- Pakistani audiences have an elevated experience of a great film, but is the business environment in which everybody functions, conducive to filmmaking perpetuity?
As a business post-graduate, I feel more inclined to think about movies as a business before I take on the role of an entertainment journalist.
As laymen, many people have a glamorized 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 also a very minute part of filmmaking. More than entertainment, filmmaking is a business, and like any business, it is all about the numbers – and it needs management (of numbers, people, and equipment).
The vast bulk of what happens in the business is cemented on signing contracts, renting or buying expensive equipment, licensing, phoning, and filing paperwork, with extensive design work and (if you are lucky) a seamless passage from the local censorship authorities.
Besides immense hard work, there is also the fact that, as with many other industries, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Getting the right people in the right place 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. And arranging the distribution of the finished film – getting to the audiences. The right audiences. This process can turn a mess of a movie into a blockbuster or it can ruin years of planning and effort to trash.
In the film business, having a successful release and launch is in itself a roll of the dice every time. Not every good movie succeeds, and not every success is a good movie.
Despite our romantic notions about actors and directors traveling to exotic locations and staying in luxurious locales, filmmaking is a lot of hard work.
This brings me to the next essential point – when Pakistani audiences have an elevated experience of a great film, is the business environment in which everybody functions, conducive to filmmaking perpetuity?
Reeling from the recent case studies of “Joyland” (which had passed all stages of a successful release, was abruptly banned, before the decision was rescinded), “Zindagi Tamasha” (we are still keenly awaiting its release, if at all), “The Legend of Maula Jatt” (that faced more than 10 days of controversies amongst the stakeholders before the Pakistani cinemas could finally lift the curtains), and “Kamli” (which thankfully did not face any repercussions and was well-received by all), one wonders if the business environment surrounding any art form has encouraging motives to support already fledgling commerce. The industry squabbles dreadfully, more so post-pandemic, after the removal of Bollywood content.
The industry, if at all it can be labeled that, faced a great fall with no healthy competition from the outside – whether Bollywood or recently Hollywood, when there was a huge hue and cry about releasing English films as opposed to supporting and encouraging the domestic films.
“Joyland” became the first Pakistani feature film to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is Pakistan’s entry for the 2023 Academy Awards in the United States. It is also Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars. The government-led Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) formally granted Saim Sadiq, the director, the license to screen the movie in cinemas.
As if the dispiriting business environment surrounding the art forms was not enough, we also have to consider the ‘morally upright’ nation for which the movies must be screened. This exerts enormous cultural influence on the industry already riddled with enormous pressures, lest any material does not “conform with the social values and moral stands of our society.”
Because visual media is instrumental in shaping worldwide impressions of a country’s intellectual, historical, and cultural environment. Thanks to the power of social media that overtakes us, various independent critics, Pakistani show business celebrities and social media activists questioned the movie ban in a country that recognizes and gives legal rights to transgender people. And eventually, the decision was reversed.
After a barrage of mediocrity from Lollywood, the Pakistani audience finally knows how to appreciate great content. So it is all the more saddening to witness the state authorities, of a nation that profoundly proclaims to be a hub of art, literature, culture and heritage, ripping us the right to watch a Pakistani movie in Pakistan! This is nothing but the authorities embarrassing themselves — that it has been praised and lauded all over the world except by those at home.
Why, then, do we question the artists (whether it is the authors, filmmakers, painters, or writers) resorting to global audiences for praise and awards? Because they are genuinely acknowledged and appreciated for it, while here at home, we struggle with senseless conundrum censorship by silencing and threatening them instead of celebrating and promoting their bravery and richness of it.
While these are all genuine trepidations, they aren’t the only causes of apprehension for the business of films. Case in point, “The Legend of Maula Jatt” – there was an ongoing in-house war between producers, distributors and exhibitors following it release as its business was calculatedly predicted to go off the handle. And soar it did, despite all odds.
While none of the above hinders creativity from the extremely talented pool of Pakistan, it surely affects the impact it may have, had there been much bigger concerns than these – such as raising the industry bar.
What all of it boils down to for the layman is that the cinema business in Pakistan is once again facing an existential crisis. What can be done about it?
Firstly, independent filmmakers need more opportunities to showcase their work to the general public. We have a handful of filmmakers that monopolize the industry and the audience gets 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, documentaries, and feature films. We need filmmaking educational institutes and we need a system of knowledge-sharing to prepare young, fresh talent, enable graduates to shadow the directors, finance scholarships and send students for international festivals to further skills. All of this must be free from industry clichés and unhealthy political practices.
This brings me to the next solution. We need to reconfigure and rethink the strategy around exhibitor, distributor, producer, and cash-flow issues. 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.
Extending the same tangent, what Pakistan needs right now is an ecosystem of studios. Except for a few handfuls that could be named at the top of the head, we do not have regular producers that would genuinely contribute to the perpetuity of filmmaking. Where are the Johars and Chopras of Pakistan? I do see a silver streak in the likes of Bilal Lashari, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Mehreen Jabbar, Shoaib Mansoor, Samar Minallah, the Khoosats, and the recent Saim Sadiq. But we need more of this. And what did we do with them? We banned their works and we didn’t exhibit their films for one reason or another. Who won? No one. Who lost? Everyone in the value chain, from the directors to the actors, to the producers and exhibitors and the audience who are finally willing and able to watch these films, at pricey tickets, which has also made this form of entertainment an elitist luxury.
The public knows that there is no dearth of talent, but opportunities. Gone are the days of bearing unpleasant cinematic experiences only because that’s what we CAN do. The audience now demands meaningfully creative works. With the pressing inflationary burden, the public wants to pick and choose what they want to spend on entertainment. So, a PKR 900-1000 ticket must justify the appeal to the masses.
Lastly, and most importantly, we need to strengthen our policy-making framework, to uplift the quality and quantity of films. Because, 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,” whatever the merits of the film itself, having watched the film, I can at least confirm that there was absolutely nothing in it that merited the hoopla raised by the government.
The enigma is that it is not just about “Zindagi Tamasha” or “Joyland.” (Going by the current trajectory, we hope to have more of Joylands and TLoMJs). It is about the larger purpose — the strategy that we, as a nation, must resolve to be a proponent of – promoting art itself. Does Pakistan possess an investment climate conducive to cinema (or any art, for that matter) in Pakistan? Do the concerned authorities have the right motives to promote art forms?
If we proclaim to be the land of art, culture, and literature, then why are we the first ones to resort to the bans? Why do we not understand the dynamics around creative works? Should any art fit into the proverbial glove of narrow philosophical parameters? Instead of bringing forth policies that can assist in unleashing the creative potential within Pakistan, what we get instead are tighter regulations and further constraints. Let’s applaud the power of technology — smartphones, social media, and the global interconnectedness that has to an extent made censorship obsolete. However, the whole 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.” This quote establishes the belief that visual media is the most powerful form of all expression, leaving a profound impact on the values of humans. It plays a crucial role in addressing stigmas and reshaping society. Our responsibility is not limited to entertaining the audience. We need to raise awareness by educating the masses through impactful, meaningful storytelling.
The recent statistics of films released in Pakistan make for a slightly heartening graph. We witnessed the year 2022 as being a reincarnation of sorts for Pakistani cinema. This can primarily be attributable to the new generation that has gradually replaced the previous one in an endeavor to change the entire structure of storytelling. However, it is too early to speak of any success. But it can be said that we are finally moving in the right direction, which may ensure the country’s film industry recovers from its slump, finally limping back to normalcy as films released this year finally saw the light of day.
Sara Danial is a mother of two. A Pakistani writer/editor, born, raised and survived in Karachi, though to be precise, reared in the dunes of Dubai, she was corrupted by English and a voracious appetite for books. She’s certain to die in the present century as she was born in the last. Stained by a number of vices, like reading and writing and with a Master’s degree, she thought the world should be at her feet, but she was wrong. She took up her old vice to land up in the world of literature, through which she shares her love for all things sacred to the English language. Her writing has been published in Dawn, The News on Sunday, The Friday Times, Pakistan and Gulf Economist, South Asia, BOL, The Friday Times, The Nation and The Express Tribune. She can usually be found musing about over a cup of coffee or occasionally ranting. You may vent out at firstname.lastname@example.org.