MANILA, Philippines - Our hope for Oscar gold this year rested in the paws of a little film called Bwakaw, the Cinemalaya entry directed by Jun Robles Lana, that tells the story of an old gay man and his dying dog.
Bwakaw had the makings of a strong Oscar contender. It premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews, and generated significant buzz when it was screened at the New York Film Festival. The New York Times hailed the performance of lead actor Eddie Garcia, calling him, “the Filipino Clint Eastwood.” In a glowing review, Hollywood’s Variety magazine called the film, “a quiet charmer.” And industry website AwardsCircuit.com bet that the film was a top contender for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
But when Oscar nominations were announced last January, Bwakaw was nowhere to be found. This, despite the fact the film was backed by Fortissimo Films, an international sales company that represents acclaimed films such as Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. This, despite the multi-million peso advertising campaign, funded by a few good Filipino souls, that ran across Hollywood publications.
The snub came as no surprise, though. The Philippines has been sending entries to the Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards since 1953, with Manuel Conde’s epic Genghis Khan. We have not been nominated a single time, even if we’ve had our hopes set high before.
Five years ago, Philippine press was abuzz with talk about Ploning, the Judy Ann Santos-starrer that was our entry to the 2008 Oscar race. Ploning is still remembered as that small Filipino film that dared for a shot at the gold. The words “impossible,” “herculean” and “daunting” were thrown around the film’s campaign. Juday herself flew out to Los Angeles to promote the film.
“Juday felt like she was a Miss Universe contestant. For us, we were there to represent the Philippines. Ganoon kami ka-gago nung time na yun,” recalls Dante Nico Garcia, director of Ploning.
Ploning’s road to the Oscars was a mad scramble. After the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP — don’t smirk) selected Ploning as our official entry, the team had to immediately rush to meet the October Oscar submission deadline. The team only had two weeks to have the film subtitled and get the print shipped to the US since the FAP’s selection was announced late September.
The other obstacle that they had to go through before actually starting the campaign was looking for a publicist to help them lay the groundwork. Their team haggled with Murray Weismann and Associates, the PR film that handled the Oscar winners such as Crash, Chicago, and Shakespeare in Love, to get their services.
Team Ploning raised funds through the help of celebrities, friends, auctions, dinners, and government assistance (P2.5 million) but it still wasn’t a match to mammoth $50-million campaigns that other films had. Full-page ads in industry publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were also supposed to be part of the campaign, but the fees already amounted to Ploning’s entire production budget.
Ploning then had to rely on screenings to generate awareness among potential Oscar voters. According to the rules of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), you are not supposed to know or contact Academy voters for the Foreign Language film category.
“They will make a few screenings of your film, they will give you the dates but you are not allowed to come. And you’re not allowed to give anything to anyone. They told us that the idea is you’re doing a blind campaign. Hindi nila sinasabi talaga, but the idea is just keep on going,” Garcia says.
Garcia had to set up screenings of their own, something that they didn’t have budget for. Screenings outside theatrical venues required you to cover the insurance of the audience. Food also had to be served after the screenings, which was estimated to cost $15 per head. Fortunately, Juday had a fan who does Filipino food catering in LA, which only cost them $2 per head. It was then a succession of daily screenings, meeting Filipinos in Los Angeles and tracing Filipino connections to big Hollywood studios and Academy-related groups.
“I spent three months doon. Baby steps talaga. It led me to the realization na all major film companies in Hollywood have a Filipino who holds a high position. We just didn’t realize it. Naging mas confident ako,” says Garcia.
Despite their efforts, Ploning wasn’t shortlisted for the Oscars but their attempt sparked a Hollywood dream for Filipino films. After Ploning, Garcia has been the go-to person when it comes to planning the campaigns of Philippine entries to the Oscars.
“Ngayon people will always remember that it was Ploning who tried, di ba? Okay ako dun, hindi ako nao-offend. Nag-enjoy lang kami ni Juday nun. Hindi ko alam na yung pagka-krung krung namin dalawa will make a mark on the campaigns of [future] Philippine entries,” Garcia says.
History repeats itself, however. Despite lessons learned from Ploning’s experience, Bwakaw this year hit similar roadblocks.
“Wala talaga kaming money for the campaign,” shares Tonee Acejo, line producer of Bwakaw. “Ang naging problem kasi dun ang dami namin expenses sa Bwakaw hindi na kinaya yung Oscar campaign. Hindi naman namin alam na [mapipili kami for the] Oscars. Na-excite lang kami kasi nakapasok kami ng film festivals. Nakapasok sa Toronto? Go agad! Pero ang shino-shoulder nila ng expenses is yung filmmaker lang,” Acejo shares.
“Ang swerte nga talaga namin na sa write-ups and blogs, strong contender ang Bwakaw. Sobrang happy na kami dun,” Acejo says.
It seems all previous attempts at an Oscar campaign have fallen through because of funding. After all, while publicists and sales agents help in generating hype for a film, it’s distributors and studios — multi-million-dollar companies such as Warner Brothers, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Sony Pictures — that actually lobby Oscar voters into considering an entry. All of this year's foreign film nominees have American distributors attached. Bwakaw, through its sales agent Fortissimo Films, has not been able to find a US distributor.
But some industry insiders also look to the FAP, an organization composed of the cinema guilds in the country, in untangling the procedure of selecting the country’s Oscar entries in the first place.
The FAP chooses our entry among a pool of films that have garnered an A-rating from the Cinema Evaluation Board, and have had a seven-day theatrical run in the country. But the Academy only finalizes its selection in October — which severely limits our chances.
“When you go to the US [in October],” Garcia shares, “the oldies of Hollywood (the average age of Oscar voters are said to be 57 — Ed.), from thanksgiving, they’re on vacation until Christmas. They only return in January. The only relevant festival you can be screened at before the Oscar shortlist is released is the Palm Springs International Film Festival. After which, you only have two weeks to campaign before they make the shortlist. So tigok talaga yung oras mo kung October lang.”
Now, while directors like Garcia has sought FAP’s help in restructuring the Oscar selection process, it’s important to keep in mind that a nomination or a win isn’t just glitzy showbiz prestige. It opens up a whole new perspective for the film industry. The Brazilian film industry, for example, was completely enlivened by the nominations of its 2004 entry, City of God — a film which went on to be a big international hit, contributing millions to the Brazilian economy.
What’s more, years of Hollywood films have shaped our understanding of cultures around the globe. Films like Ploning and Bwakaw only add up to that encyclopedic convention of cultural relations. Industries like sports, music, and theater all have Filipinos resting in their glorified halls. Maybe it’s about time a deeply rooted Filipino film broke through the Hollywood mold.
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