100 years of cinema
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 16, 2019 - 12:00am

These days I unwind at the end of the day by watching movies on Netflix. They can be addicting.

If they run for five seasons with 10 to 20 episodes lasting 45 to 60 minutes each and are never shown in cinemas, are they movies or TV shows?

This has been a controversial issue at the Oscar awards. The Golden Globes now has a category for motion pictures made for TV, with the miniseries “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” reaping honors.

Considering the quality of production of made-for-streaming serials such as HBO’s blockbuster “Game of Thrones” and Netflix’s “Vikings,” the TV / streaming service shows can truly compete with the best of the films made for the big screen. And the streaming features even have subtitles – a boon not just to the hearing-impaired but also to people like me who don’t like the volume in a movie theater.

With films on cable TV, pirated Blu-ray DVDs (P20 for ordinary copies, P60 for the top grade) and movies downloaded for free from the internet, how can movie producers survive? Specifically, how can Filipino movie producers survive?

* * *

Not very well, it seems. But I think the industry is learning to adapt to evolving entertainment trends. The industry is discovering new revenue streams not only to recoup the massive investment required for producing a movie, but more importantly to turn a profit. There are several Filipino movies now featured on Netflix.

As the local movie industry marked 100 years on Sept. 12, however, it looks like the industry is struggling.

Sept. 12 marks the day the first Philippine-made movie, Jose Nepomuceno’s “Dalagang Bukid” was exhibited in 1919, starring Atang de la Rama, who would become a National Artist.

Her life would make a good movie – if they can avoid all the emoting, face slapping and melodrama that make many local movies tiresome to watch.

The movies are a powerful influence in shaping public concepts of beauty. Atang de la Rama was a Filipina beauty, but Pinoys haven’t fully stopped equating beauty with Caucasian features. “Mestizo” stars continue to have a substantial following. This has now been modified by public appreciation of Asian (mainly Korean) pop music and soap opera stars – but the Koreans are still fair-skinned.

Philippine cinema has evolved with the global movie industry in the past 100 years. I have relatives in the industry but in my youth, the family ties didn’t prevent me from being star-struck in the presence of our movie superstar relatives.

In those days before Betamax, I spent a lot of time in movie theaters. Some cinemas were not well maintained and had rats scurrying around, scavenging for popcorn and discarded hotdog. Sometimes there were perverts who harassed young girls. There were no seat assignments, standing was allowed, and people could watch the movie over and over, so during SRO screenings, you could end up sitting on the aisle steps.

But for the most part, the theaters were places that transported the audience to another world, giving us a brief respite from the toils of life. They were air-conditioned, comfortable, affordable, and watching a movie was a shared experience.

I watched every Manila Film Festival parade – there was always a massive crowd along Rizal Avenue and the rest of the route – craning my neck for a glimpse of the movie stars. They were like gods to us lesser mortals, and there they were, in flesh and blood, waving at the screaming fans.

* * *

Today I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie in a theater. I just know it was with my mother, it was 3-D and the movie had a lot of special effects – the only type I would bother watching on the big screen. I watched “Avatar” in 3-D cinema and “The Hobbit” – those were worth the stiff fee.

At rates of P200 to P400 (for IMAX, an average of P500), watching a movie in a cinema for the most part has become a luxury I can do without. There are no subtitles; I can’t put the movie on pause to go to the toilet; the sound is too loud and if I’m unlucky, I would have noisy seatmates.

If the majority of people thought like me, how can filmmakers survive? As I have written, there are new revenue streams to explore. Serialized Filipino films made for TV, for example, are being exported and have a strong local following in countries such as Fiji, Kenya and Uganda.

What about cinema owners? They are currently up in arms against an order of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), moving the opening day for new local movies to Friday instead of Wednesday, and guaranteeing a seven-day run.

The Wednesday opening is meant to allow theater owners to test the box-office potential of a movie. If it bombs, it can be replaced with a more popular film by the weekend, when movie attendance is highest.

That traditional high attendance is reportedly why the FDCP ordered the opening day moved to Friday – to give local films a chance to attract the weekend audience.

But theater owners, already suffering from a challenging film viewing environment, say the order is an unconstitutional interference in the way a private business is run.

They also complain that the FDCP’s mandate covers only the artistic and technical merits of movies and it has no regulatory powers or jurisdiction over the business aspect of the industry.

The government may have to operate its own movie theaters to support local film producers. But building and operating a modern cinema is an enormously expensive undertaking that only the likes of the SM, Ayala, Vista Land and Megaworld groups can afford.

* * *

As for the content itself, quality has also improved, but it depends mainly on the director, and there are still not enough of the successors of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal.

Too many films remain formulaic and mediocre, perhaps because of funding constraints and a lack of skilled people.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled by big-budget western movies with superb storylines, acting, cinematography and technical aspects. But we’ve also enjoyed movies with modest budgets such as Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” for which he won an Oscar (production cost $15 million; also streamed on Netflix) and the $12-million romance drama “The Fault in Our Stars” (global earnings a whopping $307.2 million).

It will take artistry, technological savvy and new business models for the local movie industry to flourish in the next 100 years.

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