Is the ‘high concept’ formula killing creativity in the Pakistani film industry?

“Why should I go to the cinema when I can stream it on Netflix, later on?” asked one of my university fellows when I asked him if he has seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster. If you are ever confronted with a question of this sort, here’s how to rightfully answer it.

Film marketing management has gained significant importance in the recent past, owing to a wide range of entertainment options available for people to be consumed at home. Today, a person can access a Netflix account comprising of 10,000 plus titles for a mere Rs. 1200/month at his home. He, therefore, should have a good reason to spend extra money at a cinema. Hence, marketing a film is very crucial these days and if done rightly, it can bring good results.

What is the “High Concept” formula?

To give viewers a fulfilling movie experience that will encourage them to get out of their houses, film studios worldwide adopt the “High Concept” formula. It is used by major film studios like Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal and is also practiced by the Pakistani film industry.

High-concept, a term coined by Barry Diller during his tenure at the ABC Network, is a film narrative idea which is unique yet very straightforward, can easily be communicated and easily comprehended by the public. When a motion picture is produced using “high-concept”, it becomes easily “marketable”. The connection between marketability and the high concept, therefore, is very strong.

To make it more clear, here are some examples of “High-Concept” films from Hollywood:

Titanic (1997): A film that needs no introduction, Titanic can be termed as the most successful “high-concept” film to be produced by Hollywood. It is a simple love story combined with a big tragedy which made for an immersive cinematic experience.

Jurassic Park (1998): Steven Spielberg’s classic dinosaur adventure re-defined the “high concept” formula by pushing the boundaries in storytelling with the inclusion of stunning visual effects. The film broke all records at the box-office and is considered as one of the most successful film franchise of Hollywood.

King Kong (2005): Peter Jackson’s adventure-filled thriller tells the story of a film crew trapped on an island, surrounded by a giant ape. This movie is a startling example of “high-concept” and it even had a reboot by the name of Kong: Skull Island in 2017.

Is Pakistan practicing the “high-concept” formula for its films?

Post the recent revival of cinema in Pakistan, it can be said that local filmmakers studied the techniques of “high-concept” filmmaking and adopted the framework in their multiple productions. i.e.  Sellable star cast, unique storyline, pop culture references, catchy music, and foreign locales.

Some examples of local “high-concept” films are:

Jawani Phir Nahin Ani 2 (2018): Filmed at exotic locations of Turkey and Dubai, the film tells the story of a Pakistani man who falls in love with the daughter of an Indian ambassador. We can term this film as the most successful “high-concept” Pakistani film as it exploited the “Pakistan-India” conflict which is always a hit whether in Bollywood ( Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Veer-Zaara, Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai) or in Lollywood (Tere Pyar Mein, WaarSherdil). Moreover, the film had two major superstars Humayun Saeed and Fahad Mustafa for the first time together in a film which increased its marketability and made it the most successful motion picture of 2018. It recently achieved the benchmark of minting Rs 70 crore at the local box office.

Wrong No. (2015): Based on the classic genre of “mistaken identity”, this romantic comedy revolving around two identical persons is a case of low budgeted “high-concept” film. Despite having a fresh star cast, the film went on to become a success and gave competition to its competitor Bin Roye (starring Mahira Khan) at the box office.

3 Bahadur: Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy produced Pakistan’s first computer-animated feature-length “high-concept “film. The film became a success story by collecting Rs 6.5 crores at the local box office beating the record of Hollywood animated film Rio 2 in Pakistan.

The Donkey King (2018): It can be termed as a “game-changer” film.  The film was produced on a budget of Rs. 5 crores approximately but went on to gross Rs 24.05 crore at the box office. The film cleverly included several “high concept” hooks including political satire, stunning visual effects, and foot-tapping music. The film targeted children but it also created interest among the adults due to the “politically relevant” nature of its storyline.

Teefa in Trouble (2018): Ali Zafar’s debut in Pakistan film industry became the first “high-concept” film to create box office history despite releasing on a non-holiday. Without the support of any festival or holiday, the film managed to do a whopping business of Rs 40 crores at the box office.

High concept formula or the death of creativity?

While the “high-concept” formula can be termed as a clever marketing tactic, some critics term it as the death of creativity. Critics describe “high concept” as relying heavily upon the replication and combination of previously successful narratives i.e. Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 was a replication of the story of Jawani Phir Nahin Ani 1. Similarly, Wrong No. was a reformed Pakistani version of the Bollywood film Judwaa.

Here is what the experts have to say:

Nabeel Qureshi, the director of hits such as the Na-Maloom Afraad series, Actor In Law & the critically acclaimed Load Wedding says that he has deliberately never followed the “high-concept” formula in any of his films. He adds, “When we started working on our first feature Na Maloom Afraad back in 2014, there was no industry back then.  Therefore, we had no formula to follow as the “emergent cinema” was just starting out. NMA became a hit. I think, after a film of a certain genre becomes successful, other people start replicating the elements of the hit film in their productions to ensure success. By doing this, the “high concept” is practiced by default.”

Similarly, an independent filmmaker (requested anonymity) believes that “high-concept” can prove to be a “safe” marketing ploy in the short-run but it can be damaging in the long-run. He believes that major players like ARY and GEO need to invest in the marketing of films with unique storylines such as Laal Kabotaar and Pinky Memsaab.  He asserts that small films like these need to be marketed properly so that they reach the right audience and end up making money at the box office. This will not only promote creativity, but it will encourage people to finance in Pakistani films.

Mr. Aziz Khattak, Manager Operations, Capri Cinema, Karachi tends to disagree. He argues that cinema is a “larger than life” medium and therefore requires “high-concept” films. He shares that Capri Cinema screened arthouse films including Laal Kabotaar and Pinky Memsaab. Both of them failed to perform well at Capri. Mr. Aziz shares that their cinema is for masses and “high-concept” films are popular among them. As per him, the masses don’t find value in watching low-budget Pakistani films.

This topic will remain debatable. But “high concept” or not, the Pakistan Film Industry currently needs films throughout the year which not only entertain but make money at the box office. We can’t wait to see what the second quarter of 2019 has in store for us.

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