By Zsarlene B. Chua
Since it was created in 1975, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has been the country’s premiere film festival, drawing crowds numbering in the millions during the holiday season. For filmmakers, the MMFF is the best venue to get their films seen by the widest possible audience — this was the reason the producers behind the indie film Ang Larawan fought so long and hard to be one of the eight official entries in the most recent festival. The latest MMFF iteration raked in more than P1 billion over its two-week run, and while the top earners were, as usual, family-friendly studio films, even the four films that made the least, which include the aforementioned Ang Larawan, were reported by the MMFF to have earned more than P30 million over the festival’s run.
But beyond the MMFF and the multitude of “indie” festivals which fill cineastes’ calendars throughout the year, where does one get to see non-mainstream films in a world filled with multiplexes?
Well, there are microcinemas which provide alternative and more intimate venues for independently produced films to be screened.
From the Cinema ’76 Film Society in San Juan City to the smaller Black Maria Cinema in Mandaluyong City and a handful of others, microcinemas are meant to help and promote films that may appeal to smaller audiences than a Viva or Star Cinema blockbuster, but are certainly not lacking when it comes to quality.
Films such as Ang Larawan, Julius Alfonso’s Deadma Walking, Raya Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, all of which had limited runs in the multiplexes, have found their homes — and audiences — in these cinemas.
“Independently produced films are those that need our help. The top grossers don’t need us,” Mark Shandii Bacolod, programming director of Black Maria Cinema, told BusinessWorld in an interview on Jan. 19.
He explained that at their core, microcinemas are there to help independent producers get their films screened because mall cinemas don’t give much space or time to them.
“You do a quality film or restore a classic film, you put it out in the mall and after one day or two days it gets pulled out because no one’s watching. You need microcinemas to showcase these films because these films reflect our culture,” he explained.
This sentiment is echoed by Vincent R. Nebrida, president of TBA Studios, the company behind Cinema ’76. (TBA [Tuko Film Productions, Buchi Boy Entertainment, and Artikulo Uno Productions] Studios is an independent film production company behind films like Smaller and Smaller Circles, Heneral Luna, and Birdshot).
“There’s at least about seven or eight local film festivals which fund the production of films — which is great for everybody. But at the same time, I was thinking, we have all these movies and then after they play six to eight times during the festival, that’s it. Where do they go?” he told BusinessWorld in an interview on Jan. 24.
He mused that there are around 80 to 100 films produced every year but after the festivals are done, they have nowhere to go.
“Therein lies the problem of distribution because there are few distributors and they are very selective because they want the potential moneymakers — and obviously other independent films are not given the chance to play to an audience,” he explained.
The need for venues of these films is what led to the creation of these microcinemas: Cinema ’76, which opened in Febuary 2016, is a former conference room which was converted into a cinema which seats up to 60 people, while Black Maria’s formerly private screening room, which has been existence since the 1970s, was opened to the public in November last year and can seat up to 30 people.
Other microcinemas around Metro Manila are Cinema Centenario and UP’s Cine Adarna, both in Quezon City, and the Film Development Council of the Philippines’ (FDCP) Cinematheque Centre in Manila.
THE MARKET OF MICROCINEMAS
Both Cinema ’76’s Nebrida and Black Maria’s Bacolod said that they initially thought that their market would be more mature viewers (Cinema ’76 figured theirs would be people aged 40 and above) but what they discovered is their seats are typically filled by people between the ages of 18 and 30.
“I really think that’s why microcinemas are happening, because there is a demand for these movies,” said Mr. Nebrida, noting that some of their customers come from as far as Baguio and Mindoro who marathon watch films.
He explained that due to the lack of cinemas in their provinces (and the lack of variety in what is shown), they opt to come to Metro Manila and seek out these venues — which is a bit surprising, he said, as their cinema is not the easiest place to go to and neither is Black Maria as both are not readily accessible by public transportation.
But audiences do come and they stay the entire day, Mr. Nebrida said as Cinema ’76 typically offers three to four films on rotation every day for the entire week. People can come in, pay P150 for each film, and watch the entire day.
This kind of programming will also be introduced by Black Maria once it finishes its renovations this month.
“I’m treating the programming as if I’m curating art and paintings in a museum… We want to do it as if it’s a festival but with a fewer number of films,” Mr. Bacolod said.
Black Maria will also be screening up to 40 restored films from the archives of ABS-CBN, as well as show foreign-language films in cooperation with foreign embassies. But the main focus will still be presenting “new independent films,” he said. “But those that need immediate help are those who created films three to five years ago who haven’t broken even.”
He said they plan on screening the restored versions of Sa Aking Mga Kamay (1996), Basta’t Kasama Kita (1995), Milan (2004), and Sana Maulit Muli (1995) in February.
Mr. Nebrida acknowledged that it took a bit of time for Cinema ’76 to become as popular as it is now, and laughingly said that the hugot (romantic-drama or romantic-comedy) films are the ones he credits for their popularity. While Cinema ’76 opened in Febuary 2016, it was only in June when they started showing Sleepless (2015) — Prime Cruz’ film about two lonely people who can’t sleep — and Nestor Abrogena, Jr.’s Kwento Nating Dalawa (2015) — about a young filmmaker and an aspiring writer trying to make their relationship work — that the cinema “gained steam,” and they realized their market was much younger than they initially thought.
For Black Maria, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s animated film about Vincent van Gogh, Loving Vincent (2017), which was screened from Nov. 2-8, has been their most successful film so far, attracting full houses throughout the run.
OUTSIDE METRO MANILA
While Metro Manila and its microcinemas predict a future where independently produced quality films will have a fighting chance against the commercial behemoths, outside the capital, a similar movement is being spearheaded by the FDCP as the council continues to roll-out cinematheques in various provinces.
“The objective of microcinemas is to provide venues and platforms for independently produced films. Our difference from other cinemas is since we’re in the government, we’re not that focused on turning profits,” Dustin Donovan A. Guillermo, programming lead officer of the FDCP, told BusinessWorld in an interview.
“It’s really about to empower and educate the Filipino moviegoer. The profits are just a plus,” he said.
By virtue of its proximity to educational institutions such as the Philippine Normal University, Adamson University, the University of the Philippines Manila, and De La Salle University, the “captive audience” of FDCP’s Manila cinematheque (the former Insituto Cervantes along T.M. Kalaw in Manila) are students.
The FDCP currently operates three cinematheques in the country: Manila, Davao, and Iloilo, and there are plans to open one in Nabunturan, Compostela Valley, and another in Bacolod within the first quarter of the year, with more locations to come between this year and the next.
“Whenever we bring films to the regions, we set up a makeshift viewing area and people do come and they do enjoy watching these films,” said Mr. Guillermo before adding, “It’s not just people from Metro Manila who want to watch them. So we try to bring these films to them and in turn bring films from the regions to Manila and other places in the country.”
A GOLDEN AGE?
Asked if the presence of microcinemas signals that the country has entered another Golden Age of Cinema (the last one is generally considered to have lasted from 1976 to the 1980s), Mr. Nebrida and Mr. Bacolod had differing opinions.
Mr. Nebrida said that he thinks the country has been in a Golden Age since 2013 while Mr. Bacolod said that the rise of microcinemas does not indicate a Golden Age but instead highlights the struggle of independent producers for their films to be seen.
“We always deny that there’s a gap or a barricade between mainstream and indie, that it does not exist — but it does exist. The fact that there’s a rise in microcinemas affirms that wall is becoming more prominent,” Mr. Bacolod said.
Mr. Nebrida takes the opposite view. “At some level, the distinctions between indie and mainstream are getting blurred. It’s just about good quality films… I really think that’s why microcinemas are happening — because there is a demand for these movies,” he said.
And this demand, he said, has made it possible for Cinema ’76 to put up a new cinema, this time in Quezon City, which they will unveil within the first quarter of the year.
While details are scarce, Mr. Nebrida said they will have two screens, one with a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) player. (Black Maria also has a DCP player.)
FDCP’s Mr. Bacolod said that this kind of setup would have only worked starting 2016 because the audiences before that were not yet ready for these kinds of cinemas. Mr. Nebrida believes that while the format would have worked four or five years ago, they realized when they opened in 2016 that the time was ripe and it was the best time to introduce the concept.
“Because the audiences are ready for this. I think they’ve been waiting for years now to be able to go see these movies [that] they feel they’ve been missing out on… Because unless mall cinemas change their policies, a lot of these films will be around for only for a day in those cinemas,” Mr. Nebrida said.
Golden Age or no Golden Age, what both agreed on is the need for microcinemas to come together and form an association so they can cooperate and maybe even stage a film festival of their own — and it may just happen sooner than we think.
“It’s going to happen soon. The idea is really to band together so there can be independent films that can open in an alternative chain including the FDCP,” said Mr. Nebrida.
Cinema ’76 Film Society is located at 160 Luna Mencias, Brgy. Addition Hills, San Juan, Metro Manila. To contact them call 637-5076, e-mail email@example.com, or visit their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/cinema76fs/) or Web site (http://tba.ph).
Black Maria Cinema is located at 779 San Rafael St., SQ Film Laboratories Bldg., Plainview, Mandaluyong City. To contact them call 782-4566, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/BlackMariaCinema/).
The FDCP Cinematheque Centre Manila is at 855 T.M. Kalaw Ave., Ermita, Manila, Metro Manila (the former Insituto Cervantes). To contact them call 256-8331, e-mail email@example.com, or visit their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CinemathequeMNL/) or Web site (http://fdcp.ph).