by Katrina Stuart Santiago
▶︎ It's not a question of which comes first, a good independent film that gets a commercial release, or the willingness of commercial cinemas to give any independent film a regular screening. It's not a chicken and egg question. It's just the chicken standing in direct opposition to the egg.
Mainstream movie theatres (SM Cinemas, Ayala Cinemas, etc.) seek to earn cash from films. And it can't just be a small profit: it needs to be a huge profit margin. Imagine: SM Cinemas earned over P6.5 MILLION in "cinema ticket sales, amusement and others" in 2017 alone (more specifically, P6,578,362.00), which was a little over what it earned in 2016. Why would an oligarch's conglomerate decide, at any given point, to risk earning less from films that don't bring in the crowds?
These cinemas exist not to serve the film industry, and certainly not to uplift the minds and expand the horizons of the moviegoing audience. It cares little for what it imparts to its audiences, and cares even less if the films it shows are local or foreign, are intelligent or stupid. It's all just a matter of money. Plain. Simple. Cultural capitalism ala Henry Sy.
We all know this kind of capitalism to be that which kills culture and cultural production. As it has the film Liway, if we are talking commercial screenings. Expectedly, the film suffered the lack of clear schedules that would allow for moviegoers to properly schedule their days around a screening. Understandably, it was removed from commercial theatres before it could get enough of an audience talking about how great a film it was, to get even more people to watch it.
But is that it? Is it just about pointing a finger at these capitalists and telling them they're being unfair, they're being complicit in everything from the "pervasiveness of colonial mentality" to the "dumbing down of the audience," if not gasp! historical revisionism and government propaganda?
What this article misses is a major piece of this puzzle: and that piece is the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) which is mandated, among other things, to "encourage and undertake activities that will promote the growth and development of the local film industry and promote its participation in both domestic and foreign markets."
Markets mean commercial theatres, and the local film industry undoubtedly includes films like Liway.
The FDCP should be the one negotiating with commercial movie theatres like SM to give independent films their due, treat them like any other film, that has a regular schedule in a regular cinema, which is marketed and supported just like the next commercial rom-com.
But FDCP does not negotiate on these terms. When it is criticized about the fact that it is the big budget, commercially-produced films that earn money from a government-funded festival like Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, FDCP leadership will say: we let the audience decide. We pit the independent, small film with the big production commercial film, and we put them on that equal playing field of a commercial theatre run, and the audience decides which films are winners and losers. The ones who win in the box office get more screenings and theatres, the ones who lose well, they lose the opportunity to keep their screenings and gather an audience. It's all up to the market.
Notice that this is EXACTLY the same mindset that capitalists like Henry Sy have. Let the audience decide, and let's respond to their choices by removing or keeping the films that they choose. Now, it's one thing to think that if you're a private entity out to just earn big bucks from the film industry. It's another when you are the government agency TASKED TO SUPPORT AND DEVELOP THE FILM INDUSTRY such as the FDCP. The former is expected of a conglomerate. The latter is a government office not doing its job.
Speaking of not doing its job: FDCP has not only failed to negotiated with mainstream theatres in favor of independent film productions. In the case of Liway, it failed to even promote the film, in any form or manner: not one mention on its Facebook Page, or website, or Instagram (which our taxes pay for). In fact, there's barely any mention of the films that were part of Cinemalaya 2018, which is strange considering that Cinemalaya is the longest-running, most credible independent film festival still.
Why is that? If we look at what FDCP was actually doing during Cinemalaya, it was promoting its own highly-problematic, absolutely not transparent, PPP: a festival that reveals not much else but FDCP's collusion with big commercial film production companies and big commercial movie theatres (see analysis of FDCP and PPP here and here), to feed the market what it wants, what it hankers for, what it is made to believe is a good film, instead of actually providing that audience with the full catalogue of films at any given time.
FDCP is supposed to be about film development, and this institution was built on the premise of an independent cinema that had yet to gain ground and audience. That was what it was supposed to develop, these independent films are the ones it's supposed to help.
The current FDCP leadership's attitude that it is survival of the fittest film in commercial theatres, its notion that there is no distinction between small and independent and big budget and commercial, its insistence on working with big business and capitalists instead of actually taking a stand against their focus on markets and profits, is what kills independent cinema.
And just like FDCP collaborates with big theatre owners and big producers in the name of profit and in the name of the indie, so it is complicit in the murder of Liway from commercial theatres.
Of course when one considers the fact that FDCP supports, celebrates, and promotes a pro-drug war propaganda film, then that doesn't seem like such a surprise. ***
Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic and essayist, who writes her political commentary at katrinasantiago.com.