Pakistani cinema is once again facing an existential crisis

Published 23 Jun, 2022 11:05am

The real question is, can Pakistani films survive the fallout?

Photo: Humayun Saeed /Instagram
Photo: Humayun Saeed /Instagram

On Monday June 6, Capri Cinema — one of the few remaining successful and very affordable single-screen cinemas in Karachi — pulled down its shutters until Thursday, June 9. While the notice on their Facebook page didn’t state the cause for the brief closure, the reason was obvious: people simply aren’t showing up to see movies.

At least not for most films. And at least not on weekdays.

An advertisement snapped from a newspaper accompanied the post, announcing that the cinema would reopen on June 10 with Jurassic World: Dominion.

Parday Mein Rehnay Do
Parday Mein Rehnay Do

Between June 3 and 5 — i.e.. Friday, Saturday and Sunday — the cinema that houses 807 seats rotated shows of Khel (an amateurishly made Pakistani film for kids in the vein of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five, which came and went without notice), Kamli, Ghabrana Nahi Hai (GNH), Iron Mask (a Chinese-Russian co-production starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan in brief parts), Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (Dr Strange 2) and Top Gun: Maverick, which had been running solo the entire previous week.

With audiences not turning up to the theatres, even for supposedly blockbuster Hollywood fare, the cinema business in Pakistan is once again facing an existential crisis. Some cinemas are even contemplating running their businesses only on weekends. Can Pakistani films survive the fallout?

This was not the first time Capri Cinema pulled down the curtain over its massive cinema screen. The cinema had closed shop a week before as well — from May 23-27. Before that week, Capri had been accommodating shows of Dr Strange 2 while intermittently supporting Pakistani releases Chakkar, Parde Mein Rehne Do, Dum Mastam, GNH and two shows of Rishtay.

Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad
Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad

Some cite Capri’s decision to stop operations during the weekdays as due to the management’s inability to pay off its electricity dues, though it’s likely more than that. But even if that were the sole reason, one cannot deny that the management of the cinema is on to an idea.

Since the audience is not showing up, and a cinema screen needs at least 10 per cent to 20 per cent occupancy to hit a no-profit-no-loss scenario at a given show (depending on the cost of the ticket and the number of seats it has), it’s best to cease operations until weekends, when audiences are more willing to spend money at the movies.

Cinema owners have long been lamenting the issue of high operational costs. In fact, this was the prime reason why multiplexes weren’t inclined to open business even after Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed by the government.

Multiplex owners would argue, at times at great length, about the diminishing returns of the business. Their string of concerns always had the following contentions: (a) films, especially locally produced movies, appear to alienate audiences; (b) producers of titles that have a measure of quality often fight with each other for screen space during the Eid holidays and cinemas can only afford so many titles per holiday; and (c) that skyrocketing inflation is making the business unsustainable.

Like any tenant renting an apartment, cinema owners have rent to pay (there are few custom-made multiplexes in Pakistan; most screens are housed in shopping malls) and electricity and maintenance bills to take care of.

While these are legitimate trepidations, they aren’t the only causes of concern for the film business.

An internal war between producers, distributors and exhibitors had already been on slow-boil before the coronavirus pandemic-enforced shutdowns. Cinema owners had longstanding debts to distributors and producers after the business took a near-fatal blow when the import of Bollywood films stopped in Pakistan.

As everyone with some sense feared — and as history has proved, time and again — Hollywood and local films cannot sustain the film exhibition business in Pakistan.

Chakkar
Chakkar

Rather than come together to formulate a solution for a fledgling “industry” (the general public, and even the press, laughs at this term), the three factions chose to wage war, fighting over loose change and leftovers. It was a disheartening sight to behold.

Distributors — the prominent ones are ARY and Hum (who primarily support Pakistani films), Eveready, HKC, Distribution Club, Cinepax (formerly Footprint) and Metro Live Movies, (Geo Films hardly functions anymore) — fought to snatch the business of international films from each other.

Sources from the industry, requesting anonymity, confirmed to Icon that the battle has been unethical. While exact details aren’t clear, what has been confirmed is that imported films once had a good-enough revenue stake for local distributors. Deals were dependent on studios and the franchises they had, but Pakistani distributors made good money from high-performing Hollywood titles.

The business wasn’t dead yet. International studios were divided between the aforementioned distributors, and the playing field was even… until new deals were struck at rates detrimental to the overall business of importing films in Pakistan.

The new deals, as Icon has learnt, net local distributors only between 10 and 15 percent commissions on the film’s entire revenue. Previously, a distributor would bring in a title for a flat 100,000 dollars to 300,000 dollars and, if the title worked at the box-office, the deal would pay off in spades (on average, a foreign film made 400,000 dollars). Titles brought in on commissions give a big chunk of the income back to the international distributor. The amount a Pakistani distributor gets today barely — if at all — covers the cost of operations.

Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick

Most local distributors dropped out of the race and, today, all major international studios — Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros. Universal, Disney/Fox — and their subsidiary slates are represented only by Cinepax and HKC.

The two companies also own their own cinema chains — Cinepax and Cinestar — so payback durations are quicker, as dictated by the new distribution terms of studios (late payback to local distributors from cinemas was also a longstanding problem).

This was one of the first signs of an industry-wide duopoly in the pre-Covid-19 days.

Post-Eid-ul-Fitr, after the recent court case from the producers of Chakkar, Dum Mastam and Parday Mein Rehnay Do, the infighting took a turn for the worse.

For those not in the know, the producers argued that cinema owners should delay Dr Strange 2 by a week, because that would give their films a fighting chance in this bad economy.

Dr Strange 2
Dr Strange 2

The overall daily business potential of cinema in the country, at this time, is 63 million rupees (derived from an average ticket price of 700 rupees, 150 screens of 200 seats, and three shows per screen). For 10 holiday days, which this past Eid had, the overall box-office reached an estimated peak of 300 million rupees (actual figures aren’t available to press at this time); 70 million rupees, approximately, went to Dr Strange — which, as it turned out, was the only film that managed advance booking.

While, again, actual figures aren’t available, Dr Strange didn’t turn out to be the blockbuster it was touted to be. The film has made only 150 million rupees till now. According to distributors, it had a potential of raking in 250 million rupees. But then again, not every film can be Spider-Man: No Way Home, which crossed the 310 million rupees mark domestically.

Most other titles failed. The Batman brought in less than 100 million rupees, and Top Gun: Maverick will have likely snailed its way past 120 million rupees by the time you read this.

Pakistani films have performed worse. Kahay Dil Jidhar, Khel Khel Mein and Ishrat Made in China have made approximately five million rupees, 60 million rupees and 10 million rupees, respectively — though these figures are yet to be confirmed.

Is it really the fault of the cinema owners if they give Hollywood films a higher pedestal, since Pakistani films aren’t working out? And is that really a problem that can’t be talked over like sensible adults?

Khel Khel Mein
Khel Khel Mein

It doesn’t seem that way.

A lot of missteps had taken place during the last few months. Firstly, rather than five, only two Pakistani films should have debuted this Eid. The per film division of screens would have been more even, and the box-office stake better. A better box-office performance would have encouraged audiences to give the other films a chance during the summer holidays. At the very least, cinema owners would have got their wish to get a regular stream of high-profile movies at regular intervals.

For the time being, it would have made a difference, and perhaps brokered a way to bring about a level-headed discussion about the other big elephant in the room: fair play.

In 1948, the US Supreme Court decreed that studios that produced and distributed movies could not operate cinemas, because it would be a conflict of interest (the landmark case was called The Hollywood Anti-Trust Case of 1948, or the United States v Paramount Pictures Inc).

In Pakistan, fair play doesn’t exist. A few years ago, a consortium made by distributors that owned cinema chains came together to form a film production company called Excellency. The key players in the mix were Nueplex, Cinepax and HKC, and the intention was a simple one: for exhibitors to take matters in their own hands and produce quality movies in Pakistan.

Ghabrana Nahi Hai
Ghabrana Nahi Hai

As the owners of cinema chains — the three companies collectively own over 60 percent of the film exhibition business, if not more — there was an evident conflict of interest in exhibiting their films against rival productions. That was the case when their first production — the Nabeel Qureshi-directed, Fizza Ali Meerza-produced Na Maloom Afraad 2 (NMA 2) — came out at the same time as Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ).

Initially, NMA 2 had more shows than PNJ. However, outcry from the press and pressure from audiences, who favoured PNJ, gave the film distributed by ARY a better run at the box-office.

While Excellency is no longer there, the situation almost repeated itself when JB Group, the owners of Nueplex, launched JB Films and their maiden production, Ghabrana Nahin Hai (GNH), which came out with Chakkar, Dum Mastam, Parday Mein Rehnay Do and Tere Baajray Di Raakhi (the last title never made it to Sindh because the province had no screens to give).

GNH had better shows at Nueplex in the first few days but that changed soon after. The film eventually ended up having the same number of shows in the following weeks as the other Pakistani titles. However, Dr Strange 2 continued to have more shows throughout its run because of audience demand.

Dum Mastam
Dum Mastam

Although there is little that can be done now for the other three films’ box office, the legal suit in the Sindh High Court, by the producers against cinema owners, brought to light an old clause from the Motion Picture Ordinance of Pakistan. It stipulates that foreign films cannot exceed a quota of 15 pc if Pakistani films are playing at the same time. The court ordered that the Ordinance’s rules be followed, but the cinema owners didn’t comply.

Clearly in contempt, the legal skirmish escalated matters.

A cinema owner told me that if things get out of hand, he would have to shut down the business; it’s already too expensive to maintain costs, he says.

Ishrat Made In China
Ishrat Made In China

Recently Nueplex released their branding rates to distributors for putting up posters, standees, panaflexes and running trailers. The cost ranges from 10,000 rupees a week to one million rupees a month. These services, as per the norm worldwide, have always been free. Nueplex’s management affirms that the rates are a necessity to cover its cost of operations.

Some in the business, however, speculate otherwise.

Right now, the film fraternity is abuzz with hearsay, that distributors are being bullied by cinema owners. The pressure ranges from staredowns to clandestine coercions; a forced, systematic shut down of opposition, if you will.

Rumours point to the fact that Nabeel and Fizza’s upcoming film, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad (QAZ), which has been repped by the Eveready Group for over a year now and has an Eidul Azha release date, has been pressured into terminating its contract with Eveready.

The film, according to producer Fizza Ali Meerza, has been pulled from under Eveready’s banner by the producers themselves, who will now be distributing the film. On the day of the film’s trailer release, however, Eveready sent a strictly worded legal notice to the new distributors and exhibitors, warning them of legal action against distribution.

QAZ is releasing this Eid-ul-Azha along with the Humayun Saeed-starrer London Nahin Jaunga (LNJ) and the Sami Khan-starrer Lafangay. The three films stand off against Thor: Love and Thunder — but the question is, will Thor be pushed forward a week, as per the producers’ demand, or will the 15 percent screen quota, that the Motion Picture Ordinance dictates, become effective? (For the record, Humayun Saeed is not worried about the competition).

Looking at the recent Eidul Fitr box-office, one doesn’t see much hope for the film business. Although official numbers aren’t divulged yet, one can say with absolute certainty that no film — not even the ‘blockbuster’ GNH which had an estimated budget of over six crore rupees, and made nearly 13 crore rupees — has broken even, let alone turned a profit.

Given the situation, QAZ, as per my estimation, would find it hard to cross the 170 million rupees mark, and LNJ would settle between 250-300 million rupees domestically. Humayun Saeed’s last two films crossed 350 million rupees and 500 million rupees in Pakistan.

In times like these, does it make sense to fight with one another, one wonders? The infighting doesn’t bother the audience — they’ve all but given up on movies, and the few that give a hoot have conditioned themselves to visit cinemas on Eid. But for how long?

With rapidly escalating prices of basic household items, does cinema even matter for the audience?

Rather than bicker, plot and face-off, producers, distributors and exhibitors should have come together to rebuild the film business, not tear it apart.

If the current situation remains, no amount of promised incentives from the government can help films get back on their feet. If there are no films to be made, who will benefit from the incentives and tax holidays?

Looking at the current scenario, perhaps Capri Cinema has the right idea. Run the cinemas for only half the week and save up on operational and upkeep costs. Cinema in Pakistan is half-dead already.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 19th, 2022