EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra () - July 27, 2007 - 12:00am

When you watch the movies at Cine-malaya at CCP — and I hope you see all of them — consider what our filmmakers have to deal with.

The continuing decline of the movie industry in the Philippines should surprise no one. For a decade, insiders and observers have warned of the impending death of the movie industry, but no one has done anything to prevent it. Not the government, which continues to levy very high taxes on the industry while giving almost no support in return. Not the producers, who continue to recycle old movie formulas in the hope of regaining the audience’s lost affections. Certainly not the stars of Filipino cinema, who have chosen to escape en masse into another fantasy world — politics — where their popularity overcomes their more obvious deficiencies.

The numbers tell a depressing story. From the mid-1980s to 1996 the Filipino movie industry was a powerhouse, with more than 200 movies produced each year. In 1997 film production suddenly went into a decline, and the downward trend has not abated. In 2006, only 56 movies were produced. It is expected that this year only 30 movies will be produced — the lowest total in Filipino movie history.

The European Audiovisual Observatory statistics show that the Philippines registered the biggest drop in movie theater admissions. In the last “good year,” 1996, there were 131 million admissions. The number had plummeted to 80 million by 2003, and to 63 million by 2004.

Observers blame this situation on the high cost of movie production, the high cost of movie tickets, and the dismal state of the economy. The Philippine movie industry is probably the most overtaxed in the world: about half of a movie’s gross earnings are eaten up by taxes, and none of it goes back to the movie industry.

Movie tickets cost 80 to 160 Philippine pesos, low compared to prices in the region, yet too much when one considers the spending power of the average Filipino. Instead of going to the movies, many fThe Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) was organized during the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos as a showcase for Filipino cinematic excellence. For the duration of the festival, no foreign films would be shown in metropolitan Manila in order to encourage the audience to patronize local films. The early editions of the MMFF saw such masterworks as Burlesk Queen by Celso Ad Castillo, Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? by Eddie Romero, and Himala by Ishmael Bernal.

Today’s MMFF is an annual exercise in absurdity. The only feature it has retained is the exclusion of foreign films. There is no longer any aspiration to cinematic excellence; entries are selected for their commercial potential by a committee composed of town and city mayors.

The selection committee does not need to see a foot of film: the choices are made on the basis of a script summary and a list of directors and stars who might be (they have not signed the contract yet) involved in the production. In the last three years, the top-grossing festival entries have been the fantasy-action flick OK Ka, Fairy Ko and its sequels. Last year it not only topped the box-office charts, it was also named “Best Picture” in a very thin — make that anorexic — field.

Pundits blame the dominance of Hollywood films for the downward spiral of the local movie industry. Open a newspaper and you will see ads for new Hollywood movies proclaiming that they made P100 million on their first week here. On the opposite page, an ad for a local film crows that it made P3 million on its first day.

It certainly does not help that for every local movie that opens in Manila theaters, there are 10 Hollywood movies, all of them with bigger stars and bigger advertising budgets. But to lay all the blame on Hollywood would be like blaming 50 years of American colonial rule for everything that is wrong with the Philippines. At some point we’re going to have to take responsibility for ourselves.

The simple fact is that filmmakers have lost touch with the audience. There is a “disconnect” between what producers think the viewers will want, and what the viewers will actually go for. Chito Roño’s horror film Sukob reportedly made more than P100 million on its first week. Encouraged by this box-office bonanza, producers tried to cash in on the “Asian horror formula,” with dismal results.

The box-office performance of Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros, directed by Auraeus Solito, was expected to spur general interest in independent digital films. However, when subsequent digital films such as Bigtime and the Fil-American production Cavite did not perform as well at the box office, movie theaters simply stopped exhibiting digital indies. The critical success of Kubrador by Jeffrey Jeturian and the films of Lav Diaz (the latest being Heremyas) at international festivals has not been matched by audience enthusiasm at home.

Rebuffed at the box-office, the movie stars turn to the polls. Before the last general election, Film Academy president Leo Martinez called upon his fellow actors not to run for elective positions. He suggested that they address the myriad problems of the film industry first, and when they have restored it to working order, they can run for public office. The actors were not listening, or else they could not hear him for the cheering of the crowds.

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