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To screen or not to screen: The dilemma of Pakistani cinema

To screen or not to screen: The dilemma of Pakistani cinema
Written by Omair Alavi

Why did four out of the 38 cinema owners throughout Pakistan refuse to screen The Legend of Maula Jatt?

Like every business, running a cinema also has its ups and downs. Sometimes you win the battle, sometimes you don’t. But when success is right in front of you, no one in their right mind would dream of taking the wrong turn, unless you are part of Pakistan’s entertainment industry.

Earlier this year, it was the filmmakers versus a distributor when Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness demolished the business of four local releases, and this time it was the exhibitors versus a distributor who demanded 10% more share for the first 11 days of their film’s release. In the case of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the ‘wronged’ party comprised three out of the four producers whose films were unable to recover their investment; whereas in the second case, The Legend of Maula Jatt’s release suffered since it wasn’t screened in major cinemas of the country’s largest metropolis, Karachi.

Why does it always have to be like that when it comes to the release of Pakistani films? The Indian film industry has grown out of such habits, and every major release in India is either given a free run or compensated for by getting more screens if another film is being released simultaneously. In Pakistan, on the other hand, we will be witnessing the release of two seemingly promising Pakistani films on November 11th, when the whole world would be waiting anxiously to find out who becomes the new Black Panther in Wakanda Forever.

Don’t the producers of Yaara Vey and Tich Button know that it is a bad move to release a film in cinemas, especially at a time when sentiments are high regarding the Marvel flick releasing on the same day, or when The Legend of Maula Jatt is doing well at the box office? Don’t they realise that the audience’s purchasing power has gone down post-Covid and that they would only think of watching multiple films on Eid holidays, instead of a non-holiday weekend?

They might have banked on some of the cinemas’ decision to not screen The Legend of Maula Jatt due to ‘inappropriate demands’ but, at the time of our going to the press, Nueplex Cinemas, Karachi and Cinestar Cinema, Lahore had agreed to screen Bilal Lashari’s magnum opus, while the others were waiting for a go-ahead from their management to follow suit. In such a scenario, wouldn’t it have been better to delay the release of their films rather than throw the product under the bus, or in this case, under The Legend of Maula Jatt?

What was the controversy all about?

Why did four out of the 38 cinema owners throughout Pakistan refuse to screen The Legend of Maula Jatt, you might ask? Well, their point wasn’t that wrong, because they were of the opinion that since their ticket prices were already quite high, increasing the ticket prices for a Pakistani film to compensate the producers wouldn’t have attracted the audience. A valid point from their perspective, especially after Covid which hurt many cinema owners in a big way, many of whom are still trying to recover from those losses.

However, the distributors disagreed because in the strategy they presented to the exhibitors, they believed that people will watch the film even if the ticket price was increased because the end product was better than any Pakistani film ever released. Industry veteran Nadeem Mandviwalla of Mandviwalla Entertainment, who distributed what turned out to be the most successful Pakistani film of all time, was amongst the privileged few who had seen The Legend of Maula Jatt, and was blown away by what he saw. He believed that had he not demanded the extra share for the first 11 days, the producers might not have been able to recover their investment.

Yes, we agree, such things are usually handled well in advance but, in Pakistan, the later the better seems to be the motto for most people. Instead of finalising a distributor six months before the film’s release, the producers appointed one just two months prior to the film’s release. Even the release date was changed after announcing September 30th at first, which would have been a better date considering there was no other new release in sight. Releasing the film two weeks later meant that Black Adam would make it to the screens before The Legend of Maula Jatt completes its two ‘crucial’ weeks, one day of which was wasted due to the India-Pakistan World Cup clash.

However, the matter seems to have been resolved just as Mandviwalla had predicted last week in a press conference in Karachi, where he decided to come out in the open with the strategy he devised, the reservations of the cinema owners, and how he wouldn’t rest until The Legend of Maula Jatt was screened in every cinema in the country.

“Waited for a film like The Legend of Maula Jatt all my life,” Nadeem Mandviwalla

Talking exclusively to BOLD, Mandviwalla explained why he chose to present an extraordinary power-sharing formula with the exhibitors – he is one himself – for the first 11 days of The Legend of Maula Jatt’s release and requested them to agree to a deal where the producer has to gain everything, while they will have nothing to lose.

“It is a normal practice internationally that when a big-budget film is about to be released, the relatively smaller films delay their release so that the producer doesn’t lose any money. Sadly, in Pakistan, we neither have a huge number of cinemas nor do we have regular releases each week, hence when one such film does appear on the scene, we try to make the most of it. That was the reason behind the strategy that we presented to all the cinema owners of the country, and due to our best efforts, 34 out of 38 cinema owners agreed to increase their ticket prices temporarily so that the producers could recover their investments.”

“However, despite our best efforts, the remaining four cinema owners couldn’t agree to the terms and conditions, and that’s why most of the cinemas in Karachi didn’t screen The Legend of Maula Jatt during the first two weeks of its release. The negotiations are still ongoing, but I wouldn’t rest until The Legend of Maula Jatt is released in every cinema in Pakistan. Hopefully, that might be a reality sooner than later.”

Why the increase in revenue sharing for the first 11 days, and not more or less, that’s the question in everyone’s mind. “If you look at the business of this year’s biggest hit – Top Gun: Maverick – it did half of its entire business on the first 11 days,” Mandviwalla explained. “I waited all my life for a Pakistani film like The Legend of Maula Jatt, which is doing great business all over the world. It is the first Pakistani film ever, the domestic business of which is less than the international business, and that shows that Pakistani cinema has arrived. My aim is to make the producers recover their investment so that they would come back with another film that would help our industry grow bigger.”

“The distributors of Maula Jatt understood our concern completely”

Unlike the exhibitors with multiple screens, Farrukh Rauf, the director of Karachi’s last remaining standalone cinema – Capri – was the first one to accept one of the two strategies presented by the distributors. Not only did he realise that it was a good deal, but he also understood that if The Legend of Maula Jatt clicks, the cinema industry in the country would click.

Talking to BOLD, Rauf said that before raising the ticket prices to compensate the producers, he approached the distributor about his concerns, which were addressed promptly.

“Since we are a general audience single-screen cinema where people from all walks of life come to watch films, it was not possible for us to raise our ticket prices by Rs. 200. Our rates are between Rs. 200 and Rs. 600 which is acceptable to the audience that visits our theatre, and an overnight increase of Rs. 200 wouldn’t have been beneficial to me. That’s why I approached the distributors regarding my concern and they addressed it properly. Not only was I asked not to increase the ticket prices of the cheapest seats (Rs. 200), they agreed to my Rs. 100 increase for the other two classes, which are usually reserved for the families.”

He went on to add that after the first 11 days of the film’s release, he had reduced the ticket prices which are now back to normal. He also had no issues with the other conditions the distributor had in the package, which is why he wholeheartedly accepted them. Had the distributors not been flexible, he might have stood with the exhibitors who refused to screen the film in the initial days.

To increase or not to increase?

Is the decision to raise the ticket prices to compensate the producer, a new one, or has it been tried before in Pakistan? Veteran actor, director, and writer Javed Sheikh told BOLD that he was the last person to do so in Pakistan when his film Yeh Dil Aap Ka Huwa was released 20 years back because, at that time, it was the most expensive film ever produced in the country and raising ticket prices was the only way to recover the producer’s investment.

“When I was all set to release Yeh Dil Aap Ka Huwa in 2002, I was unable to get a distributor because no one was willing to buy a film that was made on a budget that was five times more than that of an average Pakistani film of that time. The producer had invested Rs. 5 crores in the project and since there were no multiplexes at that time, it would have been impossible for us to recover the investment, considering the tickets were priced at Rs. 50,” said Sheikh.

“That’s why I decided to release the film myself under the banner of JS Films, and thankfully, it proved to be a game-changing decision for me, the producer Akbar Khan and the entire film industry. I clearly remember that the Dollar rate was between 55 and 60 rupees at that time and I proved 99.9% of people wrong by becoming the first film to touch Rs. 12 crores at the box office.”

He went on to mention that one distributor from Karachi wanted him to sell the distribution rights of his film for Rs. 1 crore, and since that didn’t seem right to him, he refused. “The business of my film in Capri and Prince alone was nearly Rs. 4 crores and I felt relieved at not giving my rights to that person. Had the ticket price been near that of today who knows, my film would have done business of over 100 crores!”

He also congratulated the cast and crew of The Legend of Maula Jatt for a job well done and agreed with the distributor’s decision to raise the ticket prices so that the producer can be compensated.

“The Legend of Maula Jatt is undoubtedly the most expensive film ever made in the country and people are buying the ticket at an increased price to watch it because they know that it will prove to be worth their money. It wouldn’t have been possible to recover the producer’s investment had the distributor gone for the old formula, and the result is in front of us.”

“All kinds of films should be released in cinemas”

The first and so far the only director from Pakistan to have his film screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Saim Sadiq believes that every kind of film must be screened in Pakistani cinemas. Sadiq’s award-winning effort Joyland is all set to grace cinemas on November 18, and he is hopeful that the wave that carried The Legend of Maula Jatt to success will help his film as well.

“It is a good thing that by the time my film Joyland is be released in Pakistan, the cinema industry would have benefitted a lot from the success of The Legend of Maula Jatt. Not only did it break all trends but also the box office records, which is nothing short of a morale booster for other filmmakers out there. It’s about time we had all kinds of films in our cinemas so that instead of following trends, we can make films that will challenge the audience in their own way.” -Ends

About the author

Omair Alavi

Omair Alavi is a highly regarded journalist, critic, and commentator, specializing in news, sports, showbiz, film, blogs, articles, drama, reviews, and PTV drama. With extensive experience and a keen eye for storytelling, he captivates audiences with his insightful analysis and compelling presentations. His expertise and contributions have made him a prominent figure in the media and entertainment industry.