Films: a USD 100 million opportunity to project our perspective, that Pakistan should simply not decline

Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure – Abraham Lincoln

To honor heroes, you need to create them first.  And when it comes to creating heroes for a nation, there’s no better medium than films, the mother of all entertainment produced. Frank Capra is stated to say that every nation has stories to tell. Those who don’t, will soon be forgotten and perish in history.

Thanks to Hollywood, Disneyland is consistently one of the top tourist destinations—year after year—even though it pales in comparison to historical shine Europe and Asia has to offer.  Jeans, burger and coke are global household items, mainly because of Hollywood. CIA hired Chase Brandon in 1996, to fill the position of Entertainment Liaison Officer.  “The popular image of us is of some kind of rogue organization creating mayhem and madness on a whim”, Brandon told the press a week prior to the World Trade Center air assaults.  “We hate to see ugly imagery of us in television and films”.  President Bush sat on the board of Silver Screen Management Co. and Colin Powell sat on the corporate board of Time-Warner before his appointment to the State Department.  Tom Cruise met CIA officials to discuss ways of burnishing the agency’s image in the Mission: Impossible 3. (Editorial, “Unease over Hollywood Washington pact” Guardian Unlimited, November 14, 2001)

Pentagon has offered filmmakers, advice, manpower and even hardware, for decades, in exchange that the US armed forces are made to look good!  The United States has been telling their stories, portraying their perspective and exporting their culture—all profitably.  Content from Hollywood and US TV production is amongst the largest export from the United States, valuing well over USD 30 billion per annum and creating employment of more than 1 million people.  Windfall from export of culture is all bonus.

Our neighbor, India, has not been lagging behind.  According to KPMG’s FICCI Frames Report 2013, India’s Media & Entertainment (M&E) industry valued at INR 821 billion (approx. USD 13 billion) in 2012.  Indian media industry employs a staggering 6 million individuals.  It is no mean achievement that Bollywood engages more than 1.5 billion people on Earth, almost 20% of world’s population, week after week.  It is not just coincidence that Taj Mahal is one of the most sought tourist attraction; Bollywood dance classes spur across the globe and Masala Dosa is a popular ethnic food in the West.

Other countries such as South Korea, China, Turkey, Nigeria, New Zealand, Canada and Brazil, are also investing and facilitating their M&E industry, for it just not bring the employment and profitability, but allows the world to understand their culture and aspirations.

Sadly, the story of Pakistan’s M&E industry overall, and cinema in particular, is not rosy.

In 60s and 70s, Pakistan used to produce roughly 100 films a year; West Pakistan alone had some 500 cinema-screens.  Some bolder estimates put that number over 1,000.  But then lack of competition from Indian film industry, unchecked piracy through VCRs and stricter censor policies for local films, made filmmaking and single-screen cinemas uneconomical.  We stopped evolving.  Cinemas were demolished and in their place came malls and apartments.  Pakistani cinema reached its lowest ebb around 2006 with one screen per 9 million people, compared to world average of one screen per 200,000 people.

It was not until 2007, that the first true attempt on Revival of Cinema was initiated by Jang Group, when Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda ke Liye re-defined Pakistani cinema and reenergized it.  After this, a slight policy relaxation allowed a steady stream of movies, including Indian, to the newly erected multiplexes.  Result is that number of mentionable screens that had gone under 20 by 2007, have now reached to almost 80 functional screens in 2014, with another 80 or so at different stages of construction and planning.

Pakistani film distributors released 106 films in 2013—49 from Bollywood, 51 from Hollywood and six Pakistani productions (this number does not include low-scale Punjabi and Pashto releases).  These releases enjoyed massive popularity.  Recent box office record breakers like Dhoom 3, Waar, Na Maaloom Afraad and many others are encouragement for more investor activities.  We estimate a sustainable rate of 125-130 film releases per year from 2015 onwards as we see more screens popping up, but more importantly, more talent of scriptwriters, artists, directors and producers are now indulging in filmmaking in Pakistan.

If investment and growth in building more screens continue, box office revenue that’s estimated at USD 30 million for 2014 can easily reach to USD 100 million by 2020, when nearly 400 screens would be functional.  That would be one of the fastest growths anywhere on the globe.  And for the first time in four decades, we now know that there are more than 50 Pakistani films at different stages of conception and production, all at the same time.  Besides the usual benefits of growth such as increased employment, increased investor confidence, providing economical entertainment outlet to masses, etc., the growth of cinema business carry three additional bounties.

First, the entertainment-starved Pakistan will provide an outlet for its bulging young population to relax and enjoy in an entirely different way.  Many psychologists consider this as a key element that will help bringing down extremism.  Second, this large box office will make Pakistan the second largest international market for Bollywood, outside of India.  This would open a lot of avenues for Pakistani talent to perform in Bollywood.  We are already witnessing voices of Rahat, Shafqat and Atif topping the charts in India while lately India was literally Fawadized.  Indian scripts that sometimes bash Pakistan will also reduce substantially and in intensity; you simply don’t offend one of your largest customer!  Third, vibrant domestic box office will make it feasible for Pakistani filmmakers to make movies that can be released on international scale.  This would be the cherry on the cake that we will be able to showcase our stories and promote the rich culture of Indus to the world.  We deserve to show the world the way we see ourselves, and tell the world about our centuries old values of coexistence and peaceful living.