The continuing decline of the once-thriving movie industry in the Philippines should surprise no one. For a decade, insiders and observers have warned of the impending death of the movie industry, but no one has done anything to prevent it. Not the government, which continues to level very high taxes on the industry while giving almost no support in return. Not the producers, who continue to recycle old movie formulas in the hope of gaining the audience’s affection, which they have irretrievably lost. Certainly not the biggest stars of Filipino cinema. Instead of striving to rescue the industry to which they owe so much, they have chosen to escape en masse into another fantasy world: Politics, where their popularity overcomes their more obvious deficiencies.
The numbers tell a depressing story. From the mid-1980s to 1996 the Filipino movie industry was a powerhouse, with more than 200 movies produced each year. In 1997 film production suddenly went into a decline, and the downward trend has not abated. In 2006, only 56 movies were produced. It is expected that this year only 30 movies will be produced - the lowest total in Filipino movie history.
The European Audiovisual Observatory statistics show that the Philippines registered the biggest drop in movie theatre admissions. In the last “good year”, 1996, there were 131 million admissions. The number had plummeted to 80 million by 2003, and 63 million by 2004.
Observers blame this state of affairs on the high cost of movie production, the high cost of movie tickets, and the economic problems that plague the country despite government assurances that the economy is doing well. The Philippine movie industry is probably the most overtaxed in the world: 33 percent of the gross goes to the municipal tax, 12 percent to the value added tax, and another 8 percent to assorted fees. Roughly 52% of a movie’s gross earnings is eaten up by taxes, and none of it goes back to the movie industry. The government has established a Film Ratings Board which gives tax rebates to movies that are deemed “deserving” by the Board members. Of the 150 movies that have been reviewed by the Film Ratings Board, only 9 have been given tax rebates.
Movie tickets cost 80 to 160 Philippine pesos (Php 48 = US$1), low compared to prices in the region, too much when one considers the spending power of the average Filipino. Instead of going to the movies, many families simply buy pirate DVDs, which go for Php 40 to 80. It is estimated that sales of pirate videos reached Php 4.5 billion in 2005. The theatrical box-office gross for that year was Php 2.8 billion.
The Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) was organized during the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos as a showcase for Filipino cinematic excellence. For the duration of the festival, no foreign films would be shown in metropolitan Manila in order to encourage the audience to patronize local films. The early editions of the MMFF saw such masterworks as Burlesque Queen (Burlesk Queen) by Celso Ad Castillo, This Is How We Were, How Are You Now? (Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?) by Eddie Romero, and Miracle (Himala) by Ishmael Bernal.
Today MMFF is an annual exercise in absurdity. The only feature it has retained is the exclusion of foreign films. There is no longer any aspiration to cinematic excellence; entries are selected for their commercial potential by a committee composed of town and city mayors. The selection committee does not need to see a foot of film: the choices are made on the basis of a script summary and a list of directors and stars who might be (they have not signed the contract yet) involved in the production. In the last three years, the top-grossing festival entries have been the fantasy-action flick My Fairy Wife (OK Ka, Fairy Ko) and its sequels. Last year it not only topped the box-office charts, it was also named Best Picture in a very thin - practically anorexic - field.
Pundits blame the dominance of Hollywood films for the downward spiral of the local movie industry. Open a newspaper and you will see ads for new Hollywood movies proclaiming that they made Php 100 million on their first week. On the opposite page, an ad for a local film crows that it made Php 3 million on its first day.
It certainly does not help that for every local movie that opens in Manila theatres, there are ten Hollywood movies, all of them with bigger stars and bigger advertising budgets. But to lay all the blame on Hollywood would be like blaming 50 years of American colonial rule for everything that is wrong with the Philippines. At some point we’re going to have to take responsibility for ourselves.
The simple fact is that the filmmakers have lost touch with the audience. There is a “disconnect” between what producers think the viewers will want, and what the viewers will actually go for. Chito Roño’s horror film Sukob, aka The Wedding Curse, made more than Php 100 million on its first week. Encouraged by its box-office bonanza, producers tried to cash in on the “Asian horror formula”, with dismal results. The box-office performance of The Blossoming Of Maximo Oliveros (Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros), directed by Auraeus Solito, was expected to spur general interest in independent digital films. However, when subsequent digital films such as Bigtime and the low-budget Fil-American production Cavite did not perform as well at the box-office, movie theatres simply stopped exhibiting digital indies. The success of The Bet Collector (Kubrador) by Jeffrey Jeturian and the films of Lav Diaz (the latest being Heremias) at international festivals has not been matched by audience enthusiasm at home.
Rebuffed at the box-office, the movie stars turn to the polls. Actors are the most overrepresented sector in the Senate: of the 24 seats in the Upper House, three are occupied by action stars and 2 by the husbands of drama superstars. In an interview, Film Academy of the Philippines president Leo Martinez called upon his fellow actors not to run for elective positions this year. He suggested that they address the myriad problems of the film industry first, and when they have restored it to working order, they can run for public office. The actors are not listening, or else they cannot hear him for the cheering of the crowds.