Begging and borrowing: how indie films are made

Posted on July 15, 2011

The advances in digital technology are said to be instrumental in the proliferation of independently produced (or indie) movies. Indie movies have accounted for about 70-80% of the total film output in the country since the beginning of the new millennium.

Spanky Manikan (center) plays a blind old man trying to look for his cane in the indie film Amok

Last year alone, industry figures show that 58 of the 87 local movies released were considered digital or indie films as big production houses drastically reduced their output.

No wonder many consider indie movies as the last lifeline of the local film industry, whose death had been predicted decades ago.

However, while Filipino indie filmmakers may have all the bright ideas, the interesting scripts, and the unique concepts, without the necessary production budget, everything would remain on paper.

Money, after all, makes the world go ‘round, and the indie filmmaking industry is no exception.

Cheaper to make a big movie

While major production companies have budgets starting at P10 million (which in some cases, is the talent fee of major actors alone), indie films could be made for as little as P500,000.

But as paradoxical and absurd as it may sound, it is cheaper in the long run for a major production outfit to make a big-budget movie than to make a shoestring indie film.

Carmela Endriga-Honrado, producer of the award-winning indie movie Sigwa (Storm), said that a major production outfit’s movie could have a budget of P20 million or more in principle, but in fact, the entire movie could cost the producer just between P3 million and P10 million to make.

“Major film companies could earn even before the cameras started rolling,” Ms. Endriga-Honrado told BusinessWorld in an interview. “They get money from product placements, they get licensing deals... of course, because they can hire big-ticket actors to star in their movies, they also attract investors who may want to partner with them,” she added.

After the movie is finished, she said the producer could be entitled to a rebate of up to 100% from amusement taxes in Metro Manila if the Cinema Evaluation Board (the film evaluating body of the Film Development Council of the Philippines) finds the final output meritorious.

On the other hand, independent filmmakers are having a hard time finding financing for their projects.

In the case of Sigwa, Ms. Endriga-Honrado and her friend Pelita Peralta-Uy came to produce the movie after veteran director Joel Lamangan approached them for financial help.

Sigwa, which was a finalist in the Directors’ Showcase in last year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, received a seed grant of P500,000 from the Cinemalaya Foundation to produce the movie.

However, that was not enough to fulfill Mr. Lamangan’s vision for the movie. This prompted him to look for partners willing to shoulder the project’s P3-million production budget.

Ms. Endriga-Honrado and her partner were concert producers before they agreed to produce Sigwa. “We believed in the movie, in [Mr. Lamangan’s] vision so we agreed to produce it,” she explained.

Still, coming up with the money was not easy. “Of course, you cannot expect banks to lend you money when you tell them that you will use the loan to produce a movie,” Ms. Endriga-Honrado said. “Banks will be more willing to give a loan to a fresh graduate for his upstart business, rather than worry about the risk of lending to a movie producer for his indie movie.”

Ms. Endriga-Honrado said they were eventually able to raise the money from their savings, and from personal loans from friends and relatives.

The P3-million production budget -- which is the budget cap set by Cinemalaya on competing movies -- was “bare-bones” compared to Mr. Lamangan’s projects with major film outfits.

To make ends meet, Ms. Endriga-Honrado said Mr. Lamangan convinced big-name actresses like Zsa Zsa Padilla and Dawn Zulueta to appear in the movie for lower talent fees.

“In [Ms. Padilla’s] case, she paid for her own make-up. Then, we were paying award-winning actors like Tirso Cruz III only gas money, because our budget was really limited,” she said.

The movie went on to win Best Picture in this year’s Star Awards and the Golden Screen Awards. It also received acclaim when it was shown in various filmfests, like the Brussels International Film Festival, and the Montreal International Film Festival.

It was a learning experience, but certainly not a moneymaking venture, Ms. Endriga-Honrado said. “We knew when we started in this project that we would not earn money. We did it because we love Filipino movies, and we wanted to support the project,” she said.

No money here

Alemberg Ang, producer of the Cinemalaya 2009 Special Jury Prize winner Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe, admits that indie movie producers hardly recoup their investment.

“Unless the movie wins awards abroad, or you do a movie with more commercial appeal, or even do some soft gay porn... But even if it’s a great movie, people still don’t watch it, probably because of the lack of publicity -- which is also related to money,” Mr. Ang said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

After teaching for more than 10 years, Mr. Ang decided to work in the arts. Without any professional background in filmmaking, he produced Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe, which was directed by his friend, Dr. Alvin B. Yapan.

Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe went on to win the grand prize at the digital category in the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival in 2009.

The movie was also exhibited in the Chicago International Film Festival, the Bahamas International Film Festival, Toronto’s ReelWorld Film Festival, and the Osian’s Cinefan Festival for Arab and Asian Cinema.

Because of the success of his first movie, Mr. Ang returns to Cinemalaya this year, producing and co-directing with Mr. Yapan the full-length feature Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet).

He said he was able to finance this second project through his own savings and their winnings from their first movie. “The rest [of the budget was financed] through generous friends and family who support our art,” he said.

Mr. Ang admits he had to “literally beg” family members and friends to sponsor the food requirements of their shoots. They also used their own houses, and friends’ houses as locations for the movie to cut costs.

“Since I know I cannot recoup my investments right away, I only borrow from the closest of friends and my family. Ayoko mahabla o makulong dahil sa paggawa ng pelikula [I don’t want to get sued or jailed because of making movies],” he said.

To pay off the loans, Mr. Ang said he takes on teaching assignments. He also does tutoring, writing, and translating work to earn.

Mr. Ang hopes that the government help indie filmmakers in any way it can.

“Other governments like [those of] Latvia or South Korea, it is the government that sends the filmmakers to different festivals. They are the ones who make the DVD packaging and the DVD screeners for the filmmakers and they’re the ones who mail them to the various festivals. That alone is costly already for the filmmaker, especially expenses in courier fees,” he said.

“The govenment can also help with the visa fees and other requirements when a film gets accepted in a foreign filmfest,” he added.

He said the government should look into ways of helping indie film producers since it is already helping major film studios through the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (which scraps the amusement taxes levied on producers).

“They can help and support those of us who really just want to make films. Perhaps something can be done to subsidize the cost of tickets so that ticket prices for indie films will be cheaper than Hollywood films,” he suggested.

Tie-ups, ex-deals help

Gay Ace Domingo, producer of the 2009 Cinemalaya finalist Sanglaan (Pawnshop), admits that financing is one of the major stumbling blocks for indie filmmakers in the country.

“A filmmaker wants his film to look great even if it is independently produced. This desire, of course, entails costs. The challenge is: how do you make a great film with limited resources,” Ms. Domingo told BusinessWorld.

“Many times, the situation is very frustrating for a director who must make compromises on his creative vision because the production lacks the money,” she added.

Ms. Domingo said the average cost of producing an indepenent film ranges from P800,000 to P2 million. Indie films stay within their budget by doing tie-ups with other producton companies.

“There are postproduction houses and production outfits who are willing to lend their equipment for free in exchange for being credited as producer of the film and promoting their company in the process,” Ms. Domingo said.

“Although the use of equipment will not be charged, the actual producers of the independent film must still pay for the talent fees of the crew. Just paying for the crew lessens the cost considerably,” she added.

She said indie films also borrow equipment and materials, as well as enter into exchange deals, barter agreements and sponsorships to save more money.

“There was one day when I borrowed lights from a videographer-friend for a scene in Sanglaan. I had his name included in the end credits [of the movie]as a gesture of gratitude,” she said.

“Then on our last day of shooting for Sanglaan, we shot in a house where we didn’t have to pay for location rental. Instead of getting a caterer, a friend cooked all the food for that day’s shoot.”

While other filmmakers apply for grants with international film festivals or grant-giving bodies, Ms. Domingo said she was able to raise funds for Sanglaan by asking friends.

“I asked for financial help from grade school friends, college friends, my former teacher, friends from publishing and media, my family, art patrons. My director, Milo Sogueco, also tapped his friends and family,” she said.

“I was so overwhelmed and touched because I found supporters who responded positively without asking to see rushes, the script or even the synopsis. They were so supportive, generous and unconditional. “

Sanglaan, which earned P56,870 during its 10-day run in Cinemalaya two years ago, was able to repay loans from the proceeds of its other screenings, and income generated from video and TV rights.

While the government is able to give grants to indie filmmakers through the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA), Ms. Domingo said the government should take a more active role in supporting cinematic endevors.

“In other countries like Korea and France, cinema is actively supported by the government as these countries strongly recognize that film as part of culture plays a major role in the development of a country. I wish that the Philippine government regard cinema in the same way,” she said.

But she is very aware that with the government’s limited resources, supporting cinema is not a priority.

“I know that our country is beset with problems, and maybe it would be some kind of insensitivity on the filmmakers’ part to ‘demand’ for support and attention from the government. We are independents, and we are used to finding ways when we meet a roadblock,” she said.

Private sector can help

Still, she hopes that the government can mandate malls to devote a certain number of screenings to independent films or even have a dedicated cinema within their cineplexes for independent film.

“This would ensure that that cinemas for indies with not-so-high receipts don’t get bumped off, get fewer screenings or have their theaters given to big-budget Hollywood flicks. Malls could think of this as their corporate social responsibility (CSR) effort, too,” she said.

Ms. Domingo also urged the public to support indie filmmakers by watching their movies.

“We filmmakers know that we can’t be mendicants forever. I, myself, do not feel comfortable with asking friends and family for help again to fund future projects. The only way for independent cinema to thrive is to gain viewership, which would spell ticket sales in the box office -- sales that could be used to fund future projects,” she said.

“I also see that independent films like Amigo and Senior Year make an effort to market and promote within their means. In any case, increased marketing particularly through TV plugs and commercials would do wonders for independently produced films.

“Just thinking out loud here, perhaps advertisers could be more open to sponsoring independent films by giving some of their TV spots to promote the projects that they believe in, projects whose values espoused are the same as their corporate values,” she added.

She said, the private sector should also help encourage Filipino filmmakers make quality movies.

“In other countries, there are big businessmen who are passionate about supporting cinema. They choose to help a director produce his movie because they believe in the director and his talent,” she said.

She said there are patrons of cinema here in the Philippines like Antonio “Tonyboy” O. Cojuangco who has been supporting Cinemalaya through his company Econolink Investments since the film festival/contest began.

She also cited Menardo “Butch” G. Jimenez, Jr. who has helped many filmmakers realize their dream films. Mr. Jimenez’s 4 Boys Films (so named because he has four sons) has also initiated a script development fund for films about children so that more children’s films can be made.

“I wish that more in the private sector could see [their way to] supporting independent cinema... It’s a way of feeding the soul of a nation and educating the youth which are equally important as feeding the stomach,” she said.

Cinemalaya to hold Film Financing Forum

THE 2011 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, in partnership with the Philippine Independent Filmmakers Multi-Purpose Cooperative (IFC), will conduct a forum aimed at informing filmmakers how to finance their productions.

With the theme “Making Sense and Cents of Emerging Cinema” the forum will be held on Sunday, July 17, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Silangan Hall of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in Pasay City.

The forum will feature an in-depth discussion of the ABC’s of film financing, case studies and a project market where selected participants can pitch their projects speed dating-style to potential partners and investors.

Among the speakers are pioneers in independent digital filmmaking: Raymond Lee, Adolfo Alix Jr., Manet Dayrit and Doy del Mundo.

Singapore-based Mel Songco of the Innovation and Creative Enterprise (ICE) Group will discuss the growth of the creative economy in Asia and Indonesian producer Shanty Harmayn-Hofman of Salto Films will talk about structuring film projects for investors.

Twenty outstanding projects that are in need of financing and assistance in various stages -- development, production or postproduction -- are going to be selected and pitched to financiers.

The most outstanding project pitch will win automatic selection to the Asia On The Edge (AOTE) PITCH IT! in Cebu City this year.

For inquiries, contact the IFC Secretariat at 387-0297, 0929-1234928 or fill out the online form and e-mail to indiefilmcoop@gmail.com. -- JOV