Cinema Industry on verge of collapse

Cinema Industry

End of the story?

Threat of terrorism is not the only cause of the falling NWFP cinema industry. A detailed feature on the state of cinemas in the province

By Tahir Ali

(The News, Sep 26, 09)

The cinema industry in NWFP is one of the biggest recipients of the negative impact of militancy and terrorism. Currently under severe financial crisis, it is literally falling.

Opinions may differ on the exact cause of downfall of the industry. Cinema owners, contractors and spectators were unanimous in their view that growing insecurity, poverty, cable network, complaints of obscenity, costly tickets, had together contributed to the decreased number of cine-goers in recent years.

“Lack of quality movies, ban on import of Indian movies in the past, mobile, internet, computers, dish antenna and lack of official support have also hit the industry hard,” said Qaiser Khan, a Mardan-based cinema contractor. According to him, the booming real estate business and public taxes and duties exerted on different sub-sector of the industry have also devastated the prospects of its revival.

Acknowledging the importance and state of affairs of the declining, rather disappearing, cinema industry, the NWFP government in February this year had announced a reduction in the entertainment tax (ET) on cinema houses by 50 percent. A proposal was prepared by the provincial Excise and Taxation Department to this effect. It however could not materialise; the government reportedly backtracked on its commitment.

Minister of Culture, NWFP, Syed Aqil Shah was recently reported as having said that the provincial cabinet didn’t entertain the proposal. But when TNS contacted him, he denied having issued any such statement. “I support giving every possible help to revive the industry. My department will certainly push for cut in ET to help revive the industry. This would also help provide cheap recreation facility to the people. We would be doing what we could to rejuvenate the sick cinema industry,” he said.

A cinema owner in Peshawar confided that half the ticket money went as Entertainment Tax. Shah, however, declined to share the exact amount of ET on cinema ticket but said the industry should be given maximum concession in the ET.

Apparently the federal government too had decided some time ago to cut the ET but then kept silent on the issue. The Punjab government had brought down the ET on cinema houses to zero level. Sindh has also made some positive adjustments to its procedure for ET on cinema tickets.

The amount fetched by ET to the NWFP exchequer has fluctuated. According to the whitepaper 2009 released by the Frontier Finance Department, the government collected Rs3.50 and Rs5.15 million in financial years 2004 and 2005. In 2006, the amount astonishingly surged to Rs19.98 millions (mind you MMA was ruling the province at the time). The next year it again dropped to Rs4.73 million. In 2008, the budget envisaged a target of Rs15million in ET but later it was revised to Rs3 million. ET estimates in the budget 2009 have been projected at just Rs4 million. The last two figures indicate that budget makers had set a marginal target under the consideration that government was to curtail the tax.

Cinemas are not fetching enough money for their location and size of their land. They are demolishing the structures one after the other and are building multi-storey plazas, petrol pumps and other commercial centres on the sites.

According to relevant laws, the land or building once used for cinema or any other entertainment purposes cannot be used for construction of any other commercial building on nor could their designs be approved.

Two movie theatres in Mardan — Spinzar and Nandara — have been demolished. Zafar Ali, a contractor, said the two were located in heart of the city but earned little revenue. He said the decision could have been forced by profit-considerations. “For example, Spinzar is spread over a five canal area but it earned the owner just Rs.50, 000 a month. It could fetch hundreds of thousands a month in rent if a market is built here,” said Zafar.

He was of the opinion that cine-goers were on the decline due to fear of terrorism, profusion of net-cafes, cable network and the notoriety associated with the cinema-houses that left no room for families to come to cinema-houses. This, he said, means empty houses and little profit that drew their owners to pull them down and shift to other businesses.

But Mardan is not the only city to have witnessed the phenomenon. Peshawar, the capital city of the NWFP has also seen five cinema houses — Ishrat, Palwasha, Falakser, Novelty and Metro – brought down by their owners to replace them with big plazas and markets. Another one Tasweer Mahal was lost to the deadly suicide blast that killed over 20 people last month.

Eighty percent cinemas have been closed and replaced by plazas, petrol pumps, medical centres and other commercial centres. Thousands of people associated with the industry have been rendered jobless. Millions are deprived of cheap entertainment.

25 of the 38 cinema houses in the province have been abandoned and the rest are also expected to meet the same fate shortly — in the face of ever increasing threats by militants and the profit urge of owners that invariably warrant shifting to another business.

Swat had two cinemas and both were closed a few years ago when things started getting worse there. Kohat had also seen all of its cinemas closed down. In Nowshera, four of the five cinemas are gone. Two cinemas — Tajmahal and Indus — in Ghazi, Raja Palace in Manshera, AMC cinema in Abbotabad, three cinemas — Regal, Baghesukoon and Saleem theatre — in Bannu, two theatres, Garrisons I and II, in Dera Ismail Khan, Artillery cinemas in Tank, Wana and Razmak, two cinemas in Mardan, Capital and PAF in Kohat are no more available for screening films.

NWFP has 24 districts but most of them — Swabi, Charsadda, Haripur, Buner, Kohistan, Chitral, Dir Upper/Lower, Shangla, Laki Marwat and others — didn’t have movie theatres. The entire tribal belt — excluding South Waziristan — also had no cinema to entertain the locals.

Tariq ascribed the receding number of cine-goers to growing extremism and terrorism in the region. “You know there have been incidents of terrorism in cinema houses. Extremists also hurl threats of suicide bombing to cinema owners. Anything could happen. Why would people risk their lives by coming to cinema houses especially when they could entertain themselves with any kind of movies in their homes.”

Taj Ali Khan, who used to visit cinema houses frequently, is no more interested in doing so. He said cinema houses had faulty sound system and squalid seating arrangements. “Most cinemas today have too high ticket rates. Why would you buy a ticket in Rs100 to watch a film you can otherwise watch on DVD by spending just Rs 30 in the luxury of home?” remarked Khan.

“Recently a terror group warned an influential family in Peshawar — that owns cinema houses notorious for screening indecent movies — to avoid showing films in their theatres, shift to other business or risk suicide attacks,” remarked a worker in a cinema house in Peshawar wishing anonymity.

Shopkeepers near the sites said their businesses had suffered a lot following their closure. The shoemakers, Kabab-makers and grocery stores are the most affected. Saleem Khan, 80, who runs a grocery store near Golden cinema Mardan, said he had been there for thirty odd years but his income had never been that meagre as these days. “I would easily earn Rs500-700 in the past. Now with drop in the number of spectators, I make less than Rs200 daily,” said Saleem. He said only one or two shows daily are screened these days as against four in the past.

A cinema manager in Peshawar, who wished not to be named, said it was hard to get a ticket in cinema just 20 years ago and you had to get it in the black to enter the hall in time. “A film manufactured with a budget of Rs0.4 million would make around 30 million rupees easily. Now an average Pashto film consumes around five millions but it hardly gets the producers any income as cinema contractors or owners are in no position to give them their due,” he said.

“People would also visit Peshawar from other cities for films. Only 20 to 30 persons come while there is a room for 400-500 persons in our cinema. We give millions to the government in ET. Please notice that we give Rs20 per ticket as ET to the government. We also have to pay thousands in power and gas bills per month and also have to pay to the workers,” said the manager.

He said the industry was in dire need of public support. “Tax exemption for five years as well as discount in power and gas bills must be given to cinema industry before it is too late,” he said.

An official from the NWFP ministry of culture, who declined to be named, admitted that the cinema industry needed support from the government but said that the industry should also make concerted efforts to revive its golden period. “They demanded permission of screening Indian movies and it was granted to them. The step, however, didn’t rejuvenate the cinema industry as was being expected. Cinema owners would have to ensure various facilities in their theatres to attract more people to cinema houses.”

 

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About Tahir Ali Khan
I am an academic, freelance columnist, writer and a social worker.

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