Philippines 2015
Glimpses of the Future

Cinema Purgatorio

Wracked by financial crisis, Philippine cinema does not have a future, except on television. Malls and Hollywood-style industrial entertainment spell doom for small theaters and for films that speak to the Filipino soul.

Illustration by Chong Ardivilla

I RECENTLY took a peek at the entertainment section of the country’s most widely circulated broadsheet morning paper, and it was no surprise for me to find no Pilipino movie being shown in any of the movie houses connected with malls and commercial centers in Metro Manila. This was not the first time I’ve had this experience this year. Actually, having no Pinoy film to see in Metro Manila has become quite usual.

In 2003, the local movie industry churned out 60 films. So far this year, not more that 30 have been produced. Even Regal Films, the busiest company in the last two decades, has come up with only 10. There will probably be at least four new films opening before Christmas and seven major productions from other companies before the year ends, thanks to the Metro Manila Film Festival. Still, that makes for a pretty paltry sum for the industry, which is clinging to the filmfest for dear life, since it is the only clear and economically viable and justification for making films nowadays.

And to think that 10 years ago, at least two new movies opened every week. Which only means the movie in my mind about the industry in 2015 is dark, dark, dark.

Most movie workers already believe that the local film industry is either dying or dead. Producers, former superstars, and dethroned action kings blame high government tax and movie piracy. Some filmmakers even believe that far too many foreign movies are shown in the country and that the censors treat local films unfairly.

Part of the real reason, however, is that there is confusion among filmmakers about what movies to make. The old reliable formulas don’t work anymore, even as some innovative filmmakers are stumped by old studio systems.

But it all really comes down to the budget. The accepted economic formula for the industry is you have to gross three times what you spent making the movie just to break even. So a P10-million movie must earn not less than P30 million at the tills; otherwise, it would have been all for nothing. Big studios are bound to spend more because they get actors with big names with equally big rates. .

The independent producers who hold offices in Escolta had found a way around this formula: get a few unknown and therefore inexpensive actresses willing to show their bodies, shoot the movie in a week on location, and spend only about P3 million. If the movie grossed P10 million, they would have earned a net profit of P1 million. These films are shot on location to control production costs. All one needs is a plantation or a seaside village where rentals are low. Forget concerns about exposing audiences to local culture and giving them a taste of village life; this is why we have movies about egg production, eggplant and kangkong horticulture, tahong cultivation, pineapple agriculture, pottery, fabric weaving, etc.

The predominantly male market of these films is a limited one. But it is a reliable market. The malls, though, have put a stop to the men’s cinematic flesh thrills. Just a few months ago, the SM mall chain began refusing to show these films. Now it is back to family movies at the malls. This is no caprice on the side of the mall owners; it is a move that is economically sound. People who go to the malls have money to spend, and mall owners want them to part with as much money as possible.

Here’s how the shopping center executives probably figured out the economics of movie-watching: To watch a movie in Manila, one has to shell out at least P80. To be assured of reserved seating, you pay a lot more — from P150 up to P290, if you wanted unlimited popcorn. Since you are watching a family movie (only family movies at the mall theaters, remember?), you will be spending much more because chances are you will have someone else with you.

No wonder the bakya crowd has fled the theaters in droves.

Hollywood movies are easing out local films, which are saddled by high costs, high taxes, and a dwindling audience. {photo by Kathleen Geslani]

I GREW up in a town where going to the movies is a social event. The movie itself was just an excuse. People ate and conversed inside the theater. Food was sold along the aisles by vendors who shouted out what they were selling. People booed characters they hated, cheered during fight scenes, and sang along during musical numbers. Lovers experimented with their sentiments in the darkened hall. Even young boys managed to deal with their sexual self-discoveries in the flickering light of the projected images. When pundits created the term “bakya” crowd, they were referring to people like me, my family, and the rest of my townmates.

It was only after I came to Manila that I was taught to watch movies in silence, to follow and trace the twists and turns of their plots, and study the struggle of the actors to internalize their characterization. Most of all, my early teachers taught me that it was wrong to be entertained because life is so hard and painful. Thankfully, I later met people like the late great Ishmael Bernal who told me, “Hoy, pelikula lang ‘yan (Hey, it’s just a movie).”

Bernal and Lino Brocka recognized and acknowledged the bakya crowd because they made most of their movies for these people. It is precisely because of the commercial success of their bakya-crowd movies that their producers allowed them to make their “personal” films, even if these did not make money. In a way, therefore, the bakya crowd subsidized their obra maestras.

Unfortunately for the younger generation of filmmakers, the bakya crowd has gone scarce. Since members of this class no longer have neighborhood theaters to patronize (because all of these shut down during the last decade) and they cannot afford to watch movies at the mall, they have had no choice but to take on the next best thing: free television.

In the last five years, television has become the dominant entertainment venue for the bakya crowd. Even actors and actresses who used to be too proud to appear on TV were suddenly introduced to humility and now have regular stints in drama series and comedy shows. And since their fans now get a fill of them on a regular basis, the reason to watch them on the big screen has diminished. At the same time, competition among the TV stations have fueled innovations (some inspired by examples from the United States) that has led to the latest discovery by the bakya crowd (now called the text generation): empowerment. Through texting, they can decide on the outcome of the drama series they are watching; they can decide who must be a star (regardless of talent). TV has given them a great sense of empowerment, and it has come free.

And so the movie industry has lost its biggest market, although once in a while, the bakya crowd has clattered back to theaters, as in the case of “Tanging Ina,” which earned more than P100 million. Come December, producers hope its members will be back for the Metro Manila filmfest. For most of the year, however, chances are they will be glued to their TV-and texting like mad.

Accepting this loss, the trend among film studios these days is to focus on the mall habitués. Old theaters have renovated to look like the ones found in the United States, complete with flashy candy display counters, soda dispensers, and popcorn machines. About half of all the mall theaters in Metro Manila now sport this look, with the cinemas themselves boasting of having the latest projectors and the most technically exotic sound system (from THX to DTS, to DOLBY surround sound).

But such technological developments have gone beyond what is practicable for the local film industry. No locally produced movie is made with these innovations in mind. Local post-production facilities are still not capable of matching them. Most of our films are made with 1980s technology, so when they are shown in the malls, it is like inserting a 5.5 floppy into a Mac G4. It is becoming obvious that our theaters have been fitted with these gizmos to make them ready for Hollywood films only. The industry has practically painted itself into a corner.

How will the local movie industry be in 2014? It will depend on how we survive the next two years. According to Unitel’s Tony Gloria, who produced last year’s “Crying Ladies” and “Imelda,” the old form of the industry is dying a natural death because it refuses to acknowledge the emergence of new technologies in filmmaking. He believes that digital moviemaking is so far the most available and accessible way of cutting production costs, the biggest problem faced by film producers. Raw film stock is the most expensive item in any film production. But a new technology based on relatively cheaper digital video format is now available. Gloria has just finished producing Laurice Guillen’s “Santa Santita,” which uses this. He says half of Unitel’s productions in the next two years will be on high-definition format.

Erik Matti, the director of last year’s “Prosti” and “Gagamboy.” is currently editing his own high-definition movie, “Pasiyam.” His and Gloria’s films have been shown in international film festivals and are enjoying critical acclaim, but both agree that their movies will always be made for Filipinos. Gloria says that the Filipino spirit, which will be shown by how we compose the shots, cut the film, play out the emotions, and tell the story, will prove its universality if we do it well.

Before the year ends, many moviegoers would have seen and judged “Santa Santita” and “Pasiyam.” The people’s judgment on these two films could determine the future of Philippine cinema in the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, most of us will be watching television.

Uro Q. de la Cruz wrote screenplays for Peque Gallaga, Ishmael Bernal, and Butch Perez. He has also directed several films. This year, he published his first novel, Antyng-antyng. Currently, he directs “Bubble Gang” and “Bitoy’s Funniest Videos” for television. He is a board member of the Director’s Guild of the Philippines, Inc or DGPI. Like most other DGPI members, he has not written or directed a movie since 2002.