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Filipino Film Industry Ponders Funding Problems and Cinema Shortfall

Despite making more films than almost any other Southeast Asian nation, the Philippines' movie industry is suffering from dwindling domestic audiences and poor global sales. Can a new government initiative manage to turn it all around?

Photo: Season of the Devil: The 2018 rock opera that proved a Filipino Film Festival winner in Berlin.
Season of the Devil: The 2018 rock opera that proved a Filipino Film Festival winner in Berlin.
Photo: Season of the Devil: The 2018 rock opera that proved a Filipino Film Festival winner in Berlin.
Season of the Devil: The 2018 rock opera that proved a Filipino Film Festival winner in Berlin.

The Philippines is one of Southeast Asia's most prolific film-producing nations, turning out about 70-80 movies a year and, occasionally, winning an award or two at one of the leading international film festivals. So far this year, Lav Diaz's Season Of The Devil, a rock opera about human-rights abuses in the 1970s, premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, while Erik Matti's action-thriller BuyBust, set against the backdrop of the Philippines' controversial drugs war, closed the New York Asian Film Festival. In 2016, Brillante Mendoza's Ma Rosa won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Jaclyn Jose's performance as a convenience-store owner who turns to small-time drug dealing.

While Filipino filmmakers are gaining recognition globally, however, the commercial environment in their home market is far from ideal. In 2017, Philippine films had a 29% share of their domestic box office, which is more or less in line with many other Southeast Asian territories, but far lower than the 50% or more market share enjoyed by local films in mainland China, South Korea or Japan. As in many Southeast Asian countries, low-budget local productions find it difficult to compete with Hollywood blockbusters. On top of that, rampant piracy and the lack of a strong home entertainment market make it still more difficult for local producers to recoup their costs.

Despite the occasional film-festival accolade, the Philippines' film industry doesn't have it any easier in the international market. Earlier this year, though, WellGo USA acquired BuyBust for North American distribution, while Netflix scooped up the film's international rights. While encouraging, such deals are, unfortunately, somewhat rare.

Due to tough market conditions, international sales agents now tend to be far more selective about the kind of films they handle, while international film festivals tend to only focus on the Philippines' social issues-driven cinema. This has resulted in a glut of similar-looking independent movies, to the extent that local director Marlon Rivera made a spoof in 2011 – The Woman In a Septic Tank, the tale of three aspiring filmmakers aiming for international glory via a film that ticks all the boxes required for success in the so-called "poverty porn" genre.

Determined to tackle these issues, the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) has launched a series of events intended to strengthen the local market for Philippine movies and to help local filmmakers connect with international distributors. To date, these initiatives have included the Pista Pelikulang Pilipino (PPP), a week-long celebration of Philippines' cinema (15-21 August), during which commercial theatres across the country played only local movies. This coincided with the FDCP's Film Industry Conference (17-18 August), which saw sales agents, producers, government film agencies and film critics from around the world fly into Manila to advise local filmmakers how to expand the market for their movies.

Among the speakers at the conference were Joachim Ng (Director of the Singapore Film Commission), Stephen Jenner (Communications Vice-President for the Motion Picture Association in the Asia-Pacific Region), Michaelangelo Masangkay (General Manager of Ravenbanner Entertainment, a Toronto-based sales agency), Aditya Assarat (an award-winning Thai Film Director) and local representatives of three of the regional streaming platforms – Vidsee, iflix and HOOQ.

During the course of the conference, two issues came up repeatedly. First, there was the problem that few producers in the Philippines are seen as having the experience and contacts to be able to successfully navigate their way around the international markets. Secondly – and perhaps more surprisingly – was the culture of many of the country's local film festivals. While such festivals were seen as having helped kick-start the independent scene in the early 2000s, many are now viewed as hampering the chances of many films to successfully enter the international market.

Expanding on this latter problem, Liza Dino, Chief Executive of the FDCP, said: "We have a very unique method of funding projects here, which sees several of the local film festivals – all different in nature – providing the seed money for many productions. After subsequently screening their films at these festivals, many directors had hoped to sell them internationally to help recoup their costs. What they hadn't realised, though, was that they had all too often signed away the international rights as part of their deal with one of the festivals."

The Philippines has film festivals running throughout the year, ranging from the commercially-focused Metro Manila Film Festival, which runs over the Christmas and New Year holidays, to a string of festivals focused on the independent sector, including Sinag Maynila (March), CineMalaya (August), QCinema International Film Festival (October) and Cinema One Originals (November), to name but a few. While most of these festivals provide grants for local filmmakers, many are backed by broadcasters and film studios, which need to maintain a supply of local product – hence the requirement for funding recipients to sign away their rights.

The conference also found time to discuss another issue confounding the Philippines' film industry – the comparative shortage of cinemas across the country. While the sector has seen some expansion over the past five years, it's been nothing like the explosive growth in several neighbouring territories, most notably China and Indonesia. According to figures from IHS Markit, the London-headquartered market-research group, the Philippines had 920 cinema screens and a total box office of US$218 million in 2017. Given its population of 104 million, however, both the revenue and screen count should really be much higher.

Photo: BuyBust: On theatrical release in the US.
BuyBust: On theatrical release in the US.
Photo: BuyBust: On theatrical release in the US.
BuyBust: On theatrical release in the US.
Photo: Goyo: The General as a Boy – telco-backed.
Goyo: The General as a Boy – telco-backed.
Photo: Goyo: The General as a Boy – telco-backed.
Goyo: The General as a Boy – telco-backed.

Outlining the reasons for this stunted growth, Edgar Tejerero, Managing Partner of Fulcrums Asia, a Manila-based management consultancy, said: "Average screen occupancy is low, typically only 14%, and it's not getting any better. Traffic congestion is one of the big factors – even on weekends, it's often difficult for audiences to reach cinemas. Even on a film's opening night, the crowds don't always show up, with traffic always cited as one of the contributory problems."

Many in the local film industry, however, believe that congestion is just one of the many issues deterring would-be cinemagoers across the country. In particular, disproportionately high ticket prices, competition from Netflix and other streaming services and outdated cinema set-ups are all seen as keeping film fans away from their local multiplex.

Addressing the unsuitability of the available cinema facilities, Ed Lejano, Director of Quezon City's QCinema Film Festival, said: "Even in the case of the bigger films, you might only see three or four people in a 700-seater hall. Large halls are just not feasible in this post-platform era. Instead, you need smaller cinemas with more features, such as high-quality sound, DCP projection equipment and comfy seats."

Lejano also cites a shift in taste among the country's younger audiences as contributing to the problem. Traditionally, the Philippines has had a fairly robust mainstream film industry, which, for decades, has churned out escapist romantic comedies featuring the big stars of the day. Star Cinema, the film arm of broadcaster ABS-CBN, has long dominated this particular genre, accounting for an 80% market share in the case of local productions.

In recent years, though, such films have suffered from a decline in revenue, prompting Star Cinema, and its competitors, to experiment with bolder storylines and different genres. Acknowledging this, Lejano said: "Due to the changed preferences of millennials, romcoms are now darker and more emotional, with the happy-ever-after factor far less evident. Despite that, big hits are still proving few and far between."

One local company that has been finding some success of late is Viva Films, the production arm of Viva Entertainment, the pay-TV operator and film distributor. In addition to BuyBust, its recent productions have included the romcom Kita Kita, which grossed more than $6 million last year. The studio is now working on a big-budget superhero movie, Pedro Penduko, directed by Treb Monteras II, whose debut film, Respeto, played at this year's Rotterdam International Film Festival.

In addition, investment is starting to flow into the film industry from a number of telecoms and digital companies. Globe Studios, the film arm of Globe Telecom, is currently taking something of a wager on Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, Jerrold Tarog's big-budget historical drama, which was scheduled for release in early September. Co-produced with TBA Studios and starring the ever-popular Paulo Avelino, the film is a sequel to the 2015 hit Heneral Luna, which was produced for $1.5 million (PHP80 million) and grossed $4.5 million.

Netflix, iflix and HOOQ are also all starting to invest in Philippines-sourced content. As in other territories, though, they are focusing primarily on dramas and other forms of episodic content rather than on films. For its part, HOOQ is backing a six-part miniseries, conceived as a sequel to Matti's 2013 action drama On The Job, although it has recently announced that the pilot episode will also be released theatrically.

Speaking at the FDCP conference, Jeff Remigio, HOOQ Philippines' Director of Content and Programming, said the company was broadening the audience for Filipino content by streaming it in several other countries. Outlining the positive response this initiative has so far received, he said: "Many of our Filipino movies and TV shows are enjoyed by subscribers in Singapore and Indonesia. All the shows are subtitled in English and tend to have themes that are universal – and, so far, it seems there's something they love about Filipino content."

Netflix recently acquired the worldwide rights to Amo, Mendoza's 13-part crime drama, which was produced by TV5, a local broadcaster. It's a controversial move, given that a number of human-rights groups have criticised the series for apparently supporting the unofficial policies of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines' President, including the extra-judicial killings of those suspected of dealing in drugs.

Whatever their political views, Filipino filmmakers will inevitably be drawn to this subject, in much the same way that the Colombian drug wars provided seemingly endless material for Netflix's mostly Spanish-language series Narcos. Apart from being a subject that has attracted international attention, any conflict that involves criminals, corrupt police and innocent bystanders is also likely to provide perfect action-movie fodder.

Seeking to diversify Philippines' cinema, the FDCP conference discussed the possibility of making big-budget action films, horror movies and features about the country's rising middle class, rather than simply fixating on the poverty in many areas. Of these genres, action films – whether or not they're based on local realities – were repeatedly cited as the easiest to sell. The next challenge, then, is coming up with the concepts and budgets required to be internationally competitive.

To date, Matti has had some success with this formula, with BuyBust currently enjoying a limited theatrical release in North America. The question, though, is whether other filmmakers from the Philippines will be willing – or, indeed, able – to follow his lead.

Photo: The Woman In a Septic Tank: A rare example of Philippine-style comedy poverty porn.
The Woman In a Septic Tank: A rare example of Philippine-style comedy poverty porn.
Photo: The Woman In a Septic Tank: A rare example of Philippine-style comedy poverty porn.
The Woman In a Septic Tank: A rare example of Philippine-style comedy poverty porn.

The Film Development Council of the Philippines' Film Industry Conference 2018 took place from 17-18 August at the Novotel Manila Araneta Center.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Manila

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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