The business of microcinemas

Cover art Samantha Gonzales

Words by

Digital Reporter

There was a time when sound in cinema was unheard of and colored moving pictures were the stuff of dreams. But now, the cinema is accessible in the nearest mall, with tickets being sold at an affordable price, plus extra features like popcorn, 3‑D glasses, a slew of movie previews, and memorable end‑credits that will keep you glued to your seats.

But while cinemas have become accessible, some award‑winning movies haven’t. And it isn’t because the so‑called art snobs feel like their work is too good for the masses. It’s because cinemas operate more as a business and less like an art display. The number of days given to a film’s showing depends on how many people come to see it during its first few days.

It’s the reason why crowd favorites like blockbuster films or mainstream Tagalog movies luxuriate for two or more weeks in the cinema, while the more obscure indie films, no matter how many local and international awards they win, might enjoy a little more than three days in a mall theater. Even Respeto, which won Best Film in the 2017 Cinemalaya Awards and uses the very popular art of hip‑hop as a tableau for tackling the effects of living in a dictatorship (such a timely topic), had to take to social media guerilla marketing to get mall cinemas not take the film out of theaters.

In the same vein, 28‑year‑old filmmaker Hector Barreto Calma, who himself has graced international festivals for films like Ang mga Alingawngaw sa Panahon ng Pagpapasaya, used social media to gauge whether or not he would have a niche for the kind of cinema he wanted to put up. Soon enough, he founded Cinema Centenario: a microcinema along busy Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, flanked by food establishments that draw university students.




In here, a narrow staircase leads to a room filled with glass walls, providing a full view of movie schedules, memorabilia (last January, it featured costumes from 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival Best Picture Ang Larawan), an old‑fashioned red ticket booth, and a flatscreen television were trailers—ranging from classic to contemporary—loop endlessly.

ALTERNATE SPACE

Cinema Centenario regularly shows local and indie films from noon to midnight, has a seating capacity of 65 people, and an affordable ticket price of ₱200. They also sell snacks and film merchandise.Cinema Centenario was launched in December 2017, the year that marked the 100th year of Philippine cinema.

“When I read a thread about an indie movie on social media, I always find people asking where they can watch the film,” said Calma in an interview with SparkUp when asked about whether or not there’s a need for microcinemas. “That’s why there was a need to make an alternate space to show films. We schedule a film for showing, and regardless of whether or not we get a full audience, we don’t pull‑out the film from it’s scheduled viewing.”

Films were made to be shown on cinemas, not on your mobile phone.

—Hector Barreto Calma, filmmaker

Social media is also where Cinema Centenario does most of its marketing. Every new showing is a new Facebook event, sometimes promising the chance for the audience to talk with movie directors and actors after the film.

“The audience tends to put filmmakers and actors on a pedestal. We want to make them reachable,” said Calma. “We schedule with directors and actors and announce our events when we’re sure that they can come. We’re bridging the gap between the audience and the filmmaker. They can ask their questions, facets about the movie are revealed, and this is something that you can’t experience in other cinemas.”

“With the age of technology, you can watch your favorite movie on a laptop, but iba pa rin ang sinehan (it’s still different in the cinema),” Calma added, looking up wistfully at the soundless black‑and‑white movie trailer playing on the television at the cinema lobby, his hands clasped as if in prayer. “You get a collective reaction with the strangers you’re watching with that you can’t replicate anywhere else. Films were made to be shown on cinemas, not on your mobile phone.”

But with their location in Maginhawa comes a captive audience of young and old alike. Some of them, Calma joked, were a literal captive audience trapped by rush‑hour traffic who decided to park their cars nearby and spend two hours or so watching a movie instead of spending those hours stressed out. Some others come up to the cinema expecting another trendy theme restaurant. “How cute,” he recalled one of them say. “Look, their menu is themed after movies!” Cinema Centenario get students from nearby universities like the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University and Miriam College, who come after class. Calma also recalled with great fondness an elderly couple who lived nearby. They decided to climb the steep staircase up to the cinema after weeks of passing by it curiously during their daily walks to watch a movie that was first shown when they were still teenagers. They insisted on meeting Calma afterwards to shake his hand and thank him.

Cinema Centenario sources its movies from Calma’s connections with other indie filmmakers and from the restored classics collection of ABS‑CBN’s film restoration project.

Cinema Centenario is located at 95 Maginhawa St., Quezon City. It is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 12 midnight. Check out their facebook for screening schedules.

‘NOT A FAD’

Similarly, Black Maria Cinema in Mandaluyong City is an offshoot of a company that works on post‑film production, SQ Film Laboratory, and is located in the residential district of Mandaluyong City.

The microcinema is also connected to Santiago’s, a café that’s decorated with pink flamingos and smells of buttery pastries and strong coffee.

This is where SparkUp sat down with Shandii Bacolod: film director, producer and talent manager, and currently the programming head of Black Maria.

“Is it just a fad?” Bacolod asked rhetorically over a cup of black coffee. “No, it’s not. Microcinemas stem from the unconscious need to preserve our own art.”

“They said that the film industry is dying, but it’s not,” he continued empathically. “It’s deprived. It’s deprived of venues, resources, and government funds. As a part of this industry, we’re the ones who have to come up with a solution.”

The idea to have a microcinema came from one of the producers that they were working with in SQ, he recalled, who pointed out that they already have all the equipment they need to show films anyway. In November 2017, Black Maria Cinema was borne out of the 30‑seater cinema that used to only have filmmakers screening their work for final touches as its audience. Because they already had all the equipment, like a digital projector and Dolby Digital sound, and the connections within the film industry, all they needed was an audience.

“Our major audience are film enthusiasts and film buffs,” said Bacolod. “Dinadayo nila kami (They make the trip here).” Their location in Mandaluyong, a stone’s throw away from busy Shaw Boulevard, also makes them accessible to people who want someone else to relax after office hours, walk‑ins from the local community, and of course millennials and students who have heard about them on social media. Social media, it seems, is also an integral part of any microcinema’s marketing plan. Black Maria Cinema closed temporarily in January to update its sound system and seats, and went back in operations on the first week of February.

Unlike Cinema Centenario, Black Maria Cinema also shows foreign films like I, Tonya—a 2017 film about ‘90s figure skater Tonya Harding who was made notorious by her alleged attack of her rival Nancy Kerrigan—and Loving Vincent—a 2017 animated film rendered in the art style of Vincent van Gogh whose life is the subject of the film. They charge ₱200 for local films and ₱230 for foreign films, following the pricing of mall cinemas. “But if the movie is a part of a film festival then we follow the price given by the festival,” Bacolod added.

Former Black Maria Cinema‑goers might be shocked by this ₱50 increase in ticket prices from when it first started, but it seems like a necessary price increase. While microcinemas operate with obviously less resources and space compared to mall cinemas, they are subject to the same regulations.

Kahit maliit kami (even if we’re small) we have to follow all the requirements and criteria as big mall cinemas, and we pay the same amount in fees,” Bacolod disclosed. These include zoning permits, fire compliance permits, business permits and registering with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. She estimates that Black Maria Cinema has a ₱35,000‑₱45,000 monthly operating cost.

With more and more microcinemas being established in the last few months, there might soon be enough to come up with an association of microcinema owners so that they may discuss how to make their businesses sustainable. “This year business owners are coming up to improve operations, how to strengthen our business, how to promote our movies,” said Bacolod.

“So that microcinemas won’t be considered an alternate venue to watch films anymore,” he reflected. “We’ll be known as the venue.”

Black Maria Cinema is located at 779 San Rafael St., SQ Film Laboratories Building, Plainview, Mandaluyong. Check out their facebook for screening schedules. 

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