This little cinema is Mandaluyong’s newest hidden gem

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Black Maria Pictures in Mandaluyong has witnessed the journey of Philippine cinema — from film to digital — and the democratization of the art form. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Black Maria is pronounced like Black ‘Mariah,’ Angelo Santos tells me. Angelo, together with sister Pat and wife Sarah, run three establishments along San Rafael St. in Brgy. Plainview, Mandaluyong: a production company (Black Maria Pictures) together with a cinematheque (Black Maria Cinema), a café (Santiago’s), and a printing facility (Black Maria Print Shop). The name pays homage to Thomas Edison’s production studio, The Black Maria, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Located near Mandaluyong’s city hall rotunda, the L-shaped building housing all four startups has been refurbished, but still bears the sign of SQ Film Laboratories, one of the first photochemical labs in the Philippines. The film lab existed for 50 years. It was also the home of SQ Film Productions, which produced the likes of the Joey Gosiengfiao-directed “Kambal sa Uma” in 1979.

The “SQ” in SQ Film Laboratories stands for Santos Quilatan: Santos for Pat and Angelo’s grandfather Felixberto Santos, and Quilatan for their grandmother, Purita Quilatan Santos. Pat, Angelo, and Sarah comprise the generation continuing the legacy of SQ, now rebranded as Black Maria Pictures.

Black Maria Diptychs6.jpg The name Black Maria pays homage to Thomas Edison’s production studio, The Black Maria, the first of its kind in the U.S. Photo by JL JAVIER

What draws crowds to the unassuming building today is Black Maria Cinema, which can seat up to 40 people, screening local and independent films, as well as other films that mainstream cinemas won’t give much screen time. Since opening in October this year, the microcinema has shown “Respeto,”  "Patay na si Hesus," “I Love You Thank You,” “Loving Vincent,” and ran all of the films for the Cinema One Originals Film Festival in 2K digital cinema projection, with 7.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound in front of a 20-foot silver-white, extra sharp screen.

If you haven’t heard of the microcinema-slash-cinematheque yet, that’s because Black Maria Cinema opened without much fanfare and has yet to launch. “It’s my mannerism na hindi ako maingay eh,” says Angelo, who mainly runs the cinema and the production house. “Pero they knew na may cinema naman — these guys who rent our cinema for private events.”

But Black Maria is not just the production company, or the cinematheque, or even the café beside it. Beyond its façade, the building where the startups stand (still called SQ Film Laboratories) is a witness to the history of Philippine cinema as it made the transition from 35mm film to digital.

Around the ‘50s and ‘60s, Angelo’s grandmother, Purita, an entrepreneur, started the business. “She didn’t have any formal business training. She founded multiple companies: film, pharmaceutical, real estate, agriculture. She founded it with my lolo,” he says. “She went to film through catering … [she’s] a film fan, first and foremost, like Mother Lily [Monteverde].”

Angelo’s grandmother adapted with the times. “She bought secondhand shooting equipment, bought secondhand titles, sold to government T.V. stations, like PTV 4 or IBC 13. To sustain film production, tinayo niya ‘yung lab,” Angelo recalls. The goal was vertical integration by way of involving SQ in distribution, film production, and post production, especially in the 1970s, when colored film processing began.

3 Black Maria-33.jpg “I just want to make sure we constantly adapt. We try to leverage. Tatlong start ups ito, sabay-sabay. Resto café, digital, then cinema,” says Angelo Santos, who runs Black Maria along with his sister Pat and his wife Sarah. Photo by JL JAVIER

In the ‘70s to the ‘80s, Angelo’s grandmother began producing titles, putting together  a total of 12 titles. “She claimed she founded the careers of some artistas,” says Angelo, and even recalls comic strip creator Carlo J. Caparas telling him, ‘‘Did you know your lola bought one of my first scripts?” thus enabling Caparas to enter the film industry. Indeed, one of the films SQ produced was Caparas’ “Ang Huling Lalaki ng Baluarte,” (1978) directed by Artemio Marquez.

Up to 2013, the 35mm processing and printing industry was a duopoly between SQ Film Laboratories and Unitel, says Angelo. But things began to change in 2013, when film projection started transitioning to digital, he adds. “SM ang unang nag-convert, subsidized by private companies. But we held out for another year … We’ve made our digital transition as early as 2008. We bought our digital cinema projector in 2013.”

With the onset of the digital revolution, the family needed to make important decisions to enable the business to survive. The first step was to clear out the equipment to make way for new ones. “We started decommissioning the machines in 2015,” says Angelo. An optical printer went to the Film Development Council of the Philippines, for example, with others going to museums or displayed in the cinema’s second floor.

2005 saw the democratization of the art form of film production, says Angelo. “Kalaban mo naka-laptop lang,” he says. “Nung nag-digital, ang daming kalaban. ‘Di ako sanay. Ang daming bagong players. Mabigat siya.”

3 Black Maria-26.jpg The teams — from photography to sound mixing — that work on Black Maria Pictures, the production company that Angelo Santos also runs, are all in-house employees. Photo by JL JAVIER

“When we switched from 35mm to digital, nag-downsize kami ng tao. ‘Yung iba diyan generational employees eh. Their father worked for us, lolo, lola, tapos sila ngayon mga apo,” Angelo adds. Their employees were trained in meticulous film work, and had to shift to creative work at the onset of the digital age. “We had them trained in production design, pinahawak ng cameras, para ‘di lang mawalan ng trabaho. Hanggang mapunta sila sa printing. Mahirap eh. Bagsakan ng presyo,”  he says.

But Black Maria Pictures’ edge is that it is an in-house production company, with separate teams dedicated for photography, video and sound post production, and digital cinema services.

While he is proud of what Black Maria Pictures can do and the legacy it upholds, Angelo recognizes the harsh realities facing producers today. “Pabagsak ng pabagsak ang budget sa sound,” he says, for example. “Sound is expensive, very facility driven, acoustics driven. People don’t realize that why they can’t sell their content to the foreign market is because bumabagsak ‘yung grade natin sa sound.”

For Black Maria Pictures, which currently produces trailers, films, corporate videos, among others, the end goal is simple: to entertain. “[It must be] something worth sharing. It’s accessible. Hindi pwedeng ikaw lang nakakaintindi,” he says. “Oras niyo ‘yan eh. We’re selling something na dapat interesting.”

Black Maria Diptychs5.jpg Angelo Santos and his family believe that while Filipinos may not be a movie-going public, arthouse cinemas can be appreciated by all kinds of people, as long as the former are protected and nurtured. Photo by JL JAVIER

Like his grandmother, who is still alive at 93 years old, Angelo is mindful of his ever-changing environment, one that must always keep up with technology. “I just want to make sure we constantly adapt. We try to leverage. Tatlong start ups ito, sabay-sabay. Resto café, digital, then cinema,” he says. The logic is to always have an extra (or backup) source of income, especially in a fickle industry that has seen its share of noble intentions and cruel failures. As he speaks of screen to population ratios and possible merchandise options for cinematheque, Angelo adds: “I try to make entrepreneurs out of filmmakers din.”

As for Black Maria Cinema, Angelo and his family believe that while Filipinos may not be a movie-going public, arthouse cinemas can be appreciated by all kinds of people, as long as the former are protected and nurtured. “Ang maganda kasi sa cinema it draws a crowd,” he says. “So far kasi puro [class] ABC [ang crowd ng Black Maria]. Eh gusto ko [makuha] rin yung taste ng [class] CDE, a taste of luxury they have to have.”

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Black Maria Cinema is open Thursdays to Sundays for screenings, and Mondays to Wednesdays for private events. Visit their website for more details or the Black Maria Pictures’ Facebook page for schedules of screenings and other events.