At the beginning of last year, I found myself organizing a watch party for Cathy Garcia-Molina’s “Hello, Love, Goodbye.” It was for a film club I was starting and I left it up to the public to choose what first film they’d like for us to discuss. “Hello, Love, Goodbye” won by a landslide on Twitter and dozens of people signed up for the watch party (to be held via Netflix Teleparty) and the informal discussion afterwards.
Prior to the pandemic, romance, sex, and action films were already commercially successful genres, with most of the highest grossing Filipino films belonging to at least one of these three genres. In particular, romance — romantic comedies, dramas, sexy films — have been the bread and butter of most Philippine studios.
Streaming platforms have allowed some insight into the genre’s popularity. In a May 2019 survey conducted by Netflix, 80% of respondents say that they watch romance films to brighten up their day, with 44% of men and 23% of women using Netflix to even flirt with the apple of their eye. And while a bulk of respondents (53%) turn to family and friends in times of heartbreak, romantic movies and shows become a source of comfort for others (29%).
Since then, this proclivity for all things kilig, hugot and sexy have only grown, particularly on Netflix where the two distinct Filipino words were suggested by creative production editorial manager Bianca Consunji and a colleague, as she said in a tweet, “very kindly took me seriously and implemented it.” From Netflix’s “My Amanda” and “A Faraway Land” to Vivamax’s “Ikaw at Ako Ang Ending” and “Nerisa,” a plethora of Filipino films and TV shows on romance, sex, and other forms of intimacy have held a place at the top of the weekly popularity charts of streaming platforms even amid international competition. It can be said that these stories are easier to create given the pandemic’s requirements of smaller casts, fewer locations, and limited budgets. But I found myself asking: Why are so many Filipinos streaming more of these films and TV shows now in the first place?
“Streaming services helped deplete the logjam of films that the pandemic created, but now the bigger challenge has become procuring a steady supply of fresh content… this rings true especially for local content,” says Richie Zamora, marketing manager of Upstream PH. “Based on customer behavior, it has become evident that audiences are willing to spend on local titles (especially new releases), even more so than foreign titles that did not have a theatrical release in the country.”
Upstream PH is a premium video-on-demand service that provides a selection of titles from powerhouse Hollywood studios and multi-awarded foreign productions to local independent outfits and under-the-radar content. To meet the demands of their growing and diversifying audience, streaming services have begun opening up their catalogues in response to these changes in the market — allowing wider audiences to access what would otherwise be called “niche content,” giving opportunities for local outfits to be featured.
For example, the wave of Filipino Boys’ Love that started last year found major support from streaming platforms and their audiences. After the success of the local BL series “Ben x Jim” on Upstream PH (though the show had its first run on YouTube), the platform has begun screening other acclaimed BL shows such as the second season of “Quaranthings” while the initial runs of beloved “Gaya Sa Pelikula” and “Gameboys” were picked up by Netflix. iWantTFC has even invested in original queer Filipino coming-of-age tales such as “Love Beneath the Stars,” a sequel to the MMFF 2020 entry “The Boy Foretold by the Stars,” and “Oh, Mando!.” Famously, “Hello, Stranger: The Movie” helped re-launch KTX as a digital venue, opening up doors for other forms of content.
Selling the fantasy
Part of the task of being on these streaming platforms is selling a fantasy of their choosing to an audience willing to buy. For WeTV-iFlix, a subscription-based video-on-demand service that hosts primarily Asian content, action titles have consistently done well worldwide. “I think escapism plays a huge part in this… they become welcome distractions from our real life problems,” says script doctor Dren Pavia of WeTV-iFlix.
Though titles such as “FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano” have historically remained popular on the platform, romance films and family-oriented titles fare better in Asia compared to the West according to Pavia. In the Philippines, romcom/family dramas like “Marry Me, Marry You” find success for similar reasons to action films: “I think these usually end up with a more feel good vibe than most other titles, which is a welcome mood booster for most people.”
However, Pavia notes that there has been a shift recently towards young adult romance series and titles with a sexier tone. The range extends from “Viral Scandal” which deals with the repercussions of a sexual encounter between two college students to “The Kangks Show:” a miniseries about a sex guru who goes to extreme lengths to maintain the viewership of her midnight sex advice talk show.
When asked why he thinks these titles have gained momentum over the last two years, Pavia replies: “It’s hard to tell while in the middle of everything, but I think the pandemic did have something to do with the shift in genre,” says Pavia. “Sexy titles becoming popular could simply be from being stranded alone in our homes for months at a time.”
Such a focus on physical connection and pleasure is hardly exclusive to the Philippines. Globally, touch deprivation has had a severe effect on mental health of many communities and films on romance, sex, and closeness of any kind become a way for individuals to cope by living vicariously through the characters onscreen.
Comfort through the screen
“Romance has always topped the charts for iQIYI globally and is a mainstay genre for all regions,” says the streaming platform’s country manager Sherwin Dela Cruz. While K-dramas and Chinese dramas are more popular genres in the Philippines and in the rest of the world, the remaining spots in iQIYI’s local top 10 are often followed by local romance shows such as GMA 7’s “Nagbabagang Luha” and “Legal Wives.” Responding to the local and international interest in these stories, the platform has recently announced “Saying Goodbye” and “Hello Heart” as one of the first titles in a romance series partnership with ABS-CBN.
“Viewers can relate to the experiences or journey of the characters,” says Dela Cruz. “Particularly affecting and within the social conversations are the romantic comedies that somehow provide a temporary escape from one’s stressful or toxic reality. And on a personal level, as a consumer, we want to watch feel-good shows especially when the pandemic started and dragged on,” he adds.
Apart from the emotional resonance of the stories, these films become relatable according to Dela Cruz “because of their overarching themes on family values, friendships, professional journey, and culture overall.” They become mirrors through which we may affirm our values, perspectives, and decisions as Filipinos, even if what we may be seeing are not necessarily Filipino stories.
During our watch party discussions of “Hello, Love, Goodbye,” there was a clear recognition of a shared emotional experience. One by one, people began confessing how they saw themselves in the characters: as if someone took their diary entries and the anxieties that they couldn’t speak of, and created a story around it; validated it. For some, it helped them see a way out of those burdens or a way to relive their honeymoon phases. For others, it humanized their parents and relatives who were OFWs trying to balance their responsibilities to their families while also chasing their dreams.
For the longest time, films such as these have been likened to a form of comfort food; a pleasure that has always been served with a side of guilt. But this comfort, especially in a perilous time like now, has been invaluable to us.
The support for local work, the affirmation of values, and the opportunity to live vicariously through someone else’s life reinforce a quote Hannah Arendt once wrote in her book “The Life of the Mind:”
“Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted[...]”
The realities of the pandemic have been quite harsh on all of us. Brains sometimes need rinsing, feelings sometimes simply demand to be felt. I know Arendt didn’t write the quote about Filipino film and television, but the core of her sentiment remains true: When reality fails us, fiction comforts us.