The announcement from SM Cinemas, the largest movie exhibitor in the Philippines, that they are going fully digital in two years, makes it official: film in the Philippines is dead.
As for the box office grosses, it appears to be a banner year for the Star Cinema. Two of its productions this year broke the PHP250 Million barrier (one USD = app 43 Philippine Pesos), with comedy The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin staking a claim to being the highest-grossing film (US$ 7.654M) in Philippine history. Along with the love triangle melodrama No Other Woman (US$6.522M), Praybeyt Benjamin landed in the year-end top ten which, not surprisingly, was dominated by Hollywood blockbuster sequels. The biggest film of 2011 in this former American colony was Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.
Other Filipino movies in the box-office top 20 included Catch Me…I’m in Love and Won’t Last A Day Without You, both romantic comedies starring singer/actress Sarah Geronimo, the love triangle melodrama In the Name of Love, the comedy Pak! Pak! My Doctor Kwak and the horror-comedy Bulong. All of them were produced by Star Cinema.
The movie production arm of the media giant ABS-CBN Corporation also reigned over the annual Metro Manila Film Festival, the two-week period in December when no foreign productions are screened in local theatres. Their fantasy-comedy Enteng Ng Ina Mo was the festival top grosser while the horror Segunda Mano was in third place.
Traditional studio filmmaking has fallen back on tried and tested formulas, with less predictable results. For every hit like No Other Woman there are “underperformers” like Wedding Tayo, Wedding Hindi; for every blockbuster like Praybeyt Benjamin there are disappointments like The Adventures of Pureza: Queen of the Riles. Filmmakers who want to explore other themes and genres turn to the indies, which offer creative freedom but are hampered by a lack of opportunities for commercial exhibition.
Few commercial cinemas screen independently-produced movies—most playdates are reserved for Hollywood movies and regular studio releases. When indies open at the shopping mall multiplex, they do not have long runs. With no advertising and marketing budgets to bring their movies to the knowledge of the general public, indies play to mostly empty houses and close in a couple of days.
In lieu of a distribution network for indie movies, there are indie film festivals. If a movie has good word of mouth it might secure a studio distribution deal or, more likely, invitations to foreign film festivals. Often it would seem that the most interesting Filipino productions are made for discerning foreign audiences.
The annual Cinemalaya festival, now on its seventh year, is the largest showcase for indie cinema in the Philippines. Advertising executive Marlon Rivera’s directorial debut Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank) was both the most-awarded entry and the highest-grossing movie in the film fest. Written by Chris Martinez and starring indie darling turned mainstream star Eugene Domingo, it is a clever parody of the Filipino indies making the rounds of international film festivals: social realist dramas about the misery and hopelessness of the urban poor. Critics disparage such projects as “poverty porn”. With its idiosyncratic style and self-referential wit Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank is not the sort of movie that gets screened in local cinemas. Thanks to a distribution deal with Star Cinema it did open at multiplexes nationwide, becoming a surprise hit.
Cinemalaya now has a Directors Showcase category for established filmmakers who wish to experience the creative leeway indie cinema offers. Jeffrey Jeturian, a director who is comfortable with the mainstream (Bridal Shower, FEFF 2004) as well as indies (Kubrador/The Bet Collector, 2006), returned to the big screen after a five-year absence with Bisperas. Written by Paul Sta Ana, Bisperas follows, in cinema verite fashion, a middle-class Filipino family during a rather traumatic Christmas Eve. Bisperas has been screened in foreign film fests, but not at home.
The Cinema One Originals film festival, funded by the ABS-CBN Corporation and also on its seventh year, premiered a 10-movie selection from an array of genres including horror-romance and social surrealism. Ka Oryang, Sari Dalena’s social drama set in the martial law era, took top honors; the screenplay, Jury, and Audience prizes went to the mockumentary Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay.
Antoinette Jadaone’s feature debut is a delightful and achingly real look at the lives of the “little people” in Filipino film: the extras. One particular extra, Lilia Cuntapay—played by Lilia Cuntapay herself — has been appearing in the movies for decades for very little pay and no recognition. Audiences know her as the distinctive-looking old lady who plays ghouls and witches in horror films, they just can’t remember her name (if they ever knew it). Most unexpectedly, Ms Cuntapay finds herself nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award. The charming mixture of commitment and self-delusion she brings to her work as a bit player is focused on writing her acceptance speech. But too many years of not being acknowledged have left her with way too much to say. How could everything possibly fit in a 90-second thank you?
Can an independently-produced movie with no big stars, a minimal marketing budget and no distribution deal make an actual profit? The horror-comedy Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington is the stuff of case studies: a low-budget production which employed social media marketing and positive word of mouth to become a hit. Making the movie was the easy part but getting a confirmed playdate and then opening in movie houses was a process infinitely more terrifying than anything in the movie. Headlined by the gifted newcomer Martin Escudero, Zombadings ended up grossing over PHP30 million (US$745,000) and running in theatres for a month. It is possible for an indie movie to make it in the Philippines, but do independent producers have the stamina to take on the big studios?