. .

1_popup_home.gif (1391 bytes) cover.gif (6176 bytes)

Cover Story

The cinema industry in Pakistan

Trying hard to compete

By Syed M. Aslam
Oct 04 - 10, 1999

Film, unarguably, is the most important and influential means of entertainment, information and education the worldover. Film narrates a story to entertain, educate or inform people either in a cinema, television or on video cassette. There are many kinds of films such as feature films, animated films, documentary films, educational films, television films and even amateur films.

This article will deal only with feature films, the most popular kinds of films for the sole purpose of entertainment. While films are made and shown throughout the world the size and scope of film industries of various countries varies greatly in size. Hollywood has become a well known film industry of the world which has made deep impact of the audiences not only in the US but countries far beyond its borders. Indian film industry produces the most films in the world.

Will the Pakistani film industry survive the onslaught of English and Indian movies, particularly the latter which though officially banned are easily available for home viewing through thousands of video rental outlets across the country?

Will it be able to meet the challenges imposed on it by a growing number of viewers whose exposure to foreign films, both English and Indian, the former on video cassettes as well as satellite channels, has put enormous pressures on the local industry to improve the technical aspects as well as subject matter, theme, music, lighting and sound system of the local films?

Is the film-making business still economic viable in Pakistan? Does it have an economy of scale to ensure a reasonable return on the investment? If not, what are the causes of the malaise. The purpose of the cover story is to look at the Pakistani film industry from an economic and financial angle to highlight the problems, challenges and the crisis that it faces today.

The advent of VCR in the middle of 1980s turned cinema houses to a secondary source of entertainment the world over. The crisis prone Pakistani film industry, however, became more susceptible to the blow due to its oft-repeated themes and inferior technical aspects like music, sound and lighting systems. The easy availability of Indian movies on video cassettes in particular and English movies in general created a new breed of movie-viewers who preferred to watch a movie on VCR which was not only much more convenient but also much less expensive.

A decade later, in the early 1990s, the beginning of satellite channels and their increasing penetration provided viewers a much more wider choice to view films on any one of many channels beaming to them from across the borders. The situation became much more grim for the local industry which has been made to absorb another shock even before it could recover from the first one, the VCR.

Almost overnight the cinema houses were rendered unprofitable, first from the phenomenal popularity of the VCR and in the recent years due to the increasing number of households which are hooked up to satellite channels either through the cable operators at affordable monthly fee or personal dish antenna system.

The demolition of cinema houses, particularly in the urban centres which started in middle of 1980s keeps on continuing till today. Some 88 cinemas have been demolished in Karachi, the biggest urban centre of the country, alone and today there are just 45 cinema houses in the city. The exorbitant increase in the real estate prices in addition to the declining number of films produced in the country each year— except for a brief period in 1996-97— and the perceived problems of the cinema owners are some of the factors feared to result in further demolition of cinema houses in near future.

The local film industry, however, tries to deflect the criticism about its lack of technical and artistic expertise by never missing an opportunity, appropriate or otherwise, mostly by stressing a single point— 'the drastic increase in the cost of production." It never stops to stress the point the film-making in Pakistan today costs many times more than just a decade ago. The question is: Does the drastic increase in production cost signify an overall improvement in the quality of films?

The fact is that the sharp increase in the cost of production is neither due to any improvement in the technical or non-technical aspects of film making nor due to any slightest benefit to the stars, crew and staff in terms of remuneration, salaries, better working environment or conditions but only due to tremendous increase in the imported film, chemicals, raw materials and processing fee due to massive devaluation of Rupee during the last five years.

Various sources who talked to PAGE and their comments made the part of this story, later put the total number of films made in the country between 50 to 60 or just one movie for each week of the year. Indian industry produces over 700 movies alone in its national language Hindi every year and hundreds more in over half-a-dozen regional languages. Though cinema screenings of Indian movies are officially banned in Pakistan, each and every Hindi movie finds its way illegally into Pakistan, which are immediately copied without ever going through the process of censor by the National Censor Board, and thousands of their copies ultimately are bought by the video rental shops for the home viewing. This not only deprives the government of billions of rupees in lost revenue but also poses the ethical question that why the Indian movies are not allowed to be shown in the cinema houses.

This itself has turned into a controversy within the local film industry itself which is divided whether or not to allow official import of Indian films for public viewing at cinema houses. There are those who see the lifting of the ban as a threat to an already struggling local film industry, they also say that lifting the ban to permit screenings of Indian movies will be an unpatriotic act to benefit an arch rival like India to undermine the very principle of founding of Pakistan. They also talk about the Hindu culture and values portrayed in these movies which would influence the minds of the younger generation in particular.

There are others who feel that the continuation of the ban despite the easy availability of them on videos as well as on satellite channels does not make any moral or economic sense. They fee that allowing the import of Indian movies against their export in exactly same number, or barter, would help local industry not only to improve its overall quality but would also help open up a big potential market to help solve such major problem as economy of scale. They also argue that it makes all the economic and moral sense to cut the barriers to expedite the film barter process.

The business of film-making can be divided into three basic categories— Production, Distribution and Exhibition. The first comprises the cost which it takes to make a film including remuneration to the actors/actresses and technical and non-technical staff and workers. The second is responsible for the marketing and showing of the films which require one of many arrangements with the producer, though there are many producers in Pakistan who prefer to distribute their own films. The exhibitor, or cinema owner, either buys a film from a distributor or producer, as the case may be, or rents his cinema to either of them at a fixed amount of money for a minimum one week to exhibit the movie.

Soaring cost of production

Veteran Film Director Iqbal Akhtar who has many super hit movies including the mega-hit the multi-starrer Nadan to his credit, said the cost of producing a film in Pakistan has increased tremendously during the last three decades primarily due to a drastic increase in the cost of raw materials. "Thirty years ago Nadan was produced at an all inclusive cost of Rs 0.6 million. Today the cost of production has increased by a minimum of eleven-fold in case of Punjabi film alone while in case of some of the better Urdu movies it is as high as sixteen-fold, he added.

PAGE talked to Bashir Danawala, a Karachi-based producer and distributor who has spent his entire life in his chosen profession and has produced a number of Urdu movies including Khatranak Hasina, a Pakistan—Sri-Lanka— Bangladesh-Nepal co-production, some five years ago.

Bashir put the total annual film production in Pakistan between 60-62 movies — 40 in the national language Urdu, 10 in Punjabi and another 10 in Pushto. He also put the average production cost for Urdu movies between Rs 6-10 million, Punjabi film between Rs 5-6 million and Pushto between Rs 1.2-1.5 million.

He said that the average cost of Urdu film-making in Pakistan has increased drastically today by seven to eleven fold since 1974 when it used to be between Rs 0.7-0.9 million. In 1986, the average production cost was Rs 3 million which went up only slightly in 1992 to Rs 3.5 million. However, the average production cost increased significantly in last four years primarily due to massive devaluation of the currency as the local film industry totally depends on imported raw materials as film and chemicals for film processing, etc., etc.


The raw colour film, both negative and positive, plus the blank material for sound added in the film reel used to cost Rs 20,000-22,000 per 1,000 feet. It is usual for the local producers to shoot 40,000-50,000 feet of film before it is finally edited to 14,000 feet, which is the length of an average Pakistani film after editing. The rates went up by over 50 per cent to Rs 30,000-32,000 seven years later in 1993.

Today the same 1,000 feet of raw colour film costs between Rs 72,000-75,000 or between Rs 2.88 to Rs 3.75 million for 40,000-50,000 feet of film required prior to editing. This a drastic increase in the price of raw film alone when one compares it with Rs 0.8-1.1 million in 1986 and Rs 1.2-1.6 million in 1993. This depicts a minimum three-and-a-half-fold increase over 1986 and minimum 140 per cent increase since 1993.


Though the cost of colour film processing differs in Karachi and Lahore, the former being comparatively more costly than the latter due to its superior finish, it has also increased significantly since 1992.

There is a single film processing laboratory in Karachi at International Studio as compared to number of film studios— Shah Noor, Evernew and Bari— and few independent labs in Lahore. The processing fee at Karachi is between Rs 700-800 per 1000 feet as compared to Rs 400-500 per 1000 feet in Lahore. Bashir told PAGE that though it costs more to get the film processed in Karachi many producers chose to have their prints processed here due to its better quality as compared to Lahore.

Like raw film, the price of processing has also increased substantially by 90 per cent from Rs 400 per 100 feet in Karachi and Rs 250-300 per 100 feet in Lahore since ‘92. As the entire film shoot of 40,000-50,000 feet has to be processed to make it fit for editing it means that processing cost today ranges between minimum of Rs 16,000 in Lahore and Rs 28,000 in Karachi. In 1992 the processing costs were Rs 10,000 and Rs 16,000 in the two cities respectively.

Film Negative and Sound

A box of film negative which is available in Dubai for Rs 2,000, costs Rs 6,500 in Pakistan primarily as it is subjected to a high rate of duty. Each box contain 400 feet of negative and thus an average of 125 such boxes are required to shoot a 50,000 feet film prior to its edition to 14,000 feet, the average length of Pakistani movies. The negative alone costs Rs 810,500 which ultimately adds up to push up the cost of film production in Pakistan.

The price of a film negative thus has almost doubled since 1992 when it used to cost Rs 3,500 or Rs 437,500 for the 125 boxes or Rs 373,000 less than what they cost today.

Similarly, the price of a box of sound blank which used to cost Rs 2000 per 1000 feet in 1992 has been doubled to Rs 4,000 per 1000 feet today. About 45 boxes of sound blank is used to shoot a film prior to its editing. The cost of sound blank thus has doubled from Rs 90,000 in 1992 to Rs 180,000 today.


While the drastic increase in the cost of the imported raw materials, which the Pakistani film industry, like many other industries in the developed countries, is dependent upon, has increased to push up the overall production cost, the increase has brought hardly any betterment to the artistes, technicians and workers associated with the film industry.

Bashir told PAGE that 40 per cent of the overall production cost of a local film goes towards procurement of materials themselves or the processing related to it, 35 per cent is needed to pay salaries to the technicians and the crew while only 25 per cent of it is shared among the artistes— hero, heroine, director, musician, story writer and all other supporting cast.

Except for Nadeem (Nazeer Baig), he confided to PAGE referring to Pakistan’s most loved cinema idol who still plays important roles in selective films, no actor or actress of today commands a per film billing of Rs 250,000-300,000. The top heroes and heroines of today get between Rs 200,000-250,000 for each film depending upon their agreement with the producer.


Like all other products films are also marketed through the distributors though there are many producers who prefer to make their own arrangement with the cinema owners, or exhibitors, for the theatrical releases. With the demolition of cinema houses— 88 of the cinemas were demolished alone in Karachi which today has just about 50 cinema houses and 80 per cent of those have been closed in the rural Sindh— there is a paucity of ‘main’ cinemas to screen new local movies which has given an advantage to the exhibitors to dictate their own terms at the cost of both the distributors and producers.

The entire film market of Pakistan is basically divided into two traditional circuits for the purpose of distribution— one comprising Punjab and Frontier province and the other Sindh and Balochistan. The former is a much larger circuit which still has some 300 cinemas, some sixty in and around Lahore alone, as compared to the later which comprise just about a little over 100 cinemas. For a film to be successful it is imperative for it to draw good crowds in Punjab even if it fails to draw them in Sindh-Balochistan circuit. However, these figures quoted above are only estimates and the number of main cinemas available for release of new local movies are much much less.

The severity of the situation is obvious from the fact that all cinema houses those in the Larkana circuit have been closed, those few around Sukkur are notorious for screening clips of x-rated movies and thus have become to show Urdu movies. Quetta has just about seven cinemas while Hyderabad has eight one of which, Majestic, is set for closure. Mirpurkhas and surrounding areas have few cinemas in Sindh.

The Sindh-Punjab circuit is much dependent on just two cities— Karachi and Hyderabad— for the screening of films. The limited number of ‘main’ cinema houses needed for screening of both English and local movies is also a cause of concern for local film-makers. There are many main cinemas which screen both English or local movies to get the best mileage of a tremendous decrease in the number of people still opting to see the movie on a big screen. There are no more than 8 ‘main’ cinemas in Karachi including three which screen both English and local movies and three in Hyderabad including one which screens English movies exclusively. The rest in the suburb prefer either to run old English or Urdu movies while there are many others which screen clips of movies, meant for adults only, to attract more and more viewers to their cinemas.

Distributors in Punjab-Balochistan are facing similar problems like their counterparts in the south, however, the availability of a much bigger circuit helps lessen the magnitude of these problems. As the local film industry is now centred in Lahore, which is affectionately called its patrons as Lollywoood on the pattern of Hollywood or its envious counterpart Bollywood (Bombay), the proximity allows the distributors to be in a better position to strike a deal with the producers.

While the Punjab-Balochistan circuit has not been left unsratched by the demolition of cinema houses it still enjoys a much bigger viewership of theatrical releases of local movies, Punjabi in particular and Urdu in general, to make distribution a much better business than in Sindh-Balochistan.

There are many ways a distributor can make arrangements to get the rights to screen films at cinema houses. He could make an advance to the producer between Rs 0.8-1 million plus a commission on the business after the release of films after deducting the advertisement expenses which is the responsibility of the distributor.

Another arrangement is that offering a minimum cash guarantee (MG) to a producer. For instance a distributor provides a minimum guarantee of Rs 1.5 million to the producer plus he spends Rs 0.3 million of the advertisement in print or electronic media. Under this arrangement a distributors receives a certain commission, usually 25 per cent, after deducting the above expenses of Rs 1.8 million and he and the producer equally share any billings above and over the said amount.

The third arrangement comprise of buying the films outright from the producer for a fixed amount, say Rs 1.5 million either for ever or any of three length of time— 5 years, 7 years or ten years. A distributor in this case is entitled to all the profits in case of a hit and the entire loss in case of a flop depending whether a film is a hit or a flop.

All the three distribution arrangements are used in Pakistan though MG and outright are the two most frequent used systems. The marketing of films is a complex procedure and though the famous producers and directors are able to sell their films easily a less famous or known producer or director usually has a hard time to market his products. The bottom line is that the bigger the name of a director the easier it is to sell the films and vice versa.


The main cinemas for releasing new films, we talk about only local films for the purpose of this article, are usually rented out to distributors or producers at a fixed weekly rate. If the film turns out to be a success a distributor can keep on paying the fixed weekly rent as long as he choses to screen the film. In case of a flop, however, a distributor has to bear the entire loss himself.

The only relief a distributor can get, and too depending on his personal relations and dealings with the exhibitor, is that the latter could advance him an amount of between Rs 0.1-0.2 million.

The sharp decrease in the number of cinemas has given the owners to dictate their terms at the expense of the producers and distributors. Observers say that the exhibitors are always ensured a profit irrespective of whether a film is a success or a flop. In short, exhibitors are blamed to share all the profits but none of the risks and losses which are the part and parcel of film production and distribution.

Exhibitors, however, have their own tales of woes to tell. Talking to PAGE Nadeem H. Mandviwalla, the owner of Nishat cinema which screens both Urdu and English movies, said that cinema houses have to absorb a number of taxes including the provincial Entertainment Tax (ET) which has helped inflate the prices at the expense of the receding viewership which still flocks to theatrical screenings.

In Punjab-Frontier circuit 65 per cent of the ticket price goes toward the ET. In Sindh it is 55 per cent of the ticket price while in Balochistan which houses less than a dozen cinemas it is imposed on the basis of fixed capacity.

Nishat cinema which can accommodate 835 viewers charges a ticket of Rs 75 for the grand circle, Rs 50 for the dress circle, Rs 35 for the next lower circle and Rs 15 for the stall. It will be easy to understand how the ET is charged if one looks at the following example: The grand circle ticket of Rs 75 comprises an admission charge of Rs 30 and an aircondition charge (ACC) of Rs 18.39 which adds upto Rs 48.39. A 55 per cent ET tax on Rs 48.39 which comes to Rs 26.61 forms the part of the ticket price.

PAGE asked Nadeem that if the ET is proving to inflate the prices of tickets is detrimental to further discourage an already declining viewership even further why the cinema owners don’t form a united front to talk with the government to lower it? He shrugged off the question of any such united voice as most of the cinema owners have found ways to circumvent the problem.

For instance, a majority of cinemas in the suburbs of Karachi as well as in the interior Sindh printed tickets which depict a much low price but are sold at five to ten times to save the ET tax. This is called over charging and usually works like this— a cinema owner prints the price as Rs 10 while he actually sells the ticket for Rs 50.

Nadeem said that few cinemas who want to provide the best environment to their viewers and are good enough to screen the new Urdu or English movies are made to pay these taxes as they draw a much sophisticated viewership and also enjoy the credibility of distributors and producers. They could not, even if they try to, conceal their earnings while the majority of cinema houses across the country keep on fleecing the viewers to cheat the exchequers. There are no more than 15 cinemas, 6-7 each in Lahore and Karachi and the government owned in Islamabad which pay their ET honestly, he added.


Bashir said that ratio of a hit film which brings profit to its producer is very low, only 3-7 per cent of the total 60 produced in the country fall in this category. The ratio of those which could neither be labelled failure or a success and which are able to bring to retrieve the investment is around 15-20 per cent. The rest are what you call flops— films which are a total financial write-off, he added.

So why do producers keep on churning movies even there is a little prospect of even getting a break-even business? Sources told PAGE that the major investment in the local film industry is usually coming from nouveau-riche as well as extremely rich feudals and industrialists who get indulged in the film business because of the inherent glamour. Most of these financiers/producers are either illiterate or have no inkling of the business or both, but have the money to burn in a chance to get close to a certain actress of their choice. There is a dearth of serious film-makers, there are no institute to train people interested in acting or one of many related technical expertise must for the overall improvement of the technical and subjective sides of film-making.


With so much going against the film industry will it survive in the years to come?

Satish Anand, the managing director of Everready pictures who has produced many Urdu films, said that for the last fifty-two years the Pakistani film industry has bounced from crisis to crisis only to jump back to survival everytime. There have been many periods during this time where situation looked hopeless and grim for the local industry.

Today, he said, the industry is troubled by an overall poor economy plus the fact that the market size and share has decreased drastically during the last two decades. There is a dearth of functional cinemas in good enough conditions to release the new local films in circuits which are small and house cinema houses the condition of which has deteriorated over the years. The quality of sound, fixtures and furniture and civic facilities are all on a tragic decline.

He, however, expressed hope that the revival of cinema the worldover at present would also bring positive changes to the local film industry. The discouraging prospects on the return on investment is shying away the investors from the industry as well as the educated people and serious investors don’t feel that investing in film-making remains such a bright idea anymore, he added.

The chairman of Pakistan Film Distributors Association, Sheikh Mohammed Zubair, told PAGE that film industry in Pakistan had never been accorded due attention which it always required. For instance, during the previous Nawaz government in the early 1990s the then minister for culture, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, promised the duty-free imports of equipment and machineries used in the making of a film. He has also promised to grant a five-year ET tax exemption to the new cinemas. None of these promises were ever fulfilled, Zubair added

Bashir Danawala expressed fears that the local film industry would not exist in next few years. It will not survive primarily due to increasing cost of production plus the fact that it is highly dependent on business on the single market of Punjab. For instance, he said, a local film which costs Rs 8-10 million to produce is able to fetch no more than Rs 1.5-1.7 million in Sindh-Balochistan circuit while it is dependent on the Punjab circuit for the return of the rest of the investment just to get a break-even.

To make the situation even worse, Bashir said, that there are only two main distributors of local films in the southern circuit. If any one of these two distributors pull out of business it would pose a serious problem for the release of local films in this circuit.


If film-making is no more economically feasible what could explain the dying interest on the part of producers, a term which in Pakistan is synonymous to financiers in the West, to keep on churning movies the majority of which would end a financial disaster any way.

Apart from the interest of the nouveau-riche and feudals and industrialists who have tonnes of money from the parallel black economy and also a few directors who are able to sell their names, the ongoing investment in the industry is fuelled by one another reason— the rush to make a close copy of a mega—hit.

For instance, the huge success of director Syed Noor’s Choorian (bangles), a Punjabi movie moved some two dozen producers to produce a similar film which they feel would be equally successful.

According to sources, Choorian which was produced at the cost of Rs 10 million has been running at a cinema in Lahore for last one year and is expected to run for at least one more. It has grossed over Rs 150 million which explains the interest on the part of over two dozen producers to copycat the film. The trend, which has always been there in the local film industry, could hardly be called healthy at the cost of the local industry.


During the first 30 years— from 1890s to 1927— only silent films were made. These silent films were mostly made in Britain, France, Japan and the US. In the early 1900s film industries also began to develop in Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian countries. The early films which comprised short newsreels, travel and information films, short comedies and melodramas were shown in theatres and on the premises of fairgrounds.

For the next quarter century, till 1952, films were shown only on screens of standard shape. From then on, films have been shown on screens of varied shapes and sizes.

The popularity called for the need of purpose built premises for showing of the films— the cinema houses— and one such cinema was built in Japan in 1903. By 1910, cinema programmes resembled those of today consisting of feature and short films.

Shortly afterwards the film industry of the US began producing more films than those produced in the UK and France. During World War I film production increased in the US while that in the Europe declined significantly. A star system of actors and actresses developed in the US film industry— Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford still remain the best known stars of that era.

The second stage in the development of film industry began in October 1927 when Warner Brothers, still one of the major US film making companies, showed The Jazz Singer, the first sound film.

Since World War II the film industry has been influenced by three main developments. Number one, film-makers in many more countries began to make high quality films such as Italy, Japan, Britain. Such directors as Roberto Rossellini and Viorio de Sica in Italy; Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Tony Richardson in Britain and Satyajit Ray in India got famous for making realistic films.

Secondly, in the late 1950s, groups of individualistic young directors began making films in France and Poland.

Thirdly, film-makers in some countries began to make films for showing on screens larger than the standard screen of the 1930s and 1940s— whose width was 1 1/3 times their height. The first wide-screen process— cinema— was developed in 1952 and a new standard screen, 1 3/4 times as wide as it was high, replaced the previous standard screen.

After the World War II the film industry not only changed in technical aspects but also in the subject matter of films. While Western, war, musical and crime and detective films were still made the 1950s the film-makers realized that people chose to stay at home to watch television programmes. This resulted in improvement in technique but also the subject matter, to highlight issues pertaining to human problems and relationships to cater to a varied interests of people, particularly the younger generation.