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HENERAL LUNA: a cinematic revolution

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By Zsarlene Chua, Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman, Joseph Garcia 

UNLIKE THE BLOODY assassination scene where katipuneros shoot and stab the lead character to death, Heneral Luna — the film — fought back and triumphed. The bio-pic was on the verge of being pulled from theaters before making a successful comeback, thanks to social media.

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Produced by Artikulo Uno Productions, Inc., the film opened on Sept. 9 in 100 cinemas nationwide, dropping to 70 in the days that followed. Clearly, it wasn’t getting enough attention. The major theater companies in the country had to pull out the movie after the first few days to give way for more lucrative foreign films like The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials.

When the number of cinemas dwindled to 40, Heneral Luna’s cast, crew and production staff turned to social media to plead: please keep film in the theaters. The effort worked. By its third week, it was again being screened in 100 cinemas, and the film — made for P80 million — has grossed over P163 million (as of Sept. 30).

Heneral Luna has also been chosen to represent the country in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars in 2016.




‘A CULTURAL PHENOMENON’
It was in 1998 when Philippine cinema last saw a successful film based on a National Hero. Jose Rizal, directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, was an entry in the Metro Manila Film Festival. The P80-million film starring Cesar Montano was the most expensive historical film at that time. It grossed P90 million.

It turns out that 1998 was a good year for heroes — that was also the year Eduardo Alfredo “E.A.” Perez Rocha, along with Henry Hunt Francia, wrote a script telling the story of a contemporary of Rizal, Antonio Luna — a revolutionary general considered one of the most brilliant Filipino military officers during the Filipino-American war (1899-1902). It chronicles the events leading up to Luna’s assassination.

The script, written in English, languished unmade for 17 years before young director Jerrold Tarog (Senior Year, Cinemalaya’s Sana Dati) came into the picture. Tarog went on to revise the script and translate it into colloquial Tagalog — he wanted Heneral Luna to speak to as many audience members as possible — and two years later the film was made.

Tarog’s script avoids the use of “high” Filipino and offers the occasional comic relief — e.g. when Heneral Luna, (played by actor John Arcilla) trying to tell a British train conductor that he was comandeering his train, gives up and tells his men, “Puñeta! Hulihin niyo na ’yan; nauubusan ako ng Ingles” (Arrest that fellow already; I have run out of English).

Luna, as portrayed in this film, is as flawed as the quintessential Shakespearean tragic hero — for all his being a good general, he also had a foul mouth and a hair-trigger temper which didn’t make him popular among his contemporaries.

These flaws humanized Luna and made him a character worthy of sympathy, said Mr. Rocha in a phone interview with BusinessWorld.

Mr. Rocha, who has producer and screenwriter credit in the film, talked about the public’s reaction to Heneral Luna — “It’s a cultural phenomenon. I’ve never seen anything like it… I get very emotional. The commitment the people are giving the movie. I don’t think it’s precedented — it’s unprecedented.”

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ORTIGAS TO THE RESCUE
Much of the challenge in producing Heneral Luna was not in the casting or the script, but, not surprisingly, in obtaining the funds needed to fuel the production. Everything fell into place when Filipino-Spanish businessman Fernando “Nando” Ortigas came to the rescue, said Mr. Rocha. He agreed to finance the movie and shelled out P70 million (the original budget, according to Mr. Rocha, was P40 million, including marketing and post-production, but additional scenes and weather-related problems pushed up the price).

“Forget the money, in these trying times, our country needs awakening,” he said on Facebook.

(Mr. Ortigas makes a cameo appearance in the film, in a dinner party that Emilio Aguinaldo — played by Mon Confiado — throws for the upper crust.)

“I knew Mr. Ortigas well but I didn’t know he was going into film,” said Mr. Rocha, “What Mr. Ortigas said is that he wanted [his first venture into film] to be perfect… let’s get it right. We wanted a product we want to be proud of.”

The film had an advanced screening in New York on Aug. 30 partly to generate buzz as it paved the way for US screenings in October in New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

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CALCULATED MOVE
Heneral Luna stirred a revolution on social media. According to reports, SM cinemas in Lanang and Davao, among many others, have started screening the movie again, thanks to the clamor of the moviegoers on their social media accounts.

But inasmuch as the social media marketing may seem unintentional, viral and surprising, it was part of a carefully calculated move by the movie’s team.

“It was low-key but was an effective campaign,” said Mr. Rocha, before adding that while much of the social media buzz surrounding the film when it was first released was “deliberate,” “if the film was bad, it wouldn’t have worked.”

“The social media [and digital marketing] campaign is not at all informal. I have a whole team who has been working on that for months beforehand,” associate producer and marketing coordinator Ria Limjap said during a phone interview.

Mr. Rocha pointed out that the production company, Artikulo Uno (named after the article in the revolutionary constitution Luna invokes that threatens death for disobedience) spent eight months preparing for the “low-key but effective” campaign.

The Heneral Luna social media accounts show the effects of the campaign with 189,385 likes on Facebook, 6,392 fans on Instagram, 3,243 followers on Instagram, and 15,704 hash tags on #HeneralLuna, and the numbers are still growing.

“The film is powerful, and people responded… and that one, we could never have predicted, but we were prepared to market on all the platforms,” said Ms. Limjap.

Of course, the film also relied on the traditional marketing methods — billboards and ad spots on TV “a few days before the film was going to show.”

“We chose the timing very carefully, and we chose the programs carefully [because] we didn’t have a huge budget for that. So we had to be really judicious,” she said. “This [was] all in the first week. We wanted enough noise for the first week for the people, the influencers, those who were ahead of the curve, to go and watch it on the first week, and start talking about it.”

More than the billboards and the commercials, word-of-the-mouth helped the movie rally in the cinemas, where moneymaking films like the Hollywood productions are prioritized over indies.

“Market forces will dictate: for the cinemas, it’s money,” said Ms. Limjap, “so when the cinemas saw the demand, they naturally had to bring [the film] back.”

“We always knew that word-of-mouth would be the selling point of the film. We created a campaign that would generate word-of-mouth,” she pointed out.

SCHOOL TOURS AND FORUMS
It started with school tours. The team showed a 10-minute preview of the film to students and teachers.

“Then, we followed it up with a forum about history and heroism,” said Ms. Limjap. “We also showed the film to a lot of teachers, because we wanted educators to know that it was coming out.”

The production team then turned to books.  The biography The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna by Dr. Vivencio Jose, on which the film is based, was used by the team for marketing, albeit in a different, more palatable format. It had been long been out of print, so, “Instead of reprinting that book, we interviewed [Dr. Jose] at the National Museum, in front of the Spoliarium, and we basically did a short book that’s easy to read for students,” said Ms. Limjap

(The 1884 painting — created by General Luna’s brother Jose Luna — makes a “cameo” in the film. The end of the scene of the assassination of Heneral Luna and his right hand, Colonel Franciso “Paco” Roman [Joem Bascon] is practically a tableau of the Spoliarium, which depicted the bloody carnage of gladiator matches in Rome.)

This Internet-based campaign, however, was not created out of a desire to be fresh or young, but born of necessity. Asked if Heneral Luna’s campaigning methods are the new way to go, and if mainstream movies should take a leaf from their book, Ms. Limjap responded, “We did what we did because we’re not mainstream media. I mean, if you’re a Star Cinema movie and you have the backing of your network… and you get three guesting spots and you get free ad time, why would they have to do what we did?”

“Their methods work very well, obviously,” she said, citing films by actors Vice Ganda and Piolo Pascual.

“They make a lot of money… so mainstream media is still the way to go — if you can afford it; if you have access to it. But if you don’t, then you have to be creative and out-of-the-box.”

The success of the film, all thanks to its marketing campaign, is something that Ms. Limjap is proud of.

“It’s very nice and gratifying to see a film unify the Filipino audience. There’s a lot of good Filipino cinema that goes unnoticed because they don’t have the proper venue to show it.”

THE TARGET: STUDENTS
More than anyone, Heneral Luna targets the youth.

“We knew from the beginning that our target market would be the student,” said Ms. Limjap. “We knew that when we got the R-13 rating from Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB),” she said.

To encourage students to watch the film, ticket prices were offered at 50% off for students. It was Mr. Ortigas’ idea.

“He said, ‘let’s make it easy for them, and give them 50% off’,” Ms. Limjap said, “I think it’s unprecedented. I don’t think any Filipino film has given such a discount to students.”

The 50% discount ended earlier this week.

While the movie has already grossed P163 million, this is still short of its P200 million break-even mark — but then again, it’s not about the money, said the producers.

“Of course we want to break even. A period film is expensive,” said Ms. Limjap, but on the other hand, “it’s not so much to make a profit. I think it speaks of our executive producer’s desire to show the film to the right market.”

Mr. Rocha said while Mr. Ortigas does want to get his money back, “he’s not in a hurry.”

Depending on which cinemas students were going to, the tickets costs only P93, which enticed students to go back two or three times, added Ms. Limjap.

And thanks to the film, they may start brushing up on their history — something they need to do based on some of the questions asked on social media. Some students turned to social media to ask why Apolinario Mabini was always seated. “Was he tired?,” was one clueless question. (Actor Epy Quizon, who portrayed the polio-stricken paraplegic first Prime Minister of the Philippines, never stood up in the film.) Others asked whether the death of Antonio Luna was the inspiration for the Spoliarium — the painting was done in 1884 and General Luna died in 1899.

Artikulo Uno plans to do school tours and screen the film in “remote areas that don’t have theaters near them” immediately after their theatrical run to ensure the longevity of the film, said Mr. Rocha.

“We’re trying to find the soul of our nation again. Since we’re all fragmented as a people, this movie did something that’s different, in one brief shining moment, in the darkness of cinema, Filipinos found nationhood,” said Mr. Rocha before adding that the timing couldn’t be better as in a year’s time Filipinos will again be given a chance to choose their leaders, and the lessons from the film are worth keeping in mind when thinking about the future of the country.

Looking forward, Mr. Tarog wants to pursue a film trilogy about Filipino heroes, to “paint a rounder portrait of [Emilio] Aguinaldo. No villains, just humans.”

“I believe we have no villains in our movie. We wrote it very carefully. They [the heroes] had their own motivations, they all had their reasons,” Mr. Rocha added as the film seems to put Aguinaldo in a bad light.

Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya, the great-grandson of President Emilio Aguinaldo, did agree with how the film portrays his ancestor, according to an article published on ABS-CBN’s news website.

He said he didn’t think Luna was assassinated. Nonetheless, Mr. Abaya said in the interview that he is encouraging his children to watch the film.

But then again, according to Mr. Tarog, movies are medium of omission. “In the realm of pop entertainment especially, you take away as much as necessary for the sake of conciseness.”

Like many superhero films, Heneral Luna has a scene tacked on at the end that suggests a sequel, this one featuring the hero of Tirad Pass, the boy general Gregorio del Pilar (played by Paulo Avelino).

“It’s interesting to see the awakening of patriotism in a boy, but he did die a hero,” said Mr. Rocha of Del Pilar. After Del Pilar, a film on President Manuel L. Quezon will follow, and “who knows, we may even have a Mabini one.”

Aside from the trilogy, Mr. Rocha said that they are planning to create a film adaptation of the graphic novel Mythology Class by Arnold Arre and a film called Bliss.

Hopefully, these projects will also get the support of moviegoers.

“I think what we have to work on is developing an audience. How can you develop an audience if you keep feeding them junk?,” said Ms. Limjap. “You really have to offer something of quality because you respect the audience, and that you know the audience is not stupid, and that they will watch it, because it appeals to them on other levels.”