Rafay Says: What does the global debate on ‘Netflix Age’ mean for Pakistan?

Netflix age Pakistan

This article is a collaborative work between our editor, Aayan Mirza, and the filmmaker and drama producer, Rafay Rashdi. With the initial idea, Aayan approached Rafay; who also does a segment on Galaxy Lollywood called, Rafay Says, and got insights on how the entertainment industry in Pakistan is shaping up in the wake of the ‘Netflix Age.’ Here is the result of their discussion.

A few years after loudspeakers were invented in the early twentieth century, a debate ensued among Muslim scholars about it. They argued whether or not this scientific invention that technically uses mechanical sounds has any place in religion in general and mosques in particular?

It was a hotly debated topic, and the early naysayers even labelled the instrument as Aala-e-Mosiqi (instrument of music) to intensify their stance. Around a century later, the situation is that the world is calling for a ban on the use of loudspeakers in mosques, and the Muslim communities and their scholars are defending their right to practice their religion through it.

Most things that challenge the norms and traditions; however useful they may be, face resistance in their early days. This is precisely what’s happening with Netflix in particular, and the digital revolution in general in Hollywood and the world over.

The Insecure Hollywood

A group led by the director of the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park films, Steven Spielberg, is fiercely contesting a public case of barring the Netflix movies from being the Oscar considerations.

The debate has intensified after the unsurprisingly surprising success of Netflix’s 2018 drama film, Roma. Spielberg is calling out the token release of the movie in theatres before its Netflix appearance and says that it’s a TV film and should be treated as such. Spielberg has also vowed to raise the issue in the next meeting of Academy’s Board of Governors, of which he is also a member. Netflix has also responded to the entire controversy.

There is evident insecurity in a section of the Hollywood old guards when it comes to embracing the digital age of cinema. The fact is, community watching; where you would watch a film with 300 others, is dying and cinemas, as they stand today, face a threat to their existence. The relevant question to us is, is it the same in Pakistan?

What Does it Mean for Pakistan?

The Pakistani film industry is going through a phase of revival. The cinema culture; for a large section of the populace, is still new, but also expensive. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Pakistan, which has the world’s largest percentage of millennials, is still getting used to liking the idea of watching a movie in a 350-seat dark hall where you laugh and cry in unison.

But then, this section is also the most tech-savvy of all and seeks comfort wherever it is possible. How does this divide playout for a digital platform like Netflix? One way to gauge the situation is to see it through the lens of content producers in Pakistan.

I can name at least seven web-series that are currently being produced in the country, and there may be others on this website who may quote you an even bigger number. But then, if there is such an obvious opportunity out there, why does Hum TV seem to be backtracking on its policy of not making its big-ticket drama, Aangan, widely available to people and reserving it for digital release once its original run ends.

It is a legitimate confusion, and I am glad I took the help of our resident industry insider, Rafay Rashdi, to solve my puzzle. Rafay has produced and directed a film (Thora Jee Le) in the past, and is currently working on a web-series named, Baadshah Begum. Moreover, he also has dramas like O Rangreza, Baandi, and Zan Mureed, among others, to his credit.

For the surprise hit telefilm, Band Tau Baje Ga (starring Hania Aamir & Yasir Hussain), Rafay claims that he had received a lot of flack from the network it aired on. The reason being? His insistence on giving it a film feel than a drama feel as promised by the name “telefilm.”

Ridiculed and told that what he demanded was “against the network SOPs” and meant only for television commercials, he was eventually stripped off of the opportunity to do a “telefilm” or what Spielberg calls “TV movie” ever again.

Such an extensive portfolio gives Rafay an excellent overview of how the three platforms operate now and what shift they are to experience in recent future.

The Rush to Digital

I remember when Baadshah Begum was initially announced, it was supposed to be a TV serial. Later on, Rafay acquired the script of the project and turned it into a web-series. This is what prompted me to approach him first and ask where this sudden rush to the digital medium among the top content producers of our industry is coming from.

“It is true that Baadshah Begum was always supposed to be a TV serial,” Rafay said responding to my query. “When I read the script for the first time, I realised that the element of “family politics” in it was nothing less than that of the famous American TV show, Spartacus (in my personal opinion and let’s minus the medieval era, the blood and gore, and the extensive special effects or set up – just the masala of royal family rivalries).”

“The problem with TV serials is that they talk and talk and talk a lot, and barely offer room for production set up. There are very few producers taking the plunge with out of the box content and that is majorly due to the TRP based model and dragging of episodes for a successful financial “over return”. I didn’t want any of that to happen to Saji Gul’s beautifully crafted script.”

Saji Gul, by the way, was also the writer of O Rangreza, which also bagged quite a few awards last year. “Therefore, I immediately decided that we will cut all such excess out, make the script crisper, and turn it into a web series. Make it fast paced, and avoid compromising on production with a constant check on final content.”

Rafay says that although with constant checks on the story drafts through content consultants they are trying to check all the boxes to get Badshah Begum accepted in the digital realm, he is not afraid to fail. “After all, we’ll never learn if we don’t attempt it. No problem if we fail at it, as long as we are trying. I’m going to do it so that we’re an active participant of this digital phenomenon, evolution, and trend.

Why the Sudden Urge?

Explaining the sudden shift of the industry towards the digital platforms, Rafay said that the biggest motivating factor is the lack of will in the channel owners and their content heads to experiment in terms of content. “Ever seen a poster of a local show? Two to three characters on one poster with a smiling evil male, a mature woman at the background, followed by a girl with a bruise on her face. There’s your brilliant creativity right there.”

“If you are the only producer of ice creams in the world, and you offer just the three flavours, the world will accept and find consolation in what you offer because they are helpless in front of your monopoly. Digital platforms to entertainment producers like me give a chance to break-free from those shackles, experiment with our content, and see if the world would like the fourth and the fifth flavour in their ice creams too?” Rafay explained.

“Digital platforms offer you a tailor based customized approach where they focus on individuals rather than having a sweeping policy. They work on your viewing patterns and gauge similar content and genres for your viewing pleasure. This strategy has absolutely nothing to do with an outdated TRP methodology, and that’s the best thing about it,” he further added.

Beginning of the End of Television?

Rafay’s shackle-breaking statement naturally put an image in my mind where I saw a mass brain-drain happening in television. If that happens, wouldn’t it be the end of this great medium? Rafay believes that it’s not likely as TV has evolved towards ‘Smart Television’ and DTH (Direct-To-Home).

“If you read the recent history of television, at first we had basic cable. This was the place where a show like Friends would run, and alongside it, in the evening would run shows/sitcoms like Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Thirty Rock, Saturday Night Live, Lost, Nip-Tuck, and CSI, to name a few. Then came the era of DSL where you would record all your favourite TV shows of the day on a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) and catch them in your own convenience.”

Rafay says that this trend, coupled with the popularity of phenomena like Kazaa, Torrent, LimeWire and Megaupload were the early signs that the world was moving towards digital.

“See, the fact that even HBO had to launch its own streaming service called, HBO GO, along with the fact that the television screens at your home are getting bigger in size with the passage of time, explains that although people are not moving away from TV; and instead want to build their own home-based theatres, they want their entertainment whenever they feel like enjoying it instead of following the channel dictated showtimes. After all, the term HBO stands for ‘Home Box Office’.”

“The Twilight Zone is meant to make it’s epic return through CBS All Access – another streaming digital platform – Disney+ is meant to launch any day now. Are we going to say no to an ‘Avengers Web Series’? Definitely not,” he adds.

Beginning of the End of Cinemas Then?

Rafay believes that television is not dying, but then the question is that with the push created by the growing screen sizes and the entertainment being available on your palm with platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and more coming in, who would be at the loss eventually?

“I feel the cinemas are going to get the biggest hit, both locally and internationally,” Rafay replied, “the timing may differ, but I have a belief that cinemas are going to get extinct or cut down world-over sooner or later.”

He may be right; the stats certainly support his claims. The trends show that the global cinema ticket sales are falling every year. 2017 raked in record 24-year low numbers as far as the box office is concerned. The numbers for 2018 are not out yet but it is expected that they will be even worse. But is it all relevant to us?

“I believe Pakistan is at least ten years behind as far as our entertainment industry is concerned, nevertheless, this fate of cinema is inevitable no matter where you are. There is a possibility that in the first phase, the cinemas are left only for big ticket films like the Avatars and Godzillas and Titanics. In the long run, however, this trade is gone,” Rafay had me mark his words on it.

Return of Drive-In Cinemas?

While he believes that the huge theatres and multiplexes might not survive in the long and would have to revert back to being malls or in-door amusement parks, Rafay predicts that there is a good possibility that the drive-in cinemas make a comeback.

“I think it will be a sort of premiere experience where you enjoy a film in the comfort of your car, with your loved ones, but still don’t lose on the community watching experience.” He elaborated.

At this moment, there is no credible study present to counter-check whether this global trend of falling movie ticket sales is visible in Pakistan or not. If the number of cinemas are anything to go by, then the film exhibition business in Pakistan is growing every year. The current number of screens as per the federal government’s figures is around 180 and expected to grow exponentially in upcoming years.

For now, I hope that these numbers keep improving and that we get to enjoy the full potential of the Pakistan Film Industry

The Future

With the space shrinking for cinemas globally and the concepts like binge-watching becoming more popular in television, it seems as if we are headed towards a mutation in the entertainment industry where cinema and TV will become one.

Just yesterday, the final-season trailer of the popular American TV series, Game of Thrones, came out. The kind of production quality that the world has moved on to in terms of television is in itself a threat to the cinema. Imagine your digital platforms offering you the same quality in your palms. Which they are to a great extent.

The industry is definitely moving towards that. Netflix is aggressively increasing spending in producing quality original TV shows, and although it will take the platform sometime to match the level of budgets the channels have, that time will undoubtedly be not much.

The Tsunami on the Way

For Pakistan, and especially the content producers here, there is a wave coming unlike any other. “It is a high time that we start working on the production qualities of our TV besides the content that also needs to cater to all sections of the society and experiment with a wide range of genres.” Rafay said as a departing thought.

The current television caters only to two sections of the society: The current-affair-interested husbands and the saas-bahu-interested housewives. As mentioned earlier in this article, with an enormous percentage of millennials who have started making their political and economic choices already, the responsible people in our television industry have kept a large section of the society entertainment-deprived.

This section has already started to entertain itself with shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, You, and others. People like Rafay Rashdi, Wajahat Rauf, and many others have taken a notice of that and therefore, we see the surge in the local content for digital platforms.

If the channel owners and their content heads will keep ignoring this, they will soon find themselves losing the battle that they won’t be able to turn around just by selling their already aired soap operas to streaming services.

As for cinema, for now, it seems detached from whatever Steven Spielberg is up to. Sooner or later, however, they too will start feeling the heat of the global shift. Expect your cinema owners then to either start investing in their own streaming services (some even have already) or expanding the space for the shops and amusement rides in their facilities.

Because the loudspeakers have already made their way in, and they are here to stay!

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