The cinema conundrum

February 5, 2023

Is the business environment conducive to filmmaking?

The cinema conundrum


s a business post-graduate, I feel inclined to think about movies as a business before I take on the role of an entertainment journalist.

As lay people, many have a glamourised idea of what filmmaking entails. Most think of an actor on a set and a director in a towering chair calling the shots.

The truth is that while shooting is an important part of filmmaking, it is only a minute part. More than entertainment, filmmaking is a business. Like any business, it is all about numbers and it needs management of the numbers, people and equipment.

The business operations include mundane tasks like signing contracts; renting or buying expensive equipment; licensing; phoning; and filing paperwork; with extensive design work. If, and only if, you are lucky, there is a seamless passage from the local censorship authorities.

It’s not about what you know but also who you know. Getting the right people in the right places at the right time is a huge logistical feat. The galas and award shows on television are enormous networking opportunities. It may look like fun, but it is incredibly complex.

The real work begins post-production. A similarly complex undertaking is editing – the director takes up the persona of a ruthless editor. Cut, slash, confirm and rewrite, reshoot, edit. Then, there are soundtracks.

Arranging the distribution of the finished film by getting to the right audience is a critical link in the chain. This process can turn a mess of a movie into a blockbuster. It can also ruin years of planning and effort.

In the film business, having a successful release and launch is can be a roll of the dice every time. Not every good movie succeeds; not every success is a good movie.

Romantic notions about actors and directors travelling to exotic locations and staying in luxurious locales aside, filmmaking is a lot of hard work.

This brings me to the next point: when Pakistani audiences have an elevated experience of a great film, is the business environment in which everybody functions, conducive to filmmaking?

Reeling from the recent cases of Joyland, Zindagi Tamasha, The Legend of Maula Jatt, and Kamli, one wonders if the business environment surrounding any art form supports the fledgling commerce.

The industry faced a great fall with no healthy competition from abroad when there was a huge hue and cry about releasing English films as opposed to supporting and encouraging domestic films.

Joyland became the first Pakistani feature film to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also Pakistan’s entry for the 2023 Academy Awards. The Central Board of Film Censors formally granted a license to screen the movie in cinemas. However, the screening was banned in a part of the country.

The cinema conundrum

Thanks to the power of social media, various independent critics and show business celebrities questioned the ban. Eventually, the decision was reversed.

After a barrage of mediocrity from Lollywood, the Pakistani audiences can finally appreciate great content. It is saddening to see the state authorities deprive us of the right to watch a Pakistani movie in Pakistan.

The Legend of Maula Jatt was expected to be successful. It was.

What this boils down to for the lay man is that the cinema business in Pakistan is once again facing an existential crisis. What can be done about it?

First, independent filmmakers need more opportunities to showcase their work to the general public. Currently, we have a handful of filmmakers so that the viewers get to watch only a limited number and kinds of films.

We need film festivals to bolster local cinema. This will provide a platform for showcasing short films and documentaries as well as feature films. We need educational institutes and we need a system of knowledge-sharing to prepare young, fresh talent to shadow the directors. We need to send students to international festivals. All of this must be free from industry clichés and unhealthy practices.

We also need to reconfigure and rethink the strategy around exhibitor, distributor and producer. While the business of filmmaking has only taken off with films like Kamli and TLoMJ, finances and operational costs are a major cause of concern, especially for single-screen cinemas.

What Pakistan needs now is an ecosystem of studios. We lack regular producers. Where are the Johars and Chopras of Pakistan? One sees a silver streak in the likes of Bilal Lashari, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Mehreen Jabbar, Shoaib Mansoor, Samar Minallah, the Khoosats and recently Saim Sadiq. But we need more. Also, we have been banning their works and not exhibiting their films for one reason or another.

There is general agreement that that there is no dearth of talent, but opportunities are hard to come by. The viewers now demand meaningful, creative work. The public wants to choose what they want to spend on entertainment. A Rs 900-1,000 ticket must have some justification.

We need to strengthen our policy framework, to uplift the quality and quantity. In the end, it is all about the numbers. No one has the money to invest if the final product cannot be exhibited.

Speaking of the recent controversy surrounding Joyland, I can confirm that there was absolutely nothing in it to merit the hoopla that was raised.

Does Pakistan have an investment climate conducive to the cinema? Do the authorities concerned have the right motives?

The cinema conundrum

Let’s meanwhile be grateful for the power of technology - smartphones, social media and the global connectedness - that has to an extent made censorship obsolete. But the business has just become a lot more complicated.

In the words of legendary filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does. It goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” The visual media is the most powerful form of expression, leaving a profound impact on people’s values. It can play a crucial role in addressing stigmas and reshaping a society. The filmmakers’ responsibility is not limited to entertaining the audience. They also need to raise awareness by educating the masses through impactful, meaningful storytelling.

The recent statistics on films released in Pakistan make for a slightly heartening scenario. The year 2022 saw a revival of sorts for Pakistani cinema. This is attributable to a new generation willing to change the entire structure of storytelling.

While it is still too early to speak of a success, we are moving in the right direction. Let’s hope that the country’s film industry recovers from its decades-old slump.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi

The cinema conundrum