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The future of Philippine cinema is not bright

(The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2016 - 9:00am

(Editor's note: Erik Matti is the director of Honor Thy Father, On the Job, and The Aswang Chronicles.)

MANILA, Philippines – The future of Philippine film is not good. My future in films, in particular, is not good.

Honor Thy Father was supposed to be my next film after On The Job, but On The Job bombed at the domestic box-office in 2013. We hardly made P30 million against the P43-million budget. If not for the international success of the film, the sale in 11 countries, plus a remake deal with Universal Pictures, we would have been hit hard with its losses.

So my business partner in Reality Entertainment, Dondon Monteverde, convinced me to do the sequel of The Aswang Chronicles first, hoping that Kubot would be much more marketable than Honor Thy Father. Being the responsible filmmaker that I am, one that believes in getting money back for the investors so that it will allow me to do more films, I accepted. Kubot was written as a crowd pleaser. It had comedy, family, heart, adventure, computer graphics, stunts, and an ensemble cast. And it was an MMFF entry in 2014. And it’s a sequel, too! No gays, though. With all the safe and calculated ingredients of what could possibly be a commercial Filipino film (except that I regret now that I didn’t put a gay character in there), it still didn’t make money at the box office.

So coming into Honor Thy Father, my partners and I knew what we were getting into. Honor Thy Father has a very bleak tone to it. It tackles issues about religion and white-collar crime. And as if that’s not enough, it has violence and an extended period of time where the story happens in the darkness under the mines. Plus, inasmuch as Michiko Yamamoto really wrote it as a love story, on the page and onscreen, it still is not the typical love story both in structure and in mood.

Tough Sells

We all knew it was a tough sell. But that’s the story we wanted to tell. That’s the story our brand represents. I remember in January 2015 when my partners and I did a postmortem on Kubot. I was getting ready to be defensive about it, only to hear my partners were already excited about getting ready with Honor Thy Father. We all agreed that our brand of stories may be tough to sell to the market now but eventually, by constantly giving them the same brand of stories and films, by investing in the kind of films that we like, the market will see the strength of our Reality Entertainment brand and we will slowly find the audience that we want to tap.

Some may call that naive or even utterly stupid. Maybe we are actually stupid people who still believe that when there is a good story to tell, they will come to pay good money to watch it. And after 11 films under our brand and with our last one getting into the controversial MMFF 2015 scandal, I am beginning to feel that maybe this whole romantic idea of doing the stories you like, and hoping that they will eventually find an audience, may not be all that easy.

It’s not easy telling stories different from what is usually shown out there. It’s not easy casting new faces from what is usually out there. It’s not easy telling stories about the evil three little pigs when everyone believes they are supposedly the heroes. It’s not easy, period.

The whole film industry is one messed-up mot%#$&@*ker. My future in films is not good.

So before I do a Jerry Maguire on you here, I’d like to turn this sad and depressing year-opener rumination into something more merry, gay, and politically correct. Here are my wishes, if we still believe they can come true, for the messed-up film industry of ours:

• I wish for the producers to make insightful, progressive, relevant and fresh stories. I don’t care if it’s funny, wacky, aspirational, mushy, cheesy or super commercial. Just tell stories that we haven’t heard or seen before. Stories that make us see ourselves and understand ourselves better. Stories that elevate us to think beyond our sorry lives and not just reaffirm what we already know about ourselves.

• I wish that the film producers would become impassioned enough to share good stories and not just write a mishmash of stories that second-guess the market to meet the quota.

• I wish for film workers to devote their knowledge and expertise to not just making a living but to mainly making something memorable. It has become all about the paycheck and not about doing excellent work. I wish for them to stop doing five projects all at the same time so they can focus on what matters to them most. This is a tough thing to ask from a Third World country and from an industry that doesn’t pay much, but I still wish for this.

It has been almost three years now since I decided to “retire” from advertising because the work was not getting any better. It was a tough decision. Advertising pays so much. Slowing down means lesser income. With slowing down comes lifestyle adjustments. No more brand-new cars every year. I now have a six-year-old car — diesel, of course. I just want to do something that will matter to me 20 years from now, and to devote as much time to making it really well.

There are just too many assistants in the production process now. Producers have assistants to the assistants. Production designers and even makeup artists have assistants to the assistants. The director sits in a meeting full of assistants and they have no one to collaborate with because their real staff is elsewhere working on other projects. Communication breaks down, the creative process suffers, and you are talking to assistants who do not know a single thing about the project because they, too, just came from another project.

• I wish for actors to take acting jobs for their souls, not just their bank accounts. I wish that at least they do something to hone their craft once in a while so that they don’t wake up one day and realize that they have become prostitutes. What makes an actor is not the number of tickets sold at the box office or the number of products endorsed.

This is not just for actors, by the way. This is for everyone in the industry. We all want to do projects that matter to us, but we don’t have the will to stop doing the ones that pay us more.

I admire actors who pick and choose their projects not because of billing or length of exposure but because of what the project means to them in terms of what they can explore in the character or what the project attempts to say and do.

• I wish that the media and social media would play an active role in seeing this industry grow for the better. That they do not just become mere observers reporting what’s out there but that they actually become movers in shaping a healthier, mature, and progressive film industry. To dissect when there are wrongs. To question beyond what is just said. To forward the thinking when everything appears to stay the same.

• I wish that the independent film movement would begin to look beyond itself and start thinking about the local audience. Before anyone lambasts my statement about the indie movement, let me qualify it. I know that there have been indie films that try to reach a broader audience. I know that marketing money for these indie films is not easy to find. I know that distribution in theaters is difficult. But after a decade with maybe four independent local film festivals and still growing, the filmmakers have managed to breed like rabbits, but the audience has never grown. Maybe it’s time to go beyond making personal films for ourselves (our lost loved ones or dead mother or aboriginal origins), to stop doing films as college exercises or representations of admired international filmmakers, and start making well-made films that can talk to an audience no matter how small or how niche.

• Being given a chance to make films is a privilege and not a right. And with that privilege comes the challenge to make it the best that it can ever be because it may be your last chance. It’s easy to say something meaningful. Grab a microphone and shout it out and you can already tell the world what they want to hear. It is tough to say something meaningful using the medium of cinema. Take time to learn how to use every element of cinema to say what you mean better. Don’t just make films to beat the deadline.

I’ve done bad films. Films that didn’t have anything to say. Bad scripts. “Duh” stories. But I’ve always told my stories on film with a high level of craft in mind. And it’s always with an audience in mind rather than just me. People pay to see well-made films. I pay to go see movies and I expect the movies to be worth the time and money I spend on it. I do not want to pay for a movie where the filmmakers were just “trying out” to see if they could make a film. I want to feel like I’m in good hands when I am inside the theater. I want the filmmakers to hold my hand from the beginning to the end. I may or may not like it in the end, but at least they had the respect to bring me along on the journey of their film that they have proudly, painstakingly made and I feel it was worth my few hundred bucks.

• Lastly and most importantly, I wish that the audience would take risks in the films they go out to see. Let’s watch romantic comedies all we want. But let’s also watch other things. Documentaries, scary movies, sad movies, weird movies, shocking movies. Films are not just about feeling good or being charmed or falling in love. Films are also about getting angry, feeling terrified and frustrated. It is also about feelings of loss, of uncertainty, of thrills and awe. Films are about so many other things, too, other than just fun and love. I wish that you let films surprise you and not just give you what you always expect of it.

• Wishes almost always stay only as wishes and never come true. I don’t want to be ignorant or pessimistic about this, but I think my wishes here will never come true.

 These wishes reflect the kind of film industry we have now. To see ourselves, reflect on it, and maybe do something about it in our own little way is more than enough to make these wishes come true for me. And in an ideal world where wishes can come true, I am sure that these are your wishes for our industry, too.

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Tweet the author @ErikMatti.

ACIRC ALIGN ASWANG CHRONICLES FILM FILMS HONOR THY FATHER LEFT QUOT STORIES STRONG WISH
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