Phl cinema in transition
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2019 - 12:00am

When was the last time you watched a movie in a theater?

With the average ticket price at P250, probably not in a while. There’s Netflix, there’s HBO, which you can watch in the comfort of your home.

And there’s still DVD, with pirated films costing just P20 for blu-ray quality with subtitles.

And yet the local historical biopic Heneral Luna made over P300 million in the box office, according to producer TBA Studios, which is also behind hits such as Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral and Best Picture winners Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo and Sunday Beauty Queen. ABS-CBN’s 2018 romantic hit The Hows of Us grossed a whopping P885 million.

Last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival entries had a combined gross of P1 billion – proof that Filipinos are still watching movies in cinemas. TBA chairman Francisco Ortigas notes that of course, P1 billion is just the typical earnings in the Philippines alone of a movie in the Marvel superhero franchise.

But when movies are produced at an average cost of P20 million to P50 million, a take of P300 million is not bad at all.

It’s encouraging that the Filipino is willing to fork out P250 to watch a historical movie on the big screen.

“We’re regaining our identity as Filipino filmgoers,” says Vincent Nebrida.

He has been saying it all along: Philippine cinema is seeing its third “golden age” that started in 2013, with Cinemalaya. “The stories are there and the filmmaking craft is there.”

Nebrida is president of TBA, which was founded in 2017 as an aggrupation of three film productions. He and Ortigas together with TBA CEO Eduardo Rocha faced “The Chiefs” last week on Cignal TV’s One News channel, as part of our series on 100 years of Philippine cinema.

Unlike director Erik Matti, who said Philippine cinema “is in a state of coma,” the three TBA honchos painted a pretty optimistic picture of the local film industry.

*      *      *

“I would not call it coma,” Rocha told us. “It’s in a state of transition.”

Even in transition, some things haven’t changed in the industry. The three told us that star power is still a major commercial draw, as are love teams and plots that may be considered formulaic. Ortigas says horror movies are consistent moneymakers.

What has changed, they say, is the storytelling. “It’s not the story, it’s the teller,” says Rocha.

“A good storyline,” Ortigas notes, “is still a good storyline.”

Technology has even helped bring down production costs, especially for special effects. For their latest project featuring history, a lot of special effects will come into play to recreate the bloody Battle of Manila near the end of World War II.

It’s a movie I’m looking forward to watching. But on the big screen? Maybe I’ll wait for it to migrate to Netflix.

The TBA executives understand that not everyone can part regularly with P250 when there are a lot of cheaper alternatives available on other platforms. But they figure that people will be willing to go to movie theaters about once a month.

People go to cinemas, says Rocha, for a shared experience. Especially these days when the regular theater-going audience demographic has shifted from the predominantly male in the days of stand-alone movie houses, to the current predominantly female plus families.

Rocha notes that the shift began when the shopping malls opened modern, cleaner movie theaters with more comfortable seating, set schedules and no standing room.

Up until the 1980s, when Rocha was distributing foreign movies in the Philippines, he recalls, “we would tremble every time a local movie opened.”

This changed with the opening of cinemas in malls, which allowed more American movies to be shown. “It was an onslaught,” Rocha says, and local producers felt the impact. “We did lose our audience.”

I still don’t like the prospect of sitting beside a group that likes giving a running commentary on a movie, or munching popcorn and twist fries. Plus I can’t stand the volume in a movie theater.

For others, however, such things add to the appeal of watching movies on the big screen.

“How can we replace a collective experience?” Rocha asked. “I don’t think it can ever be replaced.”

He recalled that theater owners also fretted when television came along, but TV didn’t kill the movie houses.

*      *      *

As for the quality of the movies, all three believe that the local industry has not been left behind by Hollywood.

“I think we’ve risen to the challenge,” Nebrida says. “I think our movies now are better than in the 1990s.”

We’re not producing mega-budget movies such as Avatar or the Marvel films. But Ortigas stresses: “We have everything that Hollywood has.”

The difference, he says, is that Marvel has 200 people working on a special effects scene, for example, while a Philippine movie will have only 10.

“There will always be movies that are not so good. That’s the nature of the beast,” Ortigas says.

But Filipino filmmakers are producing good stuff, and Ortigas estimates that about 75 percent of them get their money back, including low-budget movies. Nebrida points out that Kwento Mo, Kwento Ko, Kwento Nating Lahat was made for only P800,000 but earned P3 million.

TBA is happy that Filipinos are also enjoying movies such as Luna and Goyo.

Rocha remembers making three drafts of Luna, all of which were rejected by producers who wanted stories on better-known historical figures such as Jose Rizal.

“The biggest tragedy of the Philippine-American war was Luna’s assassination,” Rocha stresses. “It went to the baul.”

TBA took the risk on Luna. “We make stories that are off the beaten path,” Nebrida says.

*      *      *

TBA is not only producing movies, but is also providing a venue for low-budget movies, not necessarily arthouse, that can’t get a distributor or cinema owners willing to take a gamble.

In 2016, TBA opened Cinema 76 in San Juan – a micro theater with about 60 bench seats, where Kwento Nating Lahat was shown. A second micro cinema has been opened in Anonas, Quezon City, and TBA is hoping to build more across the country.

The concept aims to lure back Filipinos with limited budgets to watch movies on the big screen again instead of relying on pirated DVDs and TV. The micro cinema ticket price is P200.

New trends such as movie streaming and a global market are seen by TBA as opportunities for growth rather than as threats to the local film industry. Their optimism can be infectious.

Filipinos, Nebrida observes, “have this pessimistic nature. That is not allowed in TBA. We go positive.”

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