Arts & Entertainment

How the Mainstream Cinemas are Killing Indie Films Like 'Liway'

The highest-grossing film in Cinemalaya history closed after just one week in nationwide release.
IMAGE Liway
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Liway, based on the remarkable true story of a freedom fighter raising her child inside one of the Marcos regime’s prison camps, was one of the biggest success stories of the Cinemalaya 2018 film festival. The movie broke the record for the highest box office sales in festival history, beating the previous holder by a margin of more than 50 percent, and earned both the Special Jury Commendation for Film and Audience Choice awards. Liway’s depiction of political prisoners during the time of Martial Law was so resonant with audiences that they spontaneously broke out into protest chants as the credits rolled.

It had all the ingredients for a successful commercial run: a proven track record in sales, widespread critical praise, and a captive audience. And yet, just a day after its nationwide release last October 10, Liway closed in about 11 cinemas. It only lasted a week until theaters pulled it out from their screens entirely.

How does a film go from being the picture of success to unable to make it to a second weekend? It’s a harsh lesson on the realities of independent film in the Philippines.

IMAGE: Liway

Outside of festivals like Cinemalaya, indie films often aren’t guaranteed screening times or dates; commercial cinemas prioritize clear money-makers like Hollywood blockbusters. There is a distinct lack of faith in the ability of a local indie to perform well at the box office, despite historical precedent for it.

For these movies, cinemas adjust their schedules based on the previous day’s sales. If a movie’s performance isn’t up to par, they’ll either reduce the number of times it’s screened, or pull the movie out entirely. Decisions are then relayed to filmmakers and distributors on a day-to-day basis, and even then, the information isn’t always complete.

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In the case of Liway, for instance, screening times for the film’s launch weren’t clear until a day before its opening—if it would even be screening at all. Schedules were announced on social media in the morning of each day, although the actual times weren’t available for some cinemas simply because the details weren’t forwarded to the marketing team [full disclosure: I am a member of the film's social media team].

The lack of confidence in independent movies also leads some establishments to relegate them to cinemas with fewer seats, as is currently the case at Gateway Cineplex, where the Cinema One Originals film festival is screening at Cinema 6, which has roughly half the standard capacity of most theaters.

Philippine Indie Films Still Face an Uphill Battle

Many viewers need to plan ahead to watch a film, but the cutthroat nature with which cinemas handle independent films made it difficult for audiences to make plans. The Liway Facebook page was loaded with people asking for schedules for the next day, and the social media team often wasn’t able to give definitive answers; “We’re not sure,” was a common response. This means that moviegoers interested in watching Liway couldn’t plan ahead; they had to either wait for a schedule announcement each morning, or try their luck by going to a cinema with the hopes of the film screening at the same time.

All this contributed to a rather sad catch-22: commercial cinemas continued to pull Liway out due to diminishing audiences, but people couldn’t reliably watch the film because the cinemas kept reducing their chances to watch it. On its first weekend, when a movie’s audience normally hits its largest numbers, more than half of commercial theaters had already stopped screening the film. The movie was denied its biggest opportunity to prove itself.

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Liway, like its protagonist, was a film trapped within an oppressive system; and as in events past, its only way out was for audiences to act with urgency. The Filipino market needs to prove to cinemas that local movies—including indies—are in demand by watching them before they’re cut. The system acts quickly, so audiences need to act faster.

The Filipino market needs to prove to cinemas that local movies—including indies—are in demand by watching them before they’re cut. The system acts quickly, so audiences need to act faster.

IMAGE: Liway

The country’s flourishing independent film industry—which has recently produced remarkable films like Pan de Salawal, Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon, Patay na si Hesus, and Sunday Beauty Queen; movies that have managed to capture the breadth of the Filipino identity in poignant, beautiful, creative, and honest ways—is left to rely on film festivals (many of which are exclusive to Metro Manila) and foreign screenings to bring them the audiences these stories deserve. These movies, and many more, have shown technique and storytelling that outclass many of today’s big-budget blockbusters.

The current generation of Filipino filmmakers is full of visionaries who cannot get the support they need to elevate the state of local mainstream cinema, and it’s in large part due to the ever-present stigma that no one is interested in seeing their movies. They could very well usher in a new Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, if only audiences were given more chances to support them. Those chances will only come, however, if the market fills theater seats before cinemas are given a chance to reduce their screenings.

The next revolution in Philippine cinema is already here. It just needs someone to witness it before it’s too late.

Audiences can start by heading to cinemas today and supporting the Cinema One Originals festival, now screening until October 21. Afterwards, they can watch Liway in independent cinemas: at Cinema ’76 starting October 18, and at Cinema Centenario starting October 22.

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