Are People Still Watching Movies in Manila? [STRIKE II Archive]

“We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art.”

Pauline Kael

(Note: This is a slightly edited version of the talk STRIKE II delivered at the parallel talks hosted by MunZineLupa 2020 last January 25, 2020 at Picked Cafe & Gallery, Muntinlupa City. We would like to thank the organizers of the MunZineLupa Art Market for the venue and time they gave to us.)

The Film industry — when it considers itself as such, an industry — depends on the audience for its maintenance and reproduction. Controversially considered as an art by some, or the “first art form invented under capitalism”, its attitude towards its consumer is perhaps capitalist par excellance. As a commodity, Film is not something you destroy to be consumed, it is something that captures one’s attention. Hence, it is not the film product that you sell in selling a film: it sells other things than itself. It is not a commodity one can own by purchasing. And what it sells, if it’s not itself, also, you cannot own. It’s a really great way to extract surplus value from people who look for enjoyment, regardless of whether they get this enjoyment or not, it is already being paid for by the admission fee. 

The word “audience” is initially reserved for listening to rhetors, it is then applied to spectacles and “encounters” of art. In the context of capitalism, being an audience is a privileged activity for those who have surplus money to spend on encountering art or film.

The capitalist knows the limit of the class it exploits: there’s only so much surplus value you can extract from the value-producing working class. There are very few people who can afford enjoyment. This is why the film industry is especially competitive: it is a kind of industry that produces things to capture the attention of very few people. 

How few? Let’s look at recent numbers: Star Cinema’s Hello Love Goodbye, considered as the highest-grossing Filipino film of all time, earned 603 Million pesos domestically in its 17-day Theatrical Run. If we divide it, say, to the average ticket price of 300 pesos, we can arrive at an average of 2,000,000 ticket sales. This ideally represents around 8% only of the Metro Manila population. Or around 1.8% of the total population of the Philippines.

This is the audience that the industry caters to.

Watching Movies in Manila 

A little background, this essay came after a knee-jerk response by one of our members at STRIKE II to Emmanuel Dela Cruz on his query on three angles: First the MMFF revenue (which is still not published yet by the time Emman talked about it); Streaming and other alternative film platforms, and possibility for “innovators” to play up. The first two involve the issue of the audience, the last one, obviously is not. 

Let us address the first two:

According to reports, the people who have seen the recently concluded Metro Manila Film Festival in its two-week holiday run is around a bit more than the total gross of Hello Love Goodbye: 955 million pesos; or around 3.1 million ticket sales on average, if we consider the recent average ticket price. With Miracle in Cell No. 7 as its top grosser at 250million or close to 800 thousand ticket sales just in its December run. This figure is way modest with 2018’s 1.06 Billion pesos. 

For scale, let’s look at the ten-year data: 

As it is now, the historical limit of surplus-value of Filipino working people expropriated for profit through MMFF cinematic entertainment is a billion pesos for three weeks. Roughly 5 million in ticket sales. Looking at the numbers of the glory days when movie-going is still what Joel David refers to as “national pastime”,  this is quite a humbling number. A short article written in 2009 showed how the movie-going public significantly dwindles down from 131 million in 1996 to 63 million in 2004. Now, with a comparatively larger price of tickets, regardless of whether the industry is really earning or not, we’re down to 5-10 million movie theater-going people, give or take.

This trend owes its persistence to the fact that it’s not particularly an easy task to sell a spectacle, and it is precisely because it is a spectacle that one finds it hard to sell it. The marketing is often aggressive, with calls to support Philippine cinema as a whole or to parade a star-studded cast to your audience, and with good reason. To watch a film, to commit to a spectacle, is often an investment only those with time to spare can make. It is harder then (they say) in the peak of home video piracy, even harder now at the advent of streaming. Perhaps this is why video on demand is a much more appealing model, not just because it’s cheaper to access an entire gallery of films, but also the obvious fact that there is no issue of screening time and space (if one can afford this subscription in the first place, that is).

Watching Movies (at home) in Manila

Let’s talk about the last two things we mentioned. Home video and streaming.

There’s a legend promulgated by The Naked Director that it is pornography that salvaged the VHS format. For those of us who lived through the 90s and early 2000s, a lot of our film experiences are from Home video (the luckier ones of us, through cable subscription). Most definitely our first pornography. The genre with the largest audience base, does not have a venue. So when the opportunity to get personal comes in, pornography never passes it off.

Home video gives a sense of ownership to its audience. But there’s an unwritten agreement there: what you own is the storage of a copy of the film-product. You still do not own the film copy that you have. It is illegal to copy and transfer the contents and share with others. You can lend people. You probably lent a lot of people, a lot probably have not returned. 

Until the early 2010s, piracy peaked in home video format, not yet digitally. It seems like counterfeits had better success in giving losses for global businesses than labor strikes of the time (with the Philippine DVD Piracy rings at 85% market on its peak in 2005, and estimated trade loss of 33.5 million US Dollars for global companies). Or in the words of Werner Herzog: Piracy is the most successful form of distribution. Most of us regular film viewers here probably have owned a pirated DVD or two… boxes or shelves of it. 

Tilman Baumgartel already wrote about the cultural significance of piracy in Southeast Asia, most especially, in its consumption of other cultures than American. Perhaps this is why the American MPAA is adamant to fight Piracy: not because of the exposure of their products, but because of the potential exposure of other cultures which are not theirs.

We do not have much data how much lives of Filipinos were changed by pirated DVDs, but I guess, it is enough to say that Korean pop culture will never land here without that moment in the early 2000s, when you pass off your classmates a pirated copy of either My Sassy Girl or Ill Mare. 

Home video and its piracy is not the first competitor of theaters, it started with TV. There are numbers recently that say that almost half the population of the Philippines still prefers TV. The precedent of any film piracy is the availability of screens at home. 

On that note, The TV Preference we think is about TV’s expanded use. You can do a lot of things with it within your control, unlike going to cinemas, and we’re not just referring to watching TV networks. 

But looking at things now, do you have actual control?

Not watching movies in manila

Control is what web streaming platforms promise its subscribers. It’s what Netflix makes you believe. It’s also what iFlix is telling you, but for free. However, its curation seems to be less democratic, and more white, than its pirated counterpart. You get around pirating things that are not on the platforms.

In general, no one is in control of the platforms’ selections.

The very brief description of our predicament with the streaming platforms wrapped up something for us with regards to watching: for a moment, we are in relative control of our enjoyment. Despite the persistence of the market back then to have us go to the movies, we know that they’ll be on home video anyway, and wait for it. Or have pirates take care of it for us. Or have completely different programming than what the national industry offers (which has possibly enriched the “national pastime” in scales unthinkable to any goody-two-shoes scholars). 

But underlying the insistence of watching a film on your own time, at your own pace, perhaps tell one more thing about us audiences: the limits of the time we can spend for enjoyment. 

When are we enjoying, really?

For the working-class Filipino in Manila, even those who lead precariat “freelancer” lives (“hawak mo yung oras mo”), every day is split between getting to work, working, getting home, chores, rest, and whatever constitutes me-time to maintain a semblance of sanity only to repeat it all over again the next day. Even the weekends aren’t bared such mercy. It seems impossible to find a fit in the schedule for a two-hour movie that you’re not even sure you’ll enjoy. If one is able to, it’s often at the expense of other things: a longer or more expensive commute, skipping out on spending time with your child, or a sick leave dedicated to recuperating. 

Those who are watching at home, or somewhere else not the theater, often watch while doing other chores or activities. A film critic told me before that I did not see a certain film “properly” by watching it in my portable player while on a jeepney trip home. I guess those places are “wrong places” to watch films. Watching films at home or somewhere else is often watching it on Junktime: it’s something you do at a time you are committing to something. 

On the other hand, the cinema house is no longer even a refuge for those looking to escape; at best, it offers itself as a hideout.

In fact, it functions as religion to some – compared to watching Netlfix or cable, the space of the cinema house requires a certain decorum, a set up that arrests the senses, and a space that allows one to immerse in another world in attempt to make sense of the world or the self, or whatever concerns one has that brings one to faith.

Before we move forward, Let’s try to see the number of current Netflix subscribers in the PH:

As of January, Netflix has added 100 thousand more subscribers to their network than last year. At least based on web-crawler analytics. This is roughly 2.5% of the population of Metro Manila. It looks like a number of the privileged to us. 

Well, looking at it, Cinephilia, at least the cinephilia we accept, the one which does not rely on “unofficial viewings”, is a luxury. I have found myself developing certain criteria or algorithms to determine whether a film is worth seeing. The 300-peso ticket on top of other hidden expenses seemed like something I had to ration, instead of seeing going to the movies as the recreational activity that the culturati can afford it to be. Some of us couldn’t even watch Parasite until months after, and as a supposed film critic, we are also bound to lose relations and relevance. Funny that unpaid labor is a lifestyle we’re afraid of losing. The problem probably happened in two ways: either the film industry is out of touch, or it is us that is. To be honest, I can’t find the time to care about the film fests and whatever new Netflix film came out this year.


The topics raised earlier are often things that are underlying any concern about film going, whether as a question of sales or reaction. “Alternative” Film artists who are on the losing side of sales often blame the audience for not being “film-educated” enough to understand or even see their films. Film studios blame piracy, tv, streaming or what have you. Both do not see the audience as a human which has needs outside the cinema.

One can petition for malls to lower prices, or for filmmakers to lessen running times, or get caught in the pissing contests of indie and mainstream, but there can never be a real film culture or film market development without genuine national development. Move from Second Cinema to Third Cinema

Concerns such as living conditions, wage standards, working conditions, health care, land ownership — these are all universal concerns, but the discourse that film industry people are having about the dwindling viewership still centers itself on the matter of art or craft.

“Nananatiling walang substansya at sarado ang anumang mundong nililikha sa pelikula, at kung manaka-nakang matalakay ito, ang pagbuhos ng malamig na tubig sa mainit na kontestasyon ng buhay ang paratihang magaganap.”

If we can just convince artists and filmmakers to rally for a better life, then maybe we can enjoy movies better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *