Instep Today

Will Pakistan’s cinema houses stand the test of hard times?

By Buraq Shabbir
Sun, 03, 20

Three months into 2020, the state of cinemas in Pakistan looks bad. Over 30 films are scheduled to release this year but will they be enough to keep cinema business going. On principle, 30 films should be enough to oil the now rusty cinema operations. So what exactly is the problem?

Almost every producer wants to play safe and release their film during the holiday season, whether it is Eid ul Fitr, Eid ul Azha or the New Year. This not only diminishes business prospects for the films, and in turn cinemas, but also confuses cine-goers who are left with nothing to watch the rest of the year. This year, we have two major films releasing over Eid ul Fitr – The Legend of Maula Jatt and Tich Button – and chances are that other names will add to the list too.

A retrospect

With a ban on Bollywood films and a very niche audience for Hollywood films across the country, Pakistani cinema is still struggling to stand on its feet, even after a decade of so called revival. While 2018 was a good cinematic year, delivering a few Pakistani blockbusters, last year was nothing short of a disaster. According to Nadeem Mandviwalla, owner of Atrium Cinemas, cinema business is presently at “rock bottom” and 2019 saw a drop of over 50 per cent in sales.

“The loss is huge and it cannot be recovered now but we might be able to do just a little better in 2020 than 2019,” he admitted, adding that everyone involved needs to reorganize themselves and cut their expenses to 50 per cent. “That is the only way to survive, otherwise we will shut down.”

Kamran Yar Khan, Director Media and Programming at Nueplex Cinemas, agreed with Mandviwalla, admitting that business in 2019 was half of what it was in 2018. “There was a lack of commercially viable local films throughout the year as they release simultaneously while English films only have a limited audience,” he noted.

However, he informed, Nueplex was lucky to have an audience for Hollywood films at both the branches but unfortunately that was not enough to sustain numbers for cinema. “We shut about five screens during week days and four screens during weekends,” he revealed.

The situation in Punjab is even worse, given that there is a very small percentage of audience that watches Hollywood films there. According to a source close to the matter, 10 out of 17 screens have been shut during the last year.

Cinepax Cinemas, on the other hand, witnessed a loss of about 20-25 per cent last year, according to Adnan Ali Khan – Head of Marketing and Sales at Cinepax Cinemas, Pakistan.

“There were some extraordinary Pakistani movies in 2018 and Indian content was also showing in cinemas alongside Hollywood films as opposed to 2019,” he reflected, informing that they also shut screens last year to cut costs. However, several offers and promotions saved them from major losses.

The problem

There are multiple reasons why cinema houses across the country did not see as much footfall as it did in 2018. According to Adnan Ali Khan, it is not the lack of Indian content, rather it is Pakistani films that need to be made and placed carefully.

“Content coming out of Pakistan is concentrated,” he explained. “For instance, four films are scheduled to release on Eid. We discourage this because it will affect everyone’s business. It is better to release these films in isolation because there is enough thirst in the market right now. But everyone is so cautious with their money that they don’t want to release their films other than Eid.”

Kamran Yar Khan also believes that it is not wise to release multiple films at the same time, just to cash in on the opportunity, while Nadeem Mandviwalla stresses how significant Indian films were to the business of cinema in Pakistan.

Quoting some of the factors that contributed to a drop in numbers, Mandviwalla explained, “It is the flow of pictures. There is a schedule running and it gets so badly hit when your main source is completely stopped. It is like having an accident and you will need time to recover from that.”

“There are 75 cinemas with about 160 screens in Pakistan; out of these 75 sites, there are only 10 to 12 where you get an English audience,” he continued, highlighting that there was only so much business that Hollywood films could do. “English speaking audience goes to a very few cinemas; they don’t go to every cinema. As long as these 11-12 cinemas are concerned, they will keep on getting some business from Hollywood. But the rest of the cinemas cannot survive without Pakistani products or Indian products.”

Another alarming situation, Mandviwalla pointed out, is the lack of productions in 2020; films that have been announced to release in 2020 began their production in the last couple of years. If there will be no productions this year, there will be no films to release in 2021 or 2022. “In that case, we will have a shortage of Pakistani content too like we are short on Indian content at present. You will be left with only Hollywood and 75 cinemas cannot survive with just that. It is a bad situation and I haven’t seen any good happening in the last one year, whether it is from the stakeholders or from the government. They talk about so much but I haven’t seen anything concrete.”

The way forward

Quality films with strong content releasing all year long seems to be the only solution and the key to survival. More and more Pakistani productions are required for pulling viewers to cinemas in the absence of Indian content.

“Films should be spread out throughout the year; we need at least one good, commercial Pakistani film every month to keep the business going,” recommends Kamran Yar Khan, who is at the helm of affairs at Nueplex Cinemas. “Only seven or eight films out of over 20 films each year generate decent figures at the box office and that is not enough for sustainability. The audience is intelligent and doesn’t want to waste their money on below average films; we allot them screens but they don’t even survive the weekend.”

One way Nueplex is trying to make the situation better is by producing films. Jamil Baig, owner of the cinema chain, has announced the first film – Ghabrana Nahi Hai – under his banner JB Films that features Saba Qamar and Zahid Ahmed in lead roles and is expected to release later this year.

Nadeem Mandviwalla feels that government intervention is very important to bring cinemas out of this misery. “As much as it is a concern of stakeholders in the country, it is also a responsibility of the government,” he asserted. “If the government doesn’t play a role in that then having or not having a government is the same thing. I do realize that the government has too much on their plate but that cannot become an excuse. We are a part of this society and this country so the film industry has to be looked after by the government.”

Mandviwalla further suggests, “In the absence of Indian product, the only thing you can do is bring in more Pakistani product, which is not happening. This has become the biggest problem that we don’t have that kind of production at this moment. It is not an individual matter; it is a collective matter. That is why it is important that the government plays a role and create some ways to increase the number of productions.”

Disregarding the belief that Indian content enables cinemas across the country, Adnan Ali Khan shared that in the new wave of Pakistani cinema, post 2005 in particular, there is just one Indian movie out of the top five films that did well in terms of business.

“If we look at the data and trends, it shows movies that fared really well at the local box office are Pakistani films, given that they are ‘good’ films,” he explained. “If films are not good, people will not support cinema. Customers have so many choices these days; they have content available online as well as on streaming sites such as Netflix. Hence, they have developed a taste and one cannot ignore that. If we start having a flow of Pakistani movies, that is, one big film comes out every month, the industry can stand on its own without the support of foreign content.”

Adnan stresses that quality of content, script and direction decide the fate of a film, irrespective of the time it comes out. Case in point: Laal Kabootar. “The film generated 2 crores which is not huge but given its budget was around 25 lacs, it is a decent amount. Similarly, The Donkey King raked in 28 crores because of its content, despite being an animated feature. World over, the year films with good content come out, the overall business is better.” Teefa In Trouble is another non-Eid release that attracted huge numbers at the box office.

He is disappointed in the local market that doesn’t understand the tactics and taste of the audience yet. He advises them to consult relevant people while the script is being finalized rather than showing it to them when the product is ready. “Majority of the people watch films on the basis of word of mouth and that is what contributes to our sales; we allot the number of shows depending on it. This is not the time to make experimental movies; it is better to make light films so that people can enjoy watching them. There is so much frustration in Pakistan, people long for happiness and cinema is an escape for them where they want to be entertained. The success of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 1 and 2, Na Maloom Afraad and Actor In Law is testament to that.”

On a parting note, Adnan mentioned that bringing TV dramas to cinemas may also help generate business, given that they made a lot of money in January due to the screening of Mere Paas Tum Ho’s last episode. They are planning to run the final episode of Ehd E Wafa later this month, as well as the last four PSL matches.

It is about time Pakistan’s film industry implements ways to survive on its own without any external support. Instead of temporary and personal gains, those who have the expertise and resources need to come to the fore and support the industry. If we start taking steps that will have a lasting impact, it will eventually be fruitful in the coming years for everyone involved in the business.