Cinema imitates life as it mirrors society. There may be instances when cinema is blamed for influencing, rather than merely reflecting life. But in the case of Philippine cinema, the state of its film industry so uncannily mirrors the same sorry state of affairs of the country.
With the passing of the Philippines’ glory days as the second best economy in Asia came the Philippine film industry’s leadership in the region, one it held in proud esteem over China, Hong Kong and India who have now become centers of cultural explosion in their own right. Having been an American colony carried some perks; among them the distinct privilege of basking in Hollywood’s reflected glory as the world’s movie capital of the world.
Filipinos under 40 will not resonate to the names Gerry de Leon and Lamberto Avellana, our film directors who once were the toasts of Asian cinema. To this day, hardly any actor or actress can come close to the likes of our screen immortals such as Charito Solis, Pancho Magalona and Rogelio de la Rosa, the man who almost became president in 1961. Meeting them, one instantly recognizes the distinct quality of their class. One can’t help but wonder how yesterday’s proud pedigree in filmdom has retrogressed to today’s breed of showbiz buffoons many of whom have even managed to get elected into public office.
As above, so below – as we behold the tragedy of our state of governance and the poor quality of education, so we find the similar sorry circumstances of our movie industry. Pwede na yan (that will do) is the Filipino’s curse of mediocrity. In the era of globalization, this attitude has become fatal. Going the plight of pampered Philippine industries suffering from the fat cat syndrome, Philippine cinema can only find itself trampled by its more quality-conscious foreign counterparts.
The more pathetic issue is that our movie producers are not even aware of the mess they are in, preferring to blame the weak Philippine economy and high production costs for their inadequacies. They miss the point.
They are in a rut because:
1. They never bothered to improve their product. Movies made in the past 20 years are the same blend of old – sex and violence, senseless action genres, all coupled with an over-dependence on star value. Nothing more, nothing less. Action flicks are based on the same plots, with a few token revisions. In some cases, the same character actors play as villains in another action film in the movie house next door.
2. They never recognized that the soul of the work is the script. No amount of emotional outpouring by the best actors or skillful direction can save a basically dull script. Here the accent is on star value and not story value.
Long surviving brands and products have all adapted to changing times and consumer tastes. The consuming public will always seek new and better products and the manufacturer who fails to respond will end up in the trash bin of history.
Over the last twenty years, our movie producers never ventured out of their formulas. They did not invest in helping to cultivate audience preferences. They are quite fortunate that this sharp decline in patronage has only been a recent development. Efforts by the more quality-minded producers and directors of the local film industry were few and too far in between. Product development is a continuous, long term effort.
Our Asian neighbors worked to advance the quality of film production beyond satisfying only their own local markets. They have succeeded in creating their own niches in the international scene, gifting the moviegoers of the world with blockbuster Jacky Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat of China/Hong Kong, all of whom are recognized for their star values even in American productions. Jacky Chan co-productions have taken the near equivalent of James Bond action movies. Chinese martial arts and sword fights have found a steady demand in the world film market. And to think, the Philippines had once been way ahead of China and Hong Kong in the film business.
The same goes with India’s Bollywood. Film craftsmen in the sub-continent have apparently shaken themselves away from the bouncy and rhythmic song and dance formats loved by Indians but found quaint and even funny by the rest of the world. Today, Indian films are exported worldwide, even becoming a regular fare in STAR Movies, a leading cable movie channel owned and operated by Fox.
Out of individual achievement, actors and actresses of Filipino descent have found their place in Hollywood, – with no thanks to the Philippine film industry. Less than 10 years ago, there were many line productions here from Hollywood film companies. But this got our industry nowhere because these productions were the B-type movies that nobody remembered, that is of course, in the unlikely event one even saw these at all. Eventually, American companies moved on to other countries which offered a better deal and which did not present the security risks attached to one with an image of being a “terror haven”.
The script is the soul and the be all
In case our movie producers did not notice, the big blockbuster movie Titanic did not capitalize on star value. Kate Winslet and Leonardo de Caprio were virtually unknown before Titanic. No actor or actress in Titanic had the star billing equivalent to a Sean Connery, Julia Roberts, or Brad Pitt. What sold billions of dollars for Titanic was the story and its painstaking adherence to detail and the feel and flavor of the period. The producers of Titanic were so confident about the pulling power of their story (script) that they felt star value was not important. The box office revenues proved them right.
The value that the script plays in the success of a film is so elementary that you wonder why our film producers do not give it the importance it deserves. Good scripts are all the more important for productions done on small budgets like our local productions. Since we cannot afford the George Lucas type of effects and the magnitude of Spielberg production values, the story becomes the only selling point of our movies.
Yet there is no real effort to develop better writers. Writers here are not compensated properly and they are not given the recognition that they get elsewhere – so how can we expect to attract the best and the brightest. If it is through good stories that we can hope to sell our meagerly budgeted movies, then logic dictates that writers ought to get the top pay.
Notice how movie reviews in Time or Newsweek will first judge the script before tackling the other aspects of the film such as the directing, acting, scoring and so forth. This is because the norm is: There can be no great acting or directing if there is no decent story to begin with. Here the norm is the exact opposite – get the star and we can do whatever story later.
Come to think of it, here we hardly have acceptable standards in almost all facets of Philippine life now – definitely not in government. We are a nation adrift because we have lost our moorings and we failed to set the right standards for ourselves. We tolerate corruption in the highest public offices. We allow popularity rather than qualifications to select nominations for public office, including the highest elective office of the land. We stood by and some of us even acted as accomplices while wanton cheating was done during the elections.
The maxim of the law is: Silence means consent. We were silent. So we forfeit the right to cry rape. Truly, we have no reason to be surprised and angry for the situation we are in. We merely reaped what we sowed.