The little movie house that’s challenging the state of Philippine cinema

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Cinema '76 is a boon to Filipino film enthusiasts who want to catch up on local films outside the festival circuit. Films screened come from a diverse lineup: director retrospectives, themed specials, to spotlight on new Filipino cinema. Photo from CINEMA 76/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The day Mogwai died, its most faithful patrons lit candles along a small strip of sidewalk in Cubao Expo. They sat down on the pavement and clinked their beer bottles as a fond farewell to the cinematheque. It was their way of memorializing their old haunt, a place that was way more than just a casual drinking spot.

I remember going there one rainy Saturday night in my last week of college to catch a Raya Martin double feature. I dried off, went up the narrow cinema staircase, took off my shoes, and found a cushy spot on the floor that wasn’t already occupied by a warm body. I sat there staring at that bright wall in that dark room, getting lost in the live music that played along with the moving silent images. I wouldn’t have experienced that anywhere else.

I belong to a generation of Filipinos who grew up in the advent of digital cinema — a period when independent films became a lot easier to produce; thus, there were more of them to see. The problem then was access to these movies. Beyond festivals like Cinemanila and Cinemalaya (which was still in its infancy at that time), films like Martin’s “Indio Nacional” were hard to come by. You really had to go out of your way to find them.

Mogwai was a constant. It continuously showed flicks that weren’t likely to hit the big screen. It was a haven for fledgling cineastes who were looking for a break from Hollywood. When the beloved cinematheque closed down almost five years ago, it took with it a safe space for seekers of alternative cinema. Sure, there were other pop-up screenings here and there, and other venues sprouted and disappeared, but none of them could quite match the intimacy Mogwai had offered — that is, until recently.

Cinema ’76 opened its doors in February this year. It’s the brainchild of TBA, a filmmaking supergroup that combines three prominent film outfits: Tuko Film Productions, Buchi Boy Films, and Artikulo Uno, the company responsible for last year’s breakout hit, “Heneral Luna.”

It was sometime in April when I first stepped into Cinema ’76. My goal was to see Elwood Perez’s bizarro masterpiece, “Esoterika: Maynila.” I wasn’t able to catch it during its original run, so an ad for a limited screening was a godsend.

cinema 76 The cast of Jerrold Tarog's "Heneral Luna" during a special Independence Day screening at Cinema '76. Photo from CINEMA 76/FACEBOOK  

The moment I arrived in that tiny theater, I was instantly hit by the smell of fresh woodwork. The seats were custom-made and comfy. I took a spot near the screen and hugged a pillow while waiting for more people to trickle in. There were only three of us there: me and two college girls who were busy taking notes. Alas, no one else came. It was a pity. They missed out on 99 minutes of insanity and genius — two things that aren’t mutually exclusive.

The turnout from that night is a far cry from how many people actually show up to screenings now. Just this weekend, Cinema ’76 had a full house, packed with people waiting to get their fill of Marie Jamora’s “Ang Nawawala” and Jerrold Tarog’s “Sana Dati.”

Hugot films that are romantic in nature, as we’ve discovered, are the most appealing films for our audience,” says Vincent Nebrida, president of TBA. The audience he’s pertaining to is composed of “young millennials,” acknowledging that although several older cineastes show up to screenings, it’s the younger crowd they’re ultimately targeting.

“The audience is growing faster than expected,” he says. “June was our breakthrough month and we’ve been trying to program titles that are desired by our relatively young audiences.”

It did take a while for Cinema ’76 to gain its footing. Programs were tweaked. Social media promotions were amped up. But it was the events that kept drawing in crowds. Having Artikulo Uno in its fold allowed TBA to hold a special “Heneral Luna” screening that was graced by the movie’s cast members. This was soon followed by a midnight screening of “The Blair Witch Project.” Kevin J. Foxe, executive producer of the film and, coincidentally, Nebrida’s classmate at New York University, showed up for a special question and answer session.

This increasing audience count may be a good indicator of Cinema ‘76’s steady path to success, but TBA’s mission does not stop there.“After getting into festivals, many films remain in limbo,” explains Nebrida. “They aren’t picked up by distributors and don’t get shown in cinemas. We wanted to create a distribution platform for filmmakers.”

In order to do this, he and his TBA colleagues conceived a three-pronged distribution strategy. Cinema ’76 is the first. The second is a partnership with Magnavision, which will allow filmmakers to have their movies distributed on DVD and home video. Lastly, there’s Cinetropa.com.

cinema '76.jpg The screening schedule of Cinema '76 from July 8 to 14 features a double bill of the "hugot" films, "Ang Nawawala" and "Sana Dati." Photo from CINEMA 76/FACEBOOK

“We created Cinetropa.com as an online digital platform where you can watch quality Filipino movies,” Nebrida says. Launched in June, the pay-per-view service allows viewers from across the country, and even other parts of the world, to view some of the best that Philippine cinema has to offer. The initiative doesn’t only favor the audience; filmmakers also get a cut of the sales, making it easier for them to gain profit compared to going through traditional distribution channels.

Film scholars say that the golden age of Filipino cinema was from the 70s to the early 90s, but the most ambitious year was definitely 1976 — the year of “Ganito Kami Noon... Paano Kayo Ngayon?”, “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo,” and “Insiang.” It’s only apt for Cinema ’76 to be named after it. The cinema’s goals are challenging, and TBA’s even more so. But if they succeed, then soon, alternative cinema will be much easier to reach.

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Cinema ‘76 is located at 160 Luna Mencias St., Brgy. Addition Hills, San Juan City. Visit its Facebook page for screening schedules.