The recent death of Dolphy, the King of Comedy, has left movie critics and filmmakers gunning after the restoration of Philippine cinema’s former glory.
All this comes on the back of renewed soul-searching in the film industry. Searching for memories of a long gone (or perhaps non-existent) golden age, we hark desperately back to those days when the Philippines was dubbed the capital of Asian cinema.
A National Statistical Coordination Board study released in February this year revealed sobering news, to say the least. The data has confirmed what many Filipinos have thought for a long time; the local movie industry has declined. The number of films produced in the country has dropped by half over the past ten years. In nearly half a century between the 60’s to the late ‘90s, the Philippines had churned out an average of 140 movies a year, taking 20 percent of the domestic market.
Today that figure has dropped to 73 per annum, or 11 percent of the market. In 2011, only 78 films were made. The reasons? Piracy, competition from abroad, and a lack of local support.
The study’s lead author Gerald Clarino explained, “There are many factors causing the fall. There is piracy and competition from foreign movies. Local movies are also not given as much support from the public.” In contrast to customary policy in the rest of the world, our local film industry does not receive any sort of concrete support from the government.
Since local filmmakers cannot keep up with foreign films that have multimillion-dollar budgets, they settle for cheap brass and not-so-special ‘special’ effects, a stereotypical cast, a concourse of celebrities, and unimaginative plot lines that leave viewers slightly entertained and laughing their asses off… straight out of the cinema.
At this point, is there any chance for their native kin to pick up where they left off, and restore their former glory?
Maybe, if they all go indie.
Independent films are gaining widespread attention these days. Students, artists, and every day Filipinos alike want their stories told through a different lens and through films made with creativity beyond the demands of commerce.
For advertising major Queenie Ong, the first words that come to her mind when she thinks of independent films are “liberated and bold.”
“The directors, writers and the creative behind these films express realities and issues of our modern society in a fresh, bold perspective, following no limitation and restrictions. In indie films, freedom of expression is greatly emphasized,” Ong said.
On a more positive note, the NSCB study also found that while mainstream filmmaking has been on a decline for years, more recent independent films now account for more than half of the total production in the country; 45 films in 2010, and 44 in 2011.
Directors of these films, including Brillante Mendoza, Pepe Diokno and Jim Libiran, have also consistently won foreign film festivals over the years, despite rarely landing the big box-office back home.
All this has been made possible by the ‘democratisation of 21st century media’ and the advent of digital technology, which tends to be cheaper and easier to use than the clunky studios of yore.
Another reason is public weariness with formulaic—flat plot lines typical of contemporary mainstream movies – designed to amass the largest possible audience, and thus attract the most money. These tend to be light, romantic comedies that, while continuing to attract a hefty share of viewers, are starting to look rather dull. But if the rise of independent media is a sign of a growing trend, then this strategy of profit-through-dumbing-down-the-masses appears to have failed.
Unfortunately the independent film sector is suffering the same problems—lack of funding and public support—faced by their commercial counterparts. A skeleton crew, limited lighting set-up and props, and lack of high-end video equipment are evident limitations caused by the film’s financial constraints.
Vis-à-vis commercial films
Coughing up cash is never easy. This is a struggle faced by any filmmaker seeking art over profit. The film industry’s gatekeepers, the distributors, often agonize over such questions as the film’s title – is it catchy enough? The actors and actresses who star in the film – are they famous enough? The plot – does it fit our definition of an epic hit, enough to rake in a solid profit? Only a handful of studios or distributors are willing to shell out cash, and take the risk of spending on an indie film. The flimsy budget then bleeds into the end-product, as viewers compare it to commercially-produced films.
“I prefer commercial films than indie films,” shared sophomore student Sidrick Cabatingan. “In commercial films, the overall quality is better, storylines are clearer, climax could be easily determined, and endings are made properly albeit predictable. Unlike that of the indie films, the camera angles are handled more professionally.”
“The government should allocate more budget in producing and in preserving the culture and the arts, the independent films for example. These independent films display the talents and creativity of local directors,” added Cabatingan.
“Through independent films, we as a nation can share the history and culture of our country,” said business student Gabriel Obligacion.
Due to its limited distribution channels, independent films are only showcased in a specific venue and schedule – The 8th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival for example, was only a 10-day event with films shown mainly at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) with satellite cinemas in Greenbelt and Trinoma. Evidently, only a select group of the cinema market – communication students, film enthusiasts, and patrons of the culture and arts, in particular – are able to watch these independent films, leaving the larger mass market unable to view these artistically-inclined movies.
Obligacion, however, believes that independent films should be part of the regular rotation in cinemas. “A week-long event is clearly not enough for filmmakers to gain opportunity and exposure. Moreover, I think people are longing to find a new perspective, something indie films clearly offer.”
Cabatingan shares the same sentiment. “Indie films are for everyone to enjoy and to relate to. It is, after all, an entertainment medium per se. To exclude the mass market from experiencing these films will be pure discrimination.”
On the other hand, Ong cautions over such a move for independent films to be mass-produced. “I don’t think that the mass market in general will appreciate independent films instantly. These films are more complicated than commercial ones, with plots and techniques different from the usual story-telling the masa is used to. I’m afraid these independent films might not generate the needed attention and support from the general public.”
Ong wishes that “the filmmakers would consider that not all the audience are art critics or scholars to understand every detail of the piece. Some independent films are too vague and complicated. I wish the creative team consider that the normal viewing public, including students like me, are watching and analyzing these independent films as well.”
Digging deeper, issues raised
Too high brow? Indie films, by definition, have always found it difficult to reach the mass market. “Exclusive” venues and airing schedules limit audiences and feed into public perceptions of these films as catering only to a select, elite group.
Communications graduate Ogy Yap added, “There have been efforts to give awareness to Independent cinema, but these have not been successful. Robinsons Galleria has dedicated a theatre for independent cinema, but ticket sales are less than impressive. The duration of the film’s showing is also not as long as those in the mainstream world. “
But shouldn’t Indie films, like Art in general, be free for all? Moving toward a more open society where culture could flourish?
Perhaps taking a grassroots approach, airing the films in places like city halls, barangays, or even basketball courts would make a difference.
On growing popularity “required”
At Cinemalaya every year, throngs of students gather to watch the independent films usually after their professors require them to write reaction papers and reviews.
Ong agrees, but quipped that her desire to watch independent films came naturally. “I voluntarily watched the film festival because I am really interested in the realities of our society and the creative execution in cinematography, video editing by our local filmmakers
“Students will look for opportunities for individual artistry even in the smallest or unrecognized people, something present in Cinemalaya,” expressed Obligacion. “Additionally, an indie film is interesting if the topic or them directly relates to a target market. For example, a film talking about the complexities of a teenage relationship will definitely attract a lot of the young generation.”
At any rate, indie films are an eye opener, giving youth a better appreciation and understanding for art.