When imperialist lapdogs bark: a response to Isagani de Castro’s “Is there a New Filipino Cinema Audience”?

This post is made in response to a question raised by a student of mine in class about an article written by a certain Isagani de Castro, Jr for Rappler titled “Is there a new Filipino Cinema audience?”[1]  It’s within the similar vein of journalistic endeavor in film writing that Jason Tan Liwag’s article that I responded to is modeled. The think-piece is written with a hint of journalism covering insights from industry who’s who and some “expert” commenters.

The article, in a gist, and in the guise of a journalistic enterprise, celebrated the shifting of the “Filipino audience” away from the “masses”. The byline states:

“The MMFF used to be the holiday film festival for the masses, with films starring Vice Ganda, Vic Sotto, and Coco Martin often topping the box office. The Filipino movie-going market, however, is changing, as shown in MMFF 2022 and 2023 ticket sales.”

This byline – which stands as the article’s abstract and hence, its hypothesis to be tested – is supported by statements from industry insiders such as Jose Javier Reyes, MMFF Juror and film director:

“Consider the mathematics. The Filipino minimum wage earner takes home P570/day for his hard work – without subtracting the cost of transportation and food. The average cost of a movie ticket nowadays is between P350 to P400. It is quite clear that Aleng Tacing and Mang Juaning together with their offsprings Letlet and Junjun can no longer afford to watch movies,”

In a quick summation, the article assumed that this “masses” that they are veering away this “new audiences” from are the “undiscerning” ones who “loved a good old traditional comedy”, or preferred “escapist” films, and are often generalized with their buying power or, i.e. the “minimum wage earner” as noted by the citation from Reyes above.

A point of contention was raised by de Castro how while despite box-office turnout in peso, the ticket sales or the buyer turnout was different: “With ticket prices now at around P350 each in 2023 and ticket sales of P1 billion, that means 2.85 million watched the latest iteration of the MMFF, or a decline of 1.39 million viewers [from 2022].” de Castro noted of this as if this is a novel phenomenon that has not existed prior to the pandemic.

Such was not the case.

We have noted back when STRIKE II was around that, if we are to consider 2019’s biggest box office hit, Hello Love Goodbye as the benchmark, the so-called “local film industry” catered to an audience only of roughly 2,000,000 people or around 8% of Manila population or 1.8% of total national population.[2] 

De Castro went on to echo industry blunders of the causes of its downfall since after the Edsa Revolution such as piracy, which to this day, has never really shown any significant statistic that relates that fate to such “criminal activity” as noted by the media scholar Tilman Baumgartel, even the statistics shown by the Optical Media Board reflects only their task “of making their own work look efficient, or keeping their respectable countries off international black lists because of consequences for their reputation as business locations”[3] and in most cases, as Baumgartel has noted in the same article cited, piracy brought better cultural impact in its heyday than harm.

The elephant in the room that de Castro wasn’t able to address is the reality that sits within local film distribution’s pandering to the imperialist (largely U.S. Imperialist) market. There’s a weird isolated discussion about “Philippine Cinema” being solely about the production of local movies, both within mainstream and independent production. This discussion is well reflected by de Castro and his interviewees in the article as if distribution and exhibition are separate realms that do not have anything to do with production. Which is why what is often highlighted in these kinds of discussions are the “quality” of the works being produced and the kind of audiences they tend to attract.

The alienation of production from the distribution and exhibition side of the film business reflects the very neoliberal core of Philippine economics. Discussions about cinema – a very public endeavor – are being left with the private decision making of individuals not treated as humans but target consumers. Here, they speak of “target markets” – that a Hollywood audience is not a target market of a local film and vice versa. A populism symptomatic of the local “industry”’s surrender to the globalist frame of Imperialist economic aggression.

This imperialist aggression is no more obvious than it is with Philippine film distribution. Here, say, for example in an SM mall that has 12 theaters, you would expect that the majority of the screens would screen Hollywood and leave some (a screen or two) to locally produced ones. This distribution practice has been going on for a long time but has become more aggressive by the turn of the 1990s where further privatization of spaces happened and the national government rooted for lesser control and regulation over the economic sphere. In this development, film distribution became the greatest site of struggle between locally produced movies and foreign movies. In a study done by Mark Lester Chico in the political economy of film distribution during the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, it is evident that distributors hold a lot of power on which film is going to get screened or not. The distribution business does not care about the “quality” of the works, contrary to the arguments posed by the interviewees of de Castro in his articles, but rather distributors hold screens in terms of performance in sales. Distributors act as mediators between producers and exhibitors (theaters): producers do not talk directly to theaters, and so do theaters to producers. Distributors hold that much power to the economic outcome of a film by merely controlling what can be screened or not.[4]

Distributors often than not are arbiters of imperialist interest in Cinemas. There’s a presence of Warner Bros. distribution in the country, Viva films mediate for the distribution of 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, MGM, and Dreamworks; Columbia mediate for Columbia Tri-star and Buenavista. Similarly, locally owned distributors such as Pioneer Films, and even film studios such as Regal, Viva, Star Cinema, GMA, Solar (formerly Seiko) have had a hand in distributing foreign films themselves.[5] Theaters being situated inside malls and the fall of stand alone cinema theaters gave businesses more control as to which films can be screened to the public. And the neoliberal dictum of the Philippine government informs them that they can’t do anything about it. And for industry stalwarts to not to recognize this phenomenon as contributing to the detriment of a supposed “local film industry” puts them to the ranks of imperialist lapdogs, like how Rappler is.

If we remember how in 2004, when SM Cinemas have decided to ban R-18 films,[6] the response of the Philippine government is not to mandate and pressure the business to revert back its decision to help support the dying “industry”, but to go around enacting a new classification of R-16[7] that can be agreeable to the business while the production companies must work around with further restrictions if they endeavor to be screened in the largest chain of cinemas in the country.

If we add such power with the imperialist imperative, it would not be strange to see how much of the detriment of the “local film industry” belie largely with this pandering to foreign producers. Historically, the U.S. film market has always been aggressive towards the Philippines. We can just take note of how during the first edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival back in 1975 was gatecrashed by the representative of the American Theater Organization, Jack Valenti and pressured the then Manila governor, Imelda Marcos to retain the playdates of Hollywood movies during the festival run.[8] Legends say that the governor was pressured that the U.S. would not just pull movies if they are not heard, but will be pulling investments. That encounter underscored how big of a threat a nationalization of film distribution must be for imperialists.

De Castro’s article and his interviewees did not look back in this history and instead associated the perceived success of the recent edition of MMFF to the lack of the kind of audiences that disgusts them, the “masses”. And being the imperialist platform where the article came from, de Castro’s article failed to consider how much of the MMFF’s success can obviously be attributed to a scenario when movies from imperialist countries are blocked in the local screens. As with the case of the former editions of MMFF.

Regardless of what we think of the Metro Manila Film Festival – whether it should cater to the imagined “masses” or the imagined “discerning” audiences that the industry commenters are fantasizing with – we can’t deny its effect as a supposed model of a nationalist endeavor for Philippine cinema that would succeed only if the whole ecosystem of Cinema does not betray its industrial aims for most of the months in the calendar. This leaves again these commenters from the bourgeois sphere of the film “industry” to their fantasy: that it is again the audience’s (specifically, the “masses”) fault that quality films are only being made during december and if they succeeded, also attribute them to a shifting away from this “masses”. Of course, outside of the imagined rhetoric, what they really want to express is the same disgust against the working classes and the peasantry that the ruling classes of this semifeudal and semicolonial country express on a daily basis by their deployment of class-based violence.

[1] Isagani de Castro. “Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?”. Rappler 8 January 2024. <https://www.rappler.com/business/mmff-2023-results-is-there-new-filipino-cinema-audience-patrons/>

[2] Strike II. “Are People Still Watching Movies in Manila?” <https://www.missingcodec.com/writings/are-people-still-watching-movies-in-manila-strike-ii-archive/>

[3] Tilman Baumgartel. “The Social Significance and Consequences of Digital Piracy In Southeast Asia: The Case of Independent Filmmakers”. Philippine Sociological Review. January-December 2007, Vol. 55 (JanuaryDecember 2007), p. 52. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/23898245>

[4] Mark Lester Chico. “The Political Economy of Film Distribution in the Philippines: A Glimpse of the Metro Manila Film Festival”. The Journal of Communication and Media Studies. (2020) Vol. 5, Issue 1. p. 6. < https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338673594_The_Political_Economy_of_Film_Distribution_in_the_Philippines_A_Glimpse_of_the_Metro_Manila_Film_Festival>

[5] Mark Lester Chico. “The Political Economy of Film Distribution.” p. 2.

[6] Paolo Romero. “SM cinemas lauded for ban on R-18 films”. PhilStar Global. 30 August 2004. <https://www.philstar.com/news-commentary/2004/08/30/263110/sm-cinemas-lauded-ban-r-18-films>

[7] Bayani San Diego, Jr. “‘R-16’ fills gap in MTRCB rating” Philippine Daily Inquirer. 04 October 2012. <https://entertainment.inquirer.net/61264/r-16-fills-gap-in-mtrcb-rating>

[8] See Danny Dolor. “Remember When?: First Metro Manila Film Festival” PhilStar Global. 20 May 2017. <https://www.philstar.com/entertainment/2017/05/20/1701938/first-metro-film-festival>

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