New Filipino films challenge status quo

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NEW YORK -- The crumbling Manila movie theater at the center of director Brillante Mendoza's indie film "Serbis" could be a body-double for Filipino moviemaking.

"But no, please, don't say that," protests Yam Laranas, another director, whose just-completed Hollywood remake of his own 2004 horror film "Sigaw" signals a possible new career path for Filipino artists.

"There's also a new breed coming up with new styles and techniques and adapting to new ways of getting out there," Laranas, 39, says over the phone from Manila.

Remakes? New techniques? It's about time for a second coming because making movies for the largely Catholic audience in the Southeast Asian nation of 90 million people hasn't paid much to more than a few lucky filmmakers for at least 10 years.

Even celebrity-obsessed Filipinos now wait months to watch movies on TV or cable. In the global recession, they're sure to snap up first-run films on pirated DVDs for 30 Philippine Pesos ($0.63) rather than splurge tickets costing four times as much.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, which -- at last check in 2005 -- estimated 78% of the discs sold in the Philippines were bootlegs, Filipino cinema owners are the worst offenders in Asia for failing to stop illegal camcording. "We stand by these numbers today," an MPA official says.

These days, the Philippines releases fewer than 50 mainstream films a year into its cinemas, down from nearly 300 a year during the heyday of the 1970s and '80s. By the early 1990s, when a spate of bomb scares at shopping malls scattered moviegoers, the industry was in a tailspin.

Rising as fast as the industry around him collapsed, 48-year-old "Dante" Mendoza, (many Filipinos take nicknames to shorten long, formal Christian names), took "Serbis," his seventh film, to Cannes in May. The film, set in a rundown family-owned cinema whose owners, to make ends meet, resort to showing skin flicks to crowds of gay hustlers, didn't win but it did sell: Fortissimo Films rapidly cut deals for distribution in Canada, France, Israel, the Benelux countries and the U.S. -- even though it was barely seen in the Philippines.

There, screens are dominated by Filipino-language comedies and John Hughes-style teenybopper movies, most of which get a run for their money from Hollywood films in English, the nation's fluent second tongue.

Indeed, the MPA doesn't complain about Filipino market barriers. Film imports aren't capped as they are in China and local movie houses often favor Hollywood blockbusters made for hundreds of millions of dollars over even the biggest local films. The average local budget is less than 35 million pesos ($728,000).

Refusing to call the glass half empty, Laranas says that, after 300 years "in the convent" (under Spanish rule) and 45 years "under Hollywood's spell" (as a U.S. colony until 1946), the storytelling culture of The Philippines now faces a new opportunity.

"In terms of canvas and the medium, it's all changed. New filmmakers will eventually become the mainstream, changing the story as they go," says Laranas, whose real name is William.

Paving the way for part of this new wave was Cinemalaya, a local film festival held in Manila each July for the last four years. ("Malaya" means "freedom" in Tagalog, the dominant Filipino dialect).

Funded by TV and cable station owner Tony "Boy" Cojuangco and the Film Development Council of the Philippines, Cinemalaya grants each winning project 200,000 pesos ($4,178).

Early Cinemalaya selection committee member and judge "Manet" Dayrit says most projects are made by a crew of friends for less than 2 million pesos ($41,000). She says their quality has risen rapidly each year.

However, Dayrit, the managing director of Roadrunner Network, the Philippines' largest post-production house (in turn owned by Star Cinemas, the biggest studio), cautions that aspirants to Mendoza's fast path to glory could be disappointed.

"Young, fresh filmmakers are making digital movies with a new outlook and without a formula," she says. "Trouble is, most of them still lack distributors and a real market locally or overseas. They may be capturing the imagination at film festivals, but as a business, we still have to figure this out."

An optimist, Laranas still allows "99% of the movies in the resurgence are of low technical quality, presenting real problems for overseas distributors."

"Sigaw" (and now its remake "The Echo") is one of the lucky ones. It was inspired by a real-life murder in Laranas' Manila apartment building. He says it made back four times its $300,000 budget at the domestic boxoffice and then "more than paid back its budget" again when No. 2 Filipino studio, Regal Entertainment, sold remake rights to Roy Lee and RightOff Entertainment in Los Angeles.

Elsewhere, Chris Martinez, 37, won the audience award at the Pusan International Film Festival in October with his directorial debut, "100." Unlike the escapist scripts he'd written with names like "Bridal Shower" and "Bikini Open," "100" chronicles a cancer patient going through her list of things to do before she dies. Still, the movie is a celebration, Martinez says on the phone from Manila.

Martinez says he has nothing against the Filipino stories that do well at foreign film festivals that exoticize and romanticize poverty, but wants the world to know that his country has "other stories away from the slums and squatter areas."

Though Martinez hopes "100" is the first Filipino indie to succeed in telling a story about Manila's middle, educated, financially comfortable class, the film hasn't yet made any money. Still, he feels that audiences have liked it for its perceived variety.

"They must have been shocked to see that we too love Haagen Dazs, travel to Disneyland and drive SUVs," Martinez said.

But what an audience finds entertaining is different all over the world and isn't guaranteed to travel. As such, Wouter Barendrecht, Fortissimo Films co-chairman, says that "Serbis" was sold not as a Filipino film but rather as a film by Brillante Mendoza. So-called "passport sales," made on the director's nationality, can only be made once or twice, he says.

Noting that many Filipino dramas are sobby, three-hanky affairs, Barendrecht says, "If you're Meryl Streep, in the West you win an Oscar for crying without tears. In Southeast Asia, the dry-cry is not appreciated. This can be a commercial handicap."

Hence, even when a film like "Serbis" lands big-territory distribution it still isn't guaranteed to make bundles. Regent Films will release "Serbis" in New York and L.A. in Spring 2009, targeting Filipinos, film buffs and, says Mark Reinhart, the gay community, which "should help the film a lot." Still, Reinhart says, referring to the leading art house cinema chains in the U.S., "The Laemmles and the Landmarks will take it, but I don't think it will go much further."
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