- 30 Dec - 05 Jan, 2018
Cinema This Year. BIG NUMBERS. BIGGER STAKES. Bigger Flops… So Far
- 30 Dec - 05 Jan, 2018
- Year In Review
It’s been four years since the “actual” boom of Pakistani cinema. And I mean that in every context, from the expansion of multiplexes, simultaneous and bulk import of foreign movies and especially the sudden-vogue of domestic film production.
Every year around this time, we repeat the same conversation. How was the film exhibition business this year? Did we break new grounds? Has the box office gone up? Why is there a lack of good motion pictures? Why do we only release tent-pole motion pictures on Eid, Christmas and New Year holidays?
We’ve answered these questions time and again, perhaps because we’re riding the wave every day. Pakistani cinema is finally finding a structure – even though it’s still rough and a work-in-progress.
For starters, let’s talk about Pakistani films. The year has been perplexing and disastrous at the same instance. Up until the time of writing, we’ve had 13 Urdu language releases. By title and release date, they are: Thora Jee Lay (January 20, a financial disaster), Balu Mahi (February 10, another box office bomb), Whistle (February 17, the crown-holder of the worst performer of the year), Raasta (March 31, another bomb), Chalay Thay Saath (April 21, tanked, despite conflicting final box office numbers), Yalghaar (May 26, officially the year’s most expensive movie and the third highest grossing movie of the year, yet still a financial flop), Mehrunisa V Lub U (MVLU) (May 26, the year’s first hit – if one considers the assumed budget for the film, and not the quoted one), Geo Sar Utha Kay, Chain Aye Na (August 11, quite better than expected, but still flops), Na Maloom Afraad 2 (NMA2), Punjab Nahi Jaungi (PNJ) (September 2, both massive hits), Saawan (September 14, unverified box office, yet close to no audience turn out) and Verna (November 17), the fifth successful movie of the year – if one considers a nearly 7 crore figure a hit.
Before we go further, let’s put the year’s financial performance into perspective.
Out of the 13 films released so far, only five were successful. Massive collections by Yalghaar, PNJ, NMA 2 and above-average business from MVLU and Verna steered the year-average of Urdu films to approximately 7.5 crore.
In comparison, 2016 had 25 Urdu releases with 7 hits, 17 box office bombs and 1 barely average grosser; the year’s average was 6.4 crores.
Of course, with such drastic lines dividing the box office figures (we only have hit or flops, there is no middle area), a year’s average would make sense to business students, not the audience.
“I think it’s not basically the number of releases that would determine the overall gross, it’s the quality of movies and their ability to stand the competitive climate,” Satish Anand of an entertainment group tells me on the phone. “Not everybody has the capacity to make a good movie yet,” Satish elaborates. “Humayun Saeed has learned. The first time he didn’t do it quite well. The second time he was learning, so it was better. The third time he was consistent, and the next one coming in 2018 is again very much expected to get good numbers.”
Anand believes Nabeel Qureshi is on a similar learning path as Saeed. He stresses that anticipated blockbusters, like Maula Jutt and Teefa in Trouble would be just that – blockbusters. Satish, however, is insistent on giving audiences a variety of releases and types to choose from.
“See, the ground reality is that Pakistani cinema needs variety and a flow of films. Keeping this in view, a major driving force still continues to be Bollywood movies,” he continues. “Hollywood also is a force to reckon with – but for the multiplexes, not the 35% of Pakistan’s single screen cinemas. We are more careful in filtering out what should be supported. Unless young producers get the window to try themselves out, how will they grow? The industry is restricting the aspiration of this new crop,” he says.
Badar Ikram of a film production and distribution company adds another perspective to the conversation: the new target audience.
“Cinema used to be a poor man's entertainment. In Pakistan, it has become the elitest form of entertainment. A ticket costs Rs.700 and popcorn another Rs.500. Let's say someone with a good, lakh sawa lakh salary, supposedly a bank manager, takes his family out to the movies, it is easily going to cost him Rs.5,000 – which is 5% of his salary. How many times do you think he would take them out in a month? Once, twice? And what about those people who only go out once a month?” Ikram continues, “They would surely opt for a Shah Rukh Khan movie.”
Bollywood’s biggest hit this year is indeed a Shah Rukh Khan film – Jab Harry Met Sejal (8.3 crores) – followed by Golmaal Again, Judwaa 2, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Baahubali 2, Half Girlfriend, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Mom, Kaabil, Jagga Jasoos, Secret Superstar, Jolly LLB 2 and Hindi Medium. A total of 38 Bollywood movies came out this year, with only a handful of hits.
Salman Khan, as we know, was completely shut out by the censor board, otherwise both Tiger Zinda Hai and Tubelight would have contributed substantially to the tally.
“Even Bollywood films have had dwindling footfalls,” Ikram tells me. “A film that used to have an average business of 3 to 4 crores, is struggling at 1.5 crores. Our seating capacity has increased. There are more seats and less revenue”. For example, PNJ has made about the same as Jawani Phir Nahi Aani, even though there are 35% more seats now. The same applies to NMA 2,” he says. “The filmmakers are not able to outperform their own products. On the flip side, if you look at the numbers of English films, they're making a lot more money,” he elaborates. “And who are the distributors of English films? The same people. What is happening is that there is a certain crowd – the young, university going crowd – that can afford Rs.5,000. There is a fixed crore, sawa crore number that is going to cinemas every weekend. Since this is a younger, English-medium crowd, they can relate more to that (whether it’s Wonder or Justice League),” he clarifies.
A total of 44 Hollywood films were released this year, with The Fate of the Furious outperforming both Pakistani and Bollywood movies at 26.6 crores. The last part (Fast 7) came out in 2015, made 25.1 crores and solidifies my own study of the audience’s craving for high concept blockbusters and franchises.
Apart from Fast 8, the English language box office was ruled by Beauty and the Beast (8.4 crores – a little more than what Shah Rukh’s film made in Pakistan), xXx: Return of Xander Cage, The Mummy, Kong: Skull Island, Transformers: The Last Knight, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman.
Coming back to Pakistani cinema, Irfan Malik of another film distribution company says, “The need of the hour is screens right now. Our eventual target is to get up to 500 screens in the next few years. I think we will add 25 to 40 screens in the next year or so, which is great,” he continues. “If you add 40 screens to the 100 we already have right now, that's an increase of 40% revenue. We're hoping that an average gross per film (around 5 crore) would go up to 10 crore in a few years’ time.”
One of the biggest surprises for me this year wasn’t the diminishing box office returns, or the expansion of cinemas (Despite my reservations on the lack of high concept films, cinema is still a thriving business). No, for me, it was the first monopoly of the new cinema era: NMA2 and the creation of a collaboration between exhibitors (i.e. cinema owners) and distributors – is a good step in the right direction. However, with its first film, they left the moral compass at home.
In the U.S., there is a supreme court ruling that prohibits producers and distributors to own cinemas. In the silent era, big film companies owned cinemas and financed films. This resulted in a monopoly against foreign film-makers. In Pakistan no such law exists.
“Right now there are no laws that would prohibit such actions. And so, the responsibility lies on the individuals,” Malik tells me. “No one is opposing these endeavours and nor should anyone do so,” he clarifies. “When we have 500 screens, then we would evolve to the next stage, which is screen monopolies. A distributor can then decide to release their film on 400 screens, letting the other 100 go. For now, we should let this issue go for the larger interest of our industry,” he said.
If anything, one of the year’s biggest success is an understated understanding between producers and exhibitors. By recent conventions, producers have to wait for months to receive their due from cinema owners. These delays disheartened new producers from reinvesting in the industry.
“We (the distributors association) had extensive (and aggressive) meetings with the exhibitor’s association. That made the difference. They realised that a lot of pressure was being exerted when we brought the producers on board. There's a certain perception that the distributor is not paying the producer. Thus, they had no option but to pay on time.
“The distributors went for the benefit of the producer. The fight was not about the distributors’ cut of 15% or 25%. The fight was about paying the producer on time,” Malik elaborates. “I am very thankful for the Exhibitor's Association, because now payments are timely.”
This small victory could mean a world of difference for a local film producer. Average production budget of a Pakistani film is 4 to 6 crores. For every 10 crores, a producer takes home 3 – so neither business monopolies nor bad films play in favour of the industry.
Change, though, takes a lot of time and diligent maintenance.
“The economics aren't really in the producer's favour right now, so one has to be intelligent, effective and safe in making films,” Malik states. “Unfortunately, a lot of money would go down the next year,” he sighs.