Alternative gems: How micro movie houses cement Philippine cinema’s legacy

Independent cinema has always thrived in these micro movie houses; but the theaters’ low numbers signify the threat of the genre’s development.

There’s nothing like going to the movies.

Imagine relaxing on a comfy chair with your friends beside you, gobbling popcorn even before the trailers finish. But the threats of the COVID-19 pandemic restricted access to cinemas worldwide last March 2020 to lessen the spread of the virus. It wasn’t until late 2021 when the gates of movie houses opened to the Filipino public again. With the fears of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreading still lingering—especially in closed spaces like movie theaters—cinemas are working hard to assure moviegoers that their safety is a priority.

Still, while big theaters found within malls are slowly regaining their pre-pandemic foot traffic, micro cinemas aren’t fairing as well. “I don’t think you will survive by [just] selling tickets, ‘yun ang mahirap talaga sa micro cinema [industry],” Sine Pop owner Carlson Chan discloses. These theaters’ miniscule size, hole-in-the-wall locations, and unorthodox movie lineup may be factors as to why people aren’t knocking on their doors. However, owners continue to highlight their advocacy of empowering local films by keeping their businesses open.

(That’s what’s difficult about the micro cinema industry.)

From screen to screen

Just like snowflakes, no two micro cinema origin stories are alike. Prior to 2017, Chan shares that Sine Pop’s 28-seater boutique theater in Cubao, Quezon City was originally a pop-up film screening service. It wasn’t until he considered buying a property that Sine Pop’s current iteration took form, utilizing a former family home to house the theater.

At present, the movie house only showcases one film at a time, rotating titles every few weeks. “Mahirap magkaroon ng maraming titles [at once],” he elaborates. “So we’d rather focus on one title and then screen it for a prolonged period.” As of writing, the theater is mostly open to the public on Sundays; still, Chan makes sure people know that Sine Pop is “dedicated to its goal of giving movie pleasure to visitors.”

(It’s difficult to have many titles at once.)

Meanwhile, Bacolod’s Safehouse is located within the Art District—the passion project of Ben Lopue III. “I gave a space for the local arts because I felt na there’s no space in Bacolod for local artists,” he reminisces, citing film as one of the mediums he integrated into his advocacy. To have films shown in the theater, he collaborates with local filmmakers and shows their works. “I [tell] the filmmakers or artists na there’s a space and whatever you want to show, you can use it,” he elaborates. “That’s pretty much the goal.” True to his word, Kurt Soberano’s Pagdayaw, Candy Nagrampa’s Ang Kalibutan ni Nunelucio Alvarado, and Jade Snow’s Bodabilista have recently premiered in Safehouse, giving Negrense independent filmmakers their chance at the spotlight.

For patrons of micro cinemas like Riddle Alcantara (II, CAM), these spaces are a vital venture for the film industry as a whole, even with the overpowering presence of bigger movie theaters. “I prefer going to these micro cinema houses because they are a great platform to showcase the potential future of the Filipino film making industry,” she says. Echoing Lopue’s advocacy, she believes these movie houses are “the stepping stone” toward an improved treatment of the local independent film production.

On shaky ground

But the flourishing of these spaces may take longer than expected. Micro cinemas’ already niche following further dwindled when the pandemic hit, leaving many theaters deserted. Safehouse’s 25-seat theater was no exception—the Art District’s outdoor vicinity is an advantage, but unlike before, it doesn’t always entice people to come. “We would do screenings with fewer people. If only five or eight people [attend], then that’s how it was [going to be],” Lopue remarks.

Meanwhile, Chan is skeptical about the micro cinema industry as a whole, asserting that “there is [no] active micro cinema movement right now, especially after the pandemic [ravaged communities].” Showing independent films remains Sine Pop’s utmost priority, but it has taken to using the theater for private screenings, book launches, workshops, and press conferences to stay afloat financially. One example is Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan’s Angeli Bayani conducting acting technique classes in Sine Pop’s theater.

The blowback doesn’t end there. Now that visibility for their work is not guaranteed, creatives behind the camera are also weighing their options. “I’ve had conversations with people who are a part of the industry, [who] shared [that] the pandemic has made the struggle of being independent almost impossible to come by,” Alcantara recounts. Some wonder if filmmaking is worthwhile right now, let alone if scarce resources can even produce something good.

A kernel of hope

Independent filmmaking’s future is rocky at best, if the last few years are a precedent. But Sine Pop and Safehouse hope to stick around until the industry fully regains its footing. Some films now go directly to streaming, but Alcantara, Chan, and Lopue agree that these outlets are no match for the cinematic feel that only a theater can evoke. “The audience may satisfy their general hunger via home entertainment, but the big screen can fulfill the next level of [movie-watching] experience,” Chan posits.

The collective human interaction people have come to miss can also be restored. “After the movie, people discuss, criticize, talk, or share [with each other],” Lopue muses. Whether it’s with one other person or a thousand, uniting through art furthers one’s understanding of it, of oneself, and of other people. This rings true to Alcantara’s experience, who enthuses that there is a “future for the micro cinema industry in a world wherein the Filipino people see how much these independent films have to give.”

And as history unfolds before everyone’s eyes, it’s time people recognize the unflinching narratives they reflect. “Fresh perspectives and innovative technicalities are how filmmakers want their stories to be told. It is important to amplify [these] voices, simply for people to [start] paying attention,” she adds. In powerful and persuasive art lies the hard truths, and micro cinemas are a catalyst for finally bringing them forward.

By Magz Chin

By Marypaul Jostol

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