In the midst of an otherwise bleak environment for the Philippine entertainment industry during the two-year COVID-19 pandemic, one bright spot was the June 10, 2021 release of the Netflix exclusive, anime-influenced series entitled Trese that put the spotlight on Filipino talents in animation, acting, creative writing and directing. Trese was directed by Filipino-American Jay Oliva, CEO of Lex & Otis: Tiger Animation, and produced by Base Entertainment, a film company based out of Jakarta and Singapore that finances content for the Indonesian and international market. The crew members in production and voice casts of the English and Filipino dubs were predominantly Filipinos, with some help from foreign actors and actresses such as Canadian Shay Mitchell and Fil-American Nicole Scherzinger. This animated TV series was based on a Filipino comics series written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo. The scriptwriters were all Filipinos, i.e., Zig Marasigan, Mihk Vergara, and Tanya Yuson. Three days after its release, the six-episode animated series managed to enter the top TV shows list on Netflix in 19 countries. It ranked first in the Philippines and landed a spot in the top 10 lists of Netflix Canada and Netflix UAE.
It was easy for me to identify with the plot of Trese because it featured Balete Drive in Quezon City as the location of a crime scene. In the decade of the 1970s during the Martial Law years, I was residing on N. Domingo St., Quezon City, very close to the supposedly dangerous street where a “kaperosa” (white lady) was allegedly haunting taxi drivers. I had some friends who lived on Balete Drive whom I visited from time and time, during which I had a first-hand experience of the eerie feeling of passing under huge and leafy balete trees, notorious among superstitious Filipinos for harboring all types of spirits, both good and bad. I never expected that this widespread ghost story during those troubled times would become the subject of a TV series that would put Filipino creative artists on the global scene.
The success of Trese gives hope to the proponents of the Philippines as a film industry hub in Asia. It also gives a clue on how this seemingly overambitious goal can be achieved. We can be a film hub of Asia, or for that matter the creative industry center of Asia, only if — as in the case of Trese — we are able to leverage our abundant talents in the creative industries by partnering with other countries that can provide the funding, the technology, and the market access. This strategic approach will parallel what we have done in the BPO-IT sector in which we are already an important hub — competing with India — because we have learned how to attract multinational companies from all over the world to make full of use of our digital and other talents. This is one sector where we should never replicate our disastrous mistakes in adopting a “Filipino First” and “Self-Sufficiency” policies that accounted for our being left behind by our Asian neighbors in economic development.
One bleak view of the future of the Philippine film industry was expressed by film buff and ANIMA (Kroma Entertainment) consultant Joe Caliro in a talk he gave in a webinar sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines entitled “Is the Philippines the next global film production hub?” Caliro bluntly stated that cinemas are dead in the Philippine entertainment world. As a result of the long lockdowns occasioned by the pandemic, people’s viewing habits have drastically shifted away from going to movie houses to watching TV film series. In his words, “The only films that are actually getting attention are these big blockbusters. The smaller films just cannot make it in the cinemas… I am a film buff so I continue to go to the cinemas. The irony is, I saw Unchartered this weekend and I paid P900 to see a film. Now you want to kill the industry? The cinemas should better figure out that you can’t be charging P900 for a single ticket to see a movie.”
These comments may miss the point about the future of the film industry in the Philippines. The important question is not whether people will continue to watch their favorite films in the movie houses. Movie houses may or may not survive the change in consumer behavior. As the Philippines transitions towards becoming an upper-middle-income economy in the coming years, we can be certain that Filipinos will spend a bigger percentage of their incomes on entertainment, which will always include watching films, if not in movie houses then in their homes through all forms of streaming like those offered by Netflix and many other streaming alternatives such as Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, Crackle, YouTube, Paramount Plus, Disney Plus, Discovery Plus and many more which can keep one entertained on one’s smartphone, tablet, or smart TV. The future of film in the Philippines or anywhere else has little to do with the survival of the movie house business!
As Charmie Joy Pagulong wrote in The Philippine Star (March 10), the key question is whether or not the Philippine film industry can, as was demonstrated by Trese, produce more content for the world. She quotes Joe Caliro who attributed the success of international series like the Squid Game and Money Heist to content that is “complex,” replete with multiple story lines and characters.
In contrast, the Philippines is “stuck with the traditional window of theater, Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD), free to air, etc.” If the Philippines would like to be at the same level as South Korea as a global film hub, the Government has to give substantial support to the industry, combining direct funding with substantial incentives. The South Koreans do not follow the traditional window and they start and build networks.
Mr. Caliro insists that our film industry should not produce films for Filipinos. Instead, they should produce Filipino films for the world. He gave as examples ANIMA executive Quark Henares and Reality Entertainment’s Erik Matti and Dondon Monteverde for being at the forefront in pushing Filipino content onto the global scene, such as the first Filipino original series on HBO and now on HBO Max, On the Job: The Missing Eight (OTJ). OTJ was originally a movie that took over $2 million to produce. “You need that kind of budget to get the attention of an international audience. It was complex. It had a great character build. The soundtrack of that movie alone was the cost of an average of two Filipino films. It takes that kind of bravery to go out there and make that kind of content.”
The big funding that is needed to support the growth of the Philippine film industry can be reasonably expected from foreign sources, as in the case of the successful animated film Trese as well as from a more enlightened Philippine Government that can follow the example of its South Korean counterpart. As Mary Liza B. Diño, Chairperson and CEO of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), reported in the webinar sponsored by the American Chamber, there are a significant number of Philippine government programs for the film industry in the Philippines. Pursuant to RA 9167, the FDCP was instituted as the national agency under the Office of the President responsible for film policies and programs to ensure the economic, cultural, and educational development of the Philippine film industry. The FDCP is charged with encouraging and assisting the local film industry to create quality films —from development to production, to distribution and exhibition — and to conduct film-related events that enhance the skills of the Filipino creative talents. Instead of leaving the various stakeholders of the industry to their individual initiatives and devices, the Government will take a lead role in the Philippine film industry’s participation in domestic and foreign film markets and local and international film festivals to promote and position Philippine cinema to be globally competitive. It is also tasked to preserve and protect films as part of the country’s national cultural heritage through the appropriate archiving.
There are other State-sponsored programs that can help the private sector to be globally competitive in the international market. Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 674, Series of 2007, the Philippine Film Export Service Office (PFESO) was created to promote the country as a viable and effective location site and post-production service provider in the Indo-Pacific region. Through its banner program, FilmPhilippines, the Film Philippines Office (FPO) offers location incentive programs to attract a range of international film and audiovisual projects for full-on production and post-production in the Philippines, as well as foreign producers looking to do international co-production with Filipino producers. We have some of the most attractive location sites with our 7,100 islands that are getting more and more accessible through the Build, Build, Build program given the greatest push during the Duterte Administration. In fact, an international Travel and Leisure magazine rated Palawan as the best island resort in the world (note that Palawan is made up of 2,000 islands). We also have a predominantly English-speaking population that will facilitate the communication of the film crews of foreign productions with the local population. In addition, FPO has the UniPhilippines Program that will implement several programs and assistance mechanisms to support Filipino films and filmmakers to participate in international film festivals and films markets to continuously expose Filipino films to the global arena, both culturally and commercially.
It is also notable how Filipino-made teleseryes (TV series) are gaining global following, as reported by Michelle Anne Soliman in this paper on April 11. ABS-CBN has sold more than 50,000 hours of TV content in more than 50 countries. For example, the ABS-CBN romance drama Bagong Umaga, known globally as New Beginnings, is aired in more than 41 countries, including Kenya, Ghana, and Madagascar. Its action-drama series Asintado is aired with a French dub in Africa’s French-speaking region including the Ivory Coast, while La Vida Lena is airing in Myanmar under the Burmese title Maya Galeisar. GMA is not far behind. Its Spanish-dubbed versions of Little Mommy, For Love or Money, and A Place in Your Heart also debuted in Ecuador. Early GMA dramas syndicated in Southeast Asia in the past 15 years included Marimar, Dyesebel, Encantada, and Mulawin.
Having been significantly influenced by both Spanish and American culture, but still retaining a distinctly Asian flavor, plots of Philippine films can have a universal appeal. It is also a distinct advantage that in the United States, Fil-American singers are very well known. In the last Grammy Awards for outstanding singers in the US, among the nominees there was a preponderance of Fil-Americans. Among the well-known Fil-American artists are Bruno Mars and Olivia Rodrigo.
Our film industry can strengthen its global following as long as we help it flourish with both generous state support and a great deal of foreign funding and technology transfer. It is hoped that the next President will give the greatest attention to the Film Development Council of the Philippines, which is directly under the Office of the President.
(To be continued.)
Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.