Pakistani movies aren’t the only films banking on Eid for business. Marvel wants a piece of the pie as well, and to ensure that the studio gets the biggest piece, they are releasing Thor: Love and Thunder on July 8.

Eidul Azha is expected to fall on July 10, so essentially, we will be seeing a similar crisis play out at that time — if we don’t learn from our mistakes right now.

Let me give you a hint: we won’t.

But wait…Is Hollywood really that big of a problem?

No, it isn’t. And no, despite ecstatic proclamations by the press to “save” Hollywood (it doesn’t need saving), without Hollywood, what are exhibitors going to show throughout the year at the movies?

The root of the argument is not to “ban”. The pleas is to delay the films for days — not weeks — so that local movies get a chance to run. But an interesting aspect of this conversation is that there are just a handful of films which audiences actually turn out in numbers for. Throughout the rest of the year, few films do good — forget great — business.

In sequential order, here is the list that intimidates our filmmakers — Top Gun: Maverick (May 27), Jurassic World Dominion (June 10), Ms. Marvel (between June and July), Minions: The Rise of Gru (July 1), the aforementioned Thor: Love and Thunder (July 8), Bullet Train (July 29), Black Adam (October 21), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (November 11), Avatar: The Way of Water (December 16), Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (both December 21).

That’s 10 titles between May and December. In a way, that’s less than nothing because cinemas have accommodated more than two big titles every week a few years back.

Fair play — what’s that?

The biggest problem, when it comes to movie exhibition, is fair play. The culprits here are producers, distributors and exhibitors (ie cinema owners). Let’s take two recent incidents as a point of reference. Exhibitors love business — they are, literally, in the business of selling tickets, and not intellectually investing in the art of filmmaking. They care little about what ‘Wood’ the audience comes for — be it Hollywood, Bollywood (when it was allowed in the country) or the defunct, now often ridiculed term of ‘Lollywood’. The showtimes are largely dependent on audience demand. Ergo, the phenomenal footfall for Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr. Strange.

Post-Covid, however, cinema owners have gone stark-raving mad, when it comes to capitalising on international films that are guaranteed successes. See, during the almost three-year coronavirus shutdown of the film exhibition business, most cinema chains closed shop because rental prices of their premises were eating away profits (most cinemas were in malls), and in some cases the rentals landed the owners in debt.

To make up for their near-gargantuan losses, cinema owners don’t want to take chances on films that may perform (‘may’ being the operative keyword here).

Mandviwalla Entertainment, whose owner manages ME Cinemas at Atrium and Centaurus Malls (in Karachi and Islamabad respectively), chose to cut shows for Kahay Dil Jidhar — a film they were distributing — in favour of Spider-Man: No Way Home because it was good for business.

This was the very reason that petrified the makers of Chakkar, Dum Mastam, Parde Mein Rehne Do and Tere Bajre Di Raakhi.

If intelligence and fair play was on the cards, and the hunger to get rich quick was curbed for a second, a written deal would have been struck months in advance between distributors, exhibitors and filmmakers, where exhibitors would be bound to give two-third of screens to domestically produced movies, and not exceed one-third shows for international productions.

Remember — no one is lending an ear to the Motion Picture Ordinances’ rule of giving 15% screens to foreign films, so this may just be a better state of compromise. That would be fair-play — to an extent.

Blame the audience for enjoying piracy

History has shown that delaying international films is not a solution.

No Time to Die and the last instalment of The Fast and Furious came to Pakistani screens weeks after their global releases. By that time, fans of the franchises had already seen pirated versions of the films. The distributors, therefore, are in a fix to release the film on-time and without delay.

In the case of Dr. Strange, I stand with the filmmakers that it should have been delayed for another week so that Pakistani films could get an additional week of revenue from word-of-mouth reviews.

So far, box office wise, we have a business estimation of Rs200 million, according to Ali Zain, who charts movie numbers. As per Zain's report (which came out two days back), in the last six days, Ghabrana Nahi Hai has crossed Rs47 million, Dum Mastam Rs40 million, Parde Mein Rehne Do has Rs24 million, Chakkar Rs17.2 million and Dr. Strange — which only had three days run at the time — has Rs70 million. Considering their budgets — they range between Rs70 and Rs40 million — everyone is at a loss.

While the numbers aren’t provided by distributors and can be contested, the general ballpark of these estimates makes sense and corroborates, to an extent, my own findings.

It also upholds another fear of the film trade — the terror of losing audience interest.

See, once a new major blockbuster title hits the screens (be it from any ‘Wood’), it breaks audiences’ momentum for other titles. Once that momentum is lost, the film that takes the hit and hardly — if ever — recovers.

A week’s delay would not have affected Dr. Strange much, but it could have saved Pakistani movies by giving them an opportunity to get a measure of Dr. Strange’s Rs70 million earnings.

Also, lest we forget, filmmakers had other, more pressing, issues to contend with, like fair play when it comes to scheduling shows between Pakistani films.

Nueplex is not the problem

Time and again this writer had been told to report Nueplex Cinema’s unfair scheduling of Eid films. In all honesty, that was to be expected.

Nueplex is owned by Jamil Baig who also produced Ghabrana Nahi Hai. As a product of the JB Group (the parent company that owns both his production label and the cinemas), there was never any question of whether their own film would get more shows in its own cinema chain. We’re not living in America, where there is actually a fair-play policy governing the exhibition of motion pictures.

The reason everyone is riled up at Nueplex’s “injustice” is because of the influence it holds on the overall box office in Pakistan. The cinema chain has only two venues, but it gives the country more than 20% of the business. Losing shows at Nueplex means losing a good chunk of that revenue.

But since this is business, and since every cinema owner is more than happy giving Dr. Strange most of their screens, why would Nueplex do otherwise? I mean, Mandviwalla Entertainment did the same for Kahay Dil Jidhar.

There is a Facebook picture posted by JB Films that shows the camaraderie of the film fraternity. The still has Adnan Siddiqui, Yasir Nawaz, Nida Yasir, Wajahat Rauf, Shazia Wajahat, Hassan Zia and Jamil Baig “exchanging best wishes” as they “discussed the strategy for future films”.

With the exception of Dr. Strange, Nueplex is largely keeping with their word when it comes to playing fair with local filmmakers. According to a showtime listing of Nueplex’s Askari multiplex (dated May 6), the cinema had divided shows as best as possible by allotting showtimes according to the duration of the movies. Whenever possible, titles were given their own screens.

As per May 12’s listings, Nueplex DHA has 10 shows of Dr. Strange, five shows of Ghabrana Nahi Hai, three shows of Dum Mastam and Parde Mein Rehne Do and two shows of Chakkar. At their Askari cinema, Dr. Strange has 17 shows, there are seven shows of Parde Mein Rehne Do, Dum Mastam, Chakkar and Ghabrana Nahi Hai and one show of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

For this writer, a bigger story than Nueplex is the allotment of shows at other cinema chains. Universal Cinemas, for example, opened advance booking a week before Eid. At the time, the listing for May 4 gave Dum Mastam 19 shows, Ghabrana Nahi Hai 15 shows, Parde Mein Rehne Do 12 shows, and Chakkar and Tere Bajre Di Raakhi four shows each.

How are these numbers fair, and how did the cinema owner decide why one film had preference over the other — especially since, at the time, only three of the five films had gotten censor certificates? As is the norm of the trade, word of mouth about ‘alleged’ quality and appeal of a film travels fast within the industry after the censor screening, but that couldn’t have been the case when two films were still to be previewed…right?

So, were the advanced placement and preference of shows a result of personal relations or other behind the scenes politics? Probably.

If press had to be called on May 7, then they should have been called for this wrongdoing. But no one uttered a peep.

We in the film business are dying! But why doesn’t anyone care?

The film business is war — and war is dirty.

I am given examples that some shows on the first and second day of Eid were pre-sold to corporate customers. If one looks at the bigger picture — and the stratagem at play — then pre-sold shows would give that one film the lead when tickets are tallied at the end of the day.

In business, an edge is an edge, no matter how you look at it, but that doesn’t make the practice fair, especially when it comes to giving every player a fair chance to perform.

No one, especially from the press, seems to wage a war on that front. Or for that matter — in Dr. Strange’s case — investigate and question why a film was given a censor certificate a day after it had been shown in cinemas.

The date of issue on the censor certificate is May 7, while the film debuted in cinemas a day earlier on May 6.

But then again, as I keep iterating, time and again in this very long piece, unfairness is the name of the game in Pakistan — a minuscule market that doesn’t even deserve the label of an industry.

Here, rules fail and issues abound, so is it any wonder that neither the press — who are in the habit of screaming on less substantial issues, but not the ones I’ve mentioned — nor the audience, cares for what happens in the film business.

But you can’t really blame the audience, and the press doesn’t (nor does it want to) understand the delicateness of this and other situations. Entertainment journalists scream about quality and content, comparing Pakistani films to foreign content without accepting the gargantuan differences between countries and their penchants for filmmaking.

You can’t compare Bollywood to Hollywood, Hollywood to Iran, Iran to Europe, Europe to South Korea, South Korea to China, or China to Japan. These are different markets, with their own distinctive approach to just about everything, be it storytelling or business practices.

Our journalists — at least most of them — have inane arguments about what you wear, or why belting out immediate judgment on matters and people is newsworthy. Interviews, rapid-fire questions, questions that lead to masala and gossip sells.

On the topic of cinema what matters to everyone is what’s playing at the multiplex or how badly what they’ve seen has irked them. Sorting out the business messes is the stakeholder’s headache.

If these are called desperate times, you’re dead wrong — times have always been desperate when it comes to Pakistani films. However, one thing is certain — if you lose the audience now, and do not change the way the film business works, there is little to no chance of winning the audience’s trust back when it comes to local movies. And let me tell you, the film business cannot survive on Hollywood movies alone. The general public can already sense that this is a failing business. Smarten up.