Growing bigger and bigger

Business of Animated Movies in Pakistan

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One day at school in the early 2000s we were ushered to the library hall for ‘TV time’. Most students assumed it was going to be another boring documentary on health, national day or road safety – mundane, monotonous stuff.

We were in for a surprise – the kind that stays with you for a long, long time.

After the 20-minute session, we came out delighted after our first introduction to the famous local superhero Commander Safeguard. It indeed was a wonderful TV time.

Previously we had only seen Cartoon Network and locally dubbed Sesame Street. But to see a cartoon hero speaking in one’s own language, engaging in action on your own streets and other situations of the movie that students could relate to was simply overwhelming.

That first-ever series of Commander Safeguard, produced by Post Amazers, was an ad campaign for the P&G soap. It was only after the first episode getting such good notices in Pakistan that P&G dubbed the upcoming series and aired it in the Philippines and Mexico. With that short animated movie, the first important milestone had been reached for Pakistan. That said, we still had a very long way to go on the global animation industry level.

‘Teen Bahadur’

Some 10 years later in 2015, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy produced Pakistan’s first-ever full length animated movie ‘Teen Bahadur’ and established its emblem on the global industry. This same year it was projected that globally the animation industry was valued at $244 billion – with the US, the UK, Japan, Germany and China controlling the major chunk of the market. Eyeing that league, Pakistan, of course, was just taking its own jittery steps in that direction.

So what happened in the animated industry of Pakistan between the launch of Commander Safeguard and Teen Bahadur’s release, and where is it headed? With the trailer of ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Makhror’ whetting our curiosity, Profit was intent on finding out.

The one minute six seconds trailer begins with an aerial shot of a lake where a bird is seen flying over a jungle, capturing the beauty of the scene painted in vibrant colors. As the teaser progresses, the quality of production and animation is unmistakably evident – making it hard to believe that the clip has been plucked from an indigenous animated movie – produced by 3RD World Studios, an Islamabad-based company specializing in the genre.

In recent years the use of native animated industry has grown manifold in advertising and short movie projects, . In the full-length animation movies, though, there is scant progress, with only ‘Teen Bahadur’ and its sequel making it to the big screen.

From the inception of Commander Safeguard to the projection of Chinoy’s feature film, Pakistan’s television screens have enjoyed ‘Mr Jeem’, ‘Baankey Mian’, ‘Milkateers’ and ‘Dettol Warriors’ – all short advertising campaigns or promos.

But the 3RD World Studios, it seems, is bent on changing the landscape for cinegoers by creating homegrown animated movies.  

“We established 3RD World Studios for the specific purpose of making animated feature films,” says Uzair Zaheer Khan, producer and director of the upcoming project.

“Our culture, our language, our values are unique and fascinating and haven’t been properly explored in this medium. We feel we want to tell stories with a purpose as opposed to making films that are only entertainment. ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor’ is an adventure film with a wildlife conservation theme and it is meant for viewers of all ages,” said Khan.

Adults in the audience

Previously animated movies targeted children below the age of nine, internationally. However, with the passage of time and with shows like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy’, there has been a shift in the viewership, bringing a large number of adults to the audience.

Now international movie makers are targeting all age groups with their productions whereas in Pakistan the trend has just started to kick in and Uzair along with his team hopes to catch the attention of a sizable number of viewers.

“We feel that animated content is a great tool for social reform. Our children need to be taught countless lessons that will enable them to grow and become architects of a better future,” said Production Head, Usman Iqbal of the purpose behind delving into the animated movie industry.

“Lessons like the value of hard work, equality, justice, truthfulness, tolerance etc. What better way to teach them than to show them through the consequences of a character’s actions in an entertaining animated feature film,” added Iqbal.

Animated movie… the highest grossing

“Animated films are an important and a fast-growing part of the global film industry. They account for a major portion of the film industry revenue, internationally,” said Khan, of the market where in 2016 an animated movie ‘Finding Dory’ with $486 million was the highest grossing in the US and Canada, leaving behind action films from renowned houses like ‘Deadpool’, ‘Spiderman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America’.

For 2017, another animation, ‘Despicable Me 3’ is currently leading the global box office with 135 million tickets sold.

“Pakistan is just starting out in this medium and as better and better films get produced, like the live action ones, we hope that the following for such movies and the overall viewership numbers will grow in Pakistan,” said Khan. Since the international market is according to various assessments is growing by five percent annually, there is no reason that it should not reflect in our neck of the woods.

Presumably to accommodate the growing trend 3D format screens – the most popular alike for animated and live-action movies – are now growing at a faster pace: 17 percent (against 15% two years ago). In cinemas globally, the 3D accounts for 56 percent of total screens.

The same local movie industry was invaded by Oscar-winner Chinnoy’s ‘Teen Bahadur’ and its sequel ‘Teen Bahadur: The Revenge of Baba Balaam’ (2015 and 2016 respectively). Combine they grossed over $1 million, with the former having the highest-ever yield in local cinema – previously ‘Rio2’ had held the record with an estimated $427,000.

Though in its infancy with only a handful of animated feature films produced indigenously, the trend is upwardly mobile for a long time and our producers have moved on globally too.

Asim Fida Khan, Meer Zafar Ali and Shehryar Hydari are some of the names that have made it big in the global animated industry with their creative contributions in projects like ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘the Huntsman’, ‘X-Men First Class’, ‘Mummy’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Life of Pie’ and ‘Spiderman3’, along with advertisements of top corporates – Audi, Nike, Lexus, UPS, Mazda, Hyundai, Sega and Blackberry.

Oscars galore

Meer Zafar Ali went on to become the first Pakistani to grab an Oscar in 2007 for Golden Compass (co-director). His endeavors did not stop there and he grabbed a second and third Oscar in 2013 and 2014 for his work in ‘Life of Pie’ and ‘Frozen’.    

In its last stages of production, reflecting confidence ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor’ has been locally produced in its entirety – without any outsourcing.

So, despite a number of globally acknowledged talents, why does the Pakistani industry lag behind?

“It is not that Pakistanis are incapable of matching internationally-produced quality, it just comes down to the fact that you invest only that which you can recover,” said Khan.

Return on films in Pakistan, he holds forth, is generally lower due to a lack of trend as well as the low number of cinema screens. This becomes a major hurdle in the production of quality content, as bigger teams and longer production cycles, which translates into higher costs, are a prerequisite.

However, with the ongoing revival of Lollywood, the faith of the investors in Pakistani cinema stands revived too. Two cases in point are of Abraaj Group with their recent partnership with Cinepax Cinemas and successful expansion of Cinepax to second tier cities like Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Gujrat, Murree and Hyderabad. Against a population of one million, it is a grim scenario that only too small a ratio of 0.5 screens exists, but the trend seems to be growing with Cinepax’s plans including the opening of 80 new cinema screens in the next four years.   

“We hope in time, earnings of filmmakers will grow and in turn encourage better films and production quality,” Khan concluded.

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Animation with a purpose Q & A

Profit: Introduce us to 3rd World Studios and the under-production movie?

Uzair Z Khan: We established 3RD World Studios for the specific purpose of making animated feature films. Pakistani culture, language, and values are unique and fascinating and haven’t been properly explored in this medium. We want to tell stories with a purpose as opposed to only entertainment. ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor’ is an adventure film with a wildlife conservation theme and is meant for viewers of all ages.

Profit: Is this your first project or are there any other productions under the banner?

UZK: This is our first feature film project. Previously, our core team members have mostly done international work. I’ve also had the experience of setting up, designing, directing and producing the animated series Burka Avenger (Season 1) for another studio.

Profit: Given that only a small number of such films is produced locally, what made you adopt this less trodden path?

Usman Iqbal: We feel that animated content is a great tool for social reform. Our children need to be taught countless lessons that will enable them to grow and become architects of a better future. These lessons are being ignored in our current educational curriculum or are relatively ineffective. Such as value of hard work, equality, justice, truthfulness, tolerance etc. What better way to teach them than to show them through the consequences of a character’s actions in an entertaining animated feature film. Besides, we are doing what we do best, professionally.

Profit: What should we be expecting from ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor’?

UI: This is the first step towards our goal of reaching excellence in this field. You can expect substantial progress in the overall quality as compared to previous Pakistani animated films. We’ve worked hard to make it entertaining with strong storytelling and acting, wrapped in visually engaging content.

Profit: When are you planning to release it?

UI: We are on the last leg of our production process. However, we haven’t finalized a release date as yet.

Profit: Tell us about animated movies industry internationally and what are you aiming for in Pakistan?

UZK:  Animated films are an important and a fast growing part of the global film industry. Internationally, they account for a major portion of the film industry revenue. Pakistan is just starting out in this medium and just like the live action film scene, we hope that the trend towards such films and the overall viewership numbers will grow in here, as better and better films get produced.

Profit: What do you think is the scope of animated movies in our local cinema?

UI: Children are a major influencer in any household, worldwide. Since quality content in the Urdu language is missing in Pakistan at the moment. We believe if we make meaningful and entertaining animated movies that touch core issues facing us today, more and more viewers will be inclined towards watching these films and parents will be happy exposing their children to it.

Profit: How much investment is required for a good quality animated movie?

UZK: Returns on films in Pakistan are generally lower due to a lack of trend as well as the low number of cinema screens. This becomes a major hurdle in production of quality content as quality requires bigger teams and longer production cycles, which translates into higher costs. It is not that Pakistanis are incapable of matching internationally produced quality, it just comes down to the fact that you invest only that which you can recover. We hope in time, earnings of filmmakers will grow and in turn encourage better films and production quality.

Profit: How much is your investment in this project?

UZK: This film is self-financed by 3rd World Studios and we’ve tried to keep the cost at par with live action films, even though animated films costs are usually higher compared to most live action films.

Profit: Are you hopeful to get a similar kind of business return in Pakistani cinema?

UZK: We expect ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor’ to be well received by audiences and will enable us to continue making even better films in the future.

Profit: What are the challenges of making such a movie for the local cinema?

UI: There are quite a few capable people wanting to take a plunge into new animated film projects but have had trouble getting funding – as not enough animated films have been made to raise the investor confidence. Moreover, animated feature films are still uncharted territory as not enough data is available to gauge Pakistani consumer behavior/preferences.

Profit: Given the extraordinary benchmark of international animated movies, what do you think we need to achieve locally to get recognition in international cinema?

UI: We have a lot of talent in this country. However, the bar on the quality of these films cannot be raised to international standards overnight. This requires that we strive to better the quality of each consecutive film being produced, thus encouraging an industry in Pakistan, which in turn will raise the skillset of Pakistani artists. Better earnings will also have a big impact on the overall quality of such films.

Profit: Where do you see Pakistan in terms of animated movies in the next 5-10 years?

UZK: If there is an appetite for such content and people actually go watch these films in theatres instead of just praising or criticizing them online, then Pakistani animated films have a chance of competing at an international level in the near future.