Over a year ago, we helped release the most successful independent film in the Philippines, Heneral Luna. It was set in the 1800s and about a fiery-tempered general and his efforts to quell the impending American takeover. It also revealed the politics behind the war, the mixed impressions Americans gave Filipinos, and the inability of the government to set aside their differences.
The movie was well-received by viewers and film critics alike. It amassed P240 million in 5 weeks. It also took home critically acclaimed awards from the Film Academy of the Philippines, the Gawad Urian, and the PMPC. Both Jerrold Tarog’s visionary direction and the cast members’ impeccable portrayals, lead by John Arcilla, were recognized.
However, the movie didn’t start as big as it ended. Getting the movie in the theaters in the first place was Sisyphean at best. This was because in just two days, theaters were already threatening to pull it out. It seemed like an unprofitable venture to them, like most independent releases. They were ready to surrender Heneral Luna’s theater spots to the new American arrivals.
The same occurrence happens to all independent films. They become wounded soldiers on the box office battlefield. They get limited theatrical release and they barely make it after a week. If you’re lucky, you can catch reruns at the UP Cine —a rather fitting name based on the mythical healing bird. If only it could do the same for these films.
Indies also don’t stand a chance against the local mainstream. They are like the 19th century indios in a cinematic caste system. Mainstream Filipino movies, on the other hand are like the mestizos. Mainstreams have bigger marketing budgets. They’re also carefully tailored to suit popular taste. In fact, it’s a taste so consistent, most of these films are of the romance genre. If they aren’t about the latest love team, they’re about an impossible relationship amongst incorrigible characters.
So, what does it take to break the movie mold? Centuries ago, it took Filipinos a revolution to win. Last year, it took a digital revolution to get on top.
When our cinema spots were beginning to drop, the Artikulo Uno marketing team and digital team, lead by Ria Limjap and Czarina Carbonel, had to reconvene. We were going to lose everything before the weekend even started. We needed a lightning quick turnaround. We started by frantically telling all of our friends and their friends’ friends to watch. We posted more promotions online. Nothing was working. Emotions were high and the options left were low. If only we could just thrash about and force our way. If only we could take to the streets in protest, which was very Filipino of us to think so. Then, it came to us. What if that was the solution? What if we could act in the very same way Antonio Luna would back then?
The team realized that in order to keep the film in theaters, we needed to get Filipinos angry. Anger has been a driving force in many revolutionary changes. Anger has also filled the Internet. Time has recently revealed this in their “Why We’re Losing the Internet to the Culture of Hate” release. If Filipinos can get angry over the latest wayward driver on Top Gear or if they could stand endless debates over national policy, then we can also bring them together in a grand online protest of force.
First, we had to get everyone to soldier behind a cause. We needed people to pressure cinemas to get us back. We did this by posting the dwindling list of cinemas left. We also released Hugot Heneral content, which fueled the passionate few. The eponymous hero of the film also started a Twitter rant. We created a persona that can do 140-character rants daily. All of this was done under the rally cry of the movie itself, “Bayan o Sarili?” What are you willing to do for your country? How can you help save this film?
Eventually, the protest echoed across the digital horizon. People started tagging the cinemas. Comments flooded their sites. Others went as far as to shame them as capitalist pigs. Influencers began encouraging their fans to watch as well. They gave rave reviews and heralded the film as a national treasure. And in just a few days, the cinemas started to withdraw their previous position. Heneral Luna started to get even more theaters spots than before. And just like that, the cinematic war was won.
Heneral Luna is an exception rather than the rule. However, it’s a testament to the possibilities. If independent films can consistently tap into the collective sympathy of people, then audiences will come rushing in. If we, as the audience, can find reasons to watch beyond nationalism and the sheer pleasure of it, then these movies will survive. None of these, of course, ensures success for future independent films to come. But who knows, history anyway, has funny way of repeating itself.