A turn to digital and there’s no going back

December 15, 2013

A turn to digital and there’s no going back

Aditya Chopra’s demand for cinemas to ‘go digital or no Dhoom 3’ is the tip of the ice berg. Barely had the cinema industry begun to revive in Pakistan that the digital revolution has hit it with full force… are we ready?

The sun of the present year will soon set but with the dawn of next year, Pakistani cinema is going to see a new future. It will begin on December 20 with the release of Dhoom 3 in Pakistan. Aditya Chopra of Yashraj Films had sent out a notice to all exhibitors in India to go digital or miss out on one of the biggest films of the year, the third part of Bollywood’s most successful franchise. It created quite an uproar in India, not amongst the big guns who already have upgraded, but amongst the smaller cinemas, the single screens in the smaller towns and villages of the world’s largest democracy. Naturally, now that Indian films are also being shown in Pakistan, this will also apply here.

Unlike cinemas like the newer multiplexes that are digital, the old screens get 35 mm prints to run on them. This is done by an expensive process known as Telecine. So is the digital revolution that’s kicking into the sub-continent right now just the work of Aditya Chopra, son of the late and great Yash Chopra who really made every effort to take Bollywood to the next level?

"They’re just working according to the world standard," says Nadeem Mandviwalla of Atrium Cinemas and Mandviwalla Entertainment. "Yes, we got the notice to go digital from Indian distributors this year, but Hollywood distributors had sent us that notice last year."

Even so, Pakistani cinemas will feel the brunt of not being able to show Dhoom 3 more than they will of not showing a Hollywood film which single screens generally don’t exhibit because of the lack of demand. Indian movies have captured the local market in the absence of good Pakistani movies. Since 2006, more than 600 Bollywood movies have been exhibited here, whereas if you were to count the number of Pakistani films, it would be hard to hit the 100 figure. And the Indian film industry is changing itself to digital format from film print. It is higher in quality but cheap in post production cost. Aditya Chopra is not the only one sending out that message - it’s the whole industry changing track.

Indian distributors are demanding Pakistani cinema houses convert to Digital Cinema Projector (DCP) format.
"They have issued us a notice that after December 2013, Pakistani cinema would not be provided with film prints. The hard drive has replaced negative. The cost per screen will be reduced to 7000 rupees from 225,000 rupees. We have already conveyed this message to our cinema industry," Amjad Rasheed, leading foreign films importer with IMGC Global tells Instep.
"Who is ‘they’?" we ask and for IMGC it’s UTV with which they do a bulk of their business with and which is also a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company in India.

So it seems that the writing on the wall is clear and Aditya Chopra is making use of Dhoom 3 to drive home the point to Indian (and by default Pakistani) exhibitors lagging behind. The old style of 35 mm cinemas will vanish after 2013, and it has already begun to peter out. The equipment which is being used in local cinemas for several decades will soon be redundant and it’s time for cinemas to either shape up or ship out.

"Digital Cinema Projector is a revolution," says Zoriaz Lashari, Chairman of the Pakistan Exhibitors Association. "There is no need to wait for films’ print now. In DCP, you have the facility to download two days before the commencement of the new movie in the theatre. Though Indian movies have forced us to move to DCP but in fact it is also the result of constant public pressure to keep us changing with time. Now, viewers’ taste is varied and they also know what’s occurring around them. So, digital cinema is a need of the now. We’ve been requesting our cinema owners to opt for DCP technology for the last two years. Multan, Sheikhupura and Gujrat stations are the only ones who are yet to join DCP club. I am sure they will be in this group by the end of this year because they are left with no other option."

It will be either that or a shutdown. However, this change may be coming far too soon for many of the theatres. Since 2000, the Pakistan film industry is facing its worst downfall. More than 900 cinema houses around the country were demolished just because of the unavailability of films. By 2006, the number of cinemas had reduced to 150 only.

"To save cinemas, the General Musharaf-led government announced a policy to revive the industry with the consent of Pakistan Exhibitors Association along with film producers," Jahanzaib Baig, Ex-Chairman of Pakistan Exhibitors Association recalls. "We were in despair at that time and it became very difficult to make both ends meet. That policy gave us hope. Under that policy, Mughal-e-Azam (the colour version) was the first drop in Pakistani cinemas’ barren land."

"We were 30 years behind international cinema. Cinemas ran out of products to display, the equipment was old, the audience was also turning up in fewer numbers. In 2010, a new class of viewers emerged because of the beautiful change in cinemas’ atmosphere," says Nadeem Mandviwalla who switched to digital with the launch off Atrium multiplexes in 2010. He had attended a conference on digital a year before and realised this is where the world was heading. Atrium cinemas would be the cinema that would usher in a new way of movie going and introduce the Cineplex culture into Pakistan.

"I joined this field four years ago in the traditional way but now the evolution in cinema technology has compelled us to change ourselves to the international standard," says Nadir Latif who owns and runs the PAF Cinema in Lahore. "Though you need 7 to 10 million rupees, according to seat capacity to upgrade your cinema, but it will charge you nothing at the end. Hard drive is easier to use than print but the maintenance cost is increased because DCP requires an anti-dust system and more care than a conventional projector."

This new evolution is all about those who are ready, willing and able to adapt. It’s not about those who will be forced to put cinema closed signs outside their establishments because they were unable to change. It’s a tough call, ruthless almost when you look at the crisis Pakistani cinema is in but it is the march of time and no one can stop it.
English movies are also a big feature of this conversion.

"In big cities Hollywood movies have a hefty viewership. These films are also a big support for the revival of new cinema. Only two cinema classes are left now: old and new cinema," says Nadeem Mandviwalla "People who don’t want to or can’t change will disappear soon because the viewer wants comfort and an attractive atmosphere."

With this change a new debate has arisen locally. Will this change be fruitful to foreign movies only or will it help the local industry grow too? There is a senior lot in Lollywood who is not yet ready to accept change. They are still in favor of the conventional mode of making and exhibiting movies.

"What they think is the reason behind the obliteration of our film industry," Zorais Lashari says, laying the blame squarely at Lollywood’s door. "This change is more productive for the local industry. Our recent films have shown their worth and proved that our good movies would do more business than any foreign block buster movie," he says referring to films like Waar, Chambaili and Main Hoon Shahid Afridi.

And the newer crop of filmmakers. even the ones from the film industry that came to be known as Lollywood, are for the change.

"We are against Indian movies but we must give them the credit of bringing the viewers we lost back to cinema houses," acknowledges Shahzad Rafique who has made films like Ishq Khuda and Salaakhein."Moreover, new cinemas and dead stations are rejoining the market, which is a happy moment for us. Though the Indian distributor is compelling our cinemas to move towards DCP, I believe we will be the beneficiary at the end. I have also moved to digital format because this is the future of our film industry. We destroyed our industry because we were out of touch with technological advancements, now it’s giving us opportunity to recover our lost market."

Even Syed Noor, legendary Pakistani filmmaker and the current Chairman of the Pakistan Film Producers Association, once the staunchest opponent of the new wave, is coming round.

"It’s a good news for us that HD is replacing negative," he says. "I was a staunch believer of the negative format of filming but the success of recent Pakistani movies is an eye opener for all of us. The movie cost is decreased and the exhibition is more feasible for the producer now. No doubt the conversion of DCP is going to help us a lot in future. In coming years even an average film will be able to cover its cost because of the increasing cinemas in the country."

After much ado, people from both the cinema and film industries who are often at loggerheads over issues like the exhibition of Indian films, agree that the new wave of digital cinema is the way forward. That’s an excellent start. Bring on Dhoom 3!