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The shifting tides of Philippine movies: An interview with Erwin Blanco

The morning after getting uproariously drunk for Piolo Pascual’s birthday, Erwin “Lucky” Blanco sat beside the pool in Thailand. A throbbing headache kept him sidelined from the day’s activities. Left only with his laptop, he scoured the net for ideas for his next film. Snow. Sorrow. Suspense. Hours later, woven from a hundred loose threads into one, the story of Nuuk was born. Years later, Nuuk is now set to premiere.

In discussing previous film Kita Kita, Blanco says it all started with an inuman, “I got frustrated, bakit ganun? Sa pogi lahat nangyayari ang love, paano kami mga pangit? Bawal kami ma-in love?” Adapting to the environment, drawing inspiration wherever you may be, creating something beautiful from the faintest whisper of an idea, and the ability and focus to push an idea forward to make a film—that is what makes a producer. 

(Kita Kita started from a drinking session. Why does love only happen to attractive people? What about us ugly people, can’t we fall in love?)

Behind closed doors

A producer’s job covers such a wide scope of responsibilities that many find it difficult pinpointing their actual role. Blanco clarifies that there are three kinds of producers involved in the film-making process. First, an executive producer who finances the film; second is a line producer who manages the film’s budget; and finally a producer who collaborates with the writers, cinematographers, and actors to discuss the creative direction of the film. Experienced in all three roles, Blanco enjoys the third role the best as it is the most creative role out of the three. As an executive producer for his company, Mavx, he handles more administrative processes, but he still finds time to conceptualize his ideas for projects like Nuuk

From creating and pitching the idea to computing the estimated budget of a film, it is a responsibility that requires grit, tenacity, and experience to translate a vision to the silver screen. “Kami nag-lelegwork to make [the movie] possible,” Blanco elaborates. 

(We do the legwork to make the movie possible.) 

In a country where talent and hard work is simply not enough to succeed in the film industry, producers have to think about profitability. “As a producer, it’s hard to shell out money when the Filipino audience is more likely to patronize Hollywood [movies] due to production value,” he explains in Filipino. 

State of Philippine cinema

In a few months, we will be celebrating the Centennial Year of Philippine Cinema from September 12, 2019 to September 11, 2020. This marks a hundred years since the premiere of Jose Nepomuceno’s Dalagang Bukid, the first Filipino-produced and directed feature film. Since then, the stories of our journeys, trials, and romances have filled countless reels of film. But a century later, it appears the story of Philippine cinema has just begun.

As one of Southeast Asia’s top filmmaking nations, several local films have garnered international recognition. In 2015, the wildly popular Heneral Luna vied for a nomination in the 88th Academy Awards. In 2016, Ma Rosa won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival. The rock opera Season of the Devil competed in last year’s Berlin Film Festival. With such accolades, it is tempting to believe that the Philippines lies on the verge of emerging as a global filmmaking nation. 

However, the few standout films that our local cinema industry has produced hides its fragile state. Despite the critical success of some films, their commercial performance in their home market is comparatively weaker than foreign films. In 2017, Beauty and the Beast grossed more than P680-million while in the same year, Blanco’s Kita Kita earned only P320-million. This example reflects the larger struggles of the local movie scene. “Since the industry is not that big, it is more difficult for the producer to produce a high budget film,” Blanco explains in Filipino. Philippine films accounted for only 29 percent of their 2017 domestic box office, a figure similar to other Southeast Asian countries. 

The good, the bad, the technical

Aside from the local scene’s technical and financial disadvantages, movie attendance in general is declining. While heavy traffic, outdated cinema setups, and high ticket prices are all factors, the biggest reason for the decrease may come from the rise of streaming services. “That’s why you have to elevate your film because you have a competitor in Netflix,” he explains. But streaming services can distribute even smaller productions to a mass audience, which is profitable for content creators like Blanco. 

The producer explains that since moviegoers pay for expenses outside of movie tickets when they choose to watch a film in cinema, they prefer films that are not too outlandish. He describes the Filipino movie-going scene as “escapist” so “artsy” and indie films might have a more difficult time in the box office. He also notes that beyond the financial aspect, it also saddens him when less people experience the film on the big screen, considering that the cinema was their original platform. “That’s why pinaghihirapan mo talaga every shot because you can see it on the big screen,” he explains.

(You work hard on every shot.)

Moving forward

Blanco believes that despite the state of the Philippine movie industry, one should not compromise quality in filmmaking. “If hindi natin binago ‘yung content or how we do films, we’ll be in a bad shape. As a producer, I understand the risks and the hardship to earn. Mahirap sumugal ngayon because the movie industry is in bad shape. But we really have to risk kung gusto mo talaga maibalik ang viewership,” he affirms.

(If we don’t change our content, we’ll be in bad shape. It’s hard to gamble because the movie industry is in bad shape. We have to take risks if we want viewership to return.)

Having said this, he does not believe that formulaic films are inherently bad—it is merely a matter of taste. “Crazy Rich Asians is formulaic, but it earns here,” he says in Filipino. “When I watched it, I felt like I already knew the plot; but I still enjoyed it.” For him, what matters is emotional delivery and quality storytelling. He reflects this philosophy in Mavx, where he attempts to strike a balance between “artsy” and “formula” films.

Ultimately, Blanco believes that the best way to uphold the standards of Philippine cinema is for filmmakers to stick to their vision. With Kita Kita, he faced heavy criticism when he pitched his vision. “Umabot sa point na pinagtatawanan ako, kasi parang you’re crazy to produce it. Walang audience ‘yan, walang selling point yan, walang eye-candy,” Blanco shares the comments he got when he first pitched Kita Kita. But the movie’s surprising success proved that taking risks and prioritizing quality storytelling will help revitalize the industry. 

In the end, “the future of the movie industry is with all of us.”

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