How Black Sheep is trying to 'disrupt' Philippine cinema

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Black Sheep is barely a year old but it already has award-winning films and several box office hits, such as "Alone/Together" with Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil. Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If you say that ABS-CBN now has an auteur-driven production company inside ABS-CBN, you’ll probably be laughed out of the ELJ Building. But it’s 2019 and we’ve seen crazier things. So here we are, in a post-“That Thing Called Tadhana” and post-“Kita Kita” era with a production studio like Black Sheep, ABS-CBN’s bid to find the middle ground between sophisticated auteurist work and mass appeal. Think of it as ABS-CBN’s answer to Fox Searchlight (inside the mainstream giant 20th Century Fox), or the now defunct Paramount Vantage (under Paramount Pictures).

Black Sheep’s creative director Kriz Gazmen has been working in Star Cinema for several years. He has produced a range of films, from box office giants such as “No Other Woman” and “The Amazing Praybeyt Benjamin” to spearheading some of the studio’s more “experimental” outings such as “Love You To The Stars and Back,” and “Last Night.”

The word “experimental” here isn’t in the same rhythm as the avant garde movement (if you’re looking for those kinds of risky, avant garde experiments, some films from Cinema One Originals, also under ABS-CBN films, might suit your palette better) but rather pertains to a certain degree of ‘risk’ in terms of filmic style and storytelling that audiences don’t expect from the formula-driven films of Star Cinema. It might be dramas with less earth-shattering confrontations, rom-coms with no comedy relief from sidekicks or “babad” scenes with mostly just two people talking throughout the film (which in itself has become a trend in local cinema recently), maybe even a not-so-happily-ever-after. As a factory of family-friendly fare and celebrity vehicles, there are certain expectations for each Star Cinema film, particularly if there’s a large production budget involved.

But as a new market emerged — a market more vocal of their disdain of the usual formula — the studio opted to be a little more adventurous (yet still calculated) in its ventures outside its comfort zone. These are films such as Antoinette Jadaone’s “Love You To The Stars and Back,” Dan Villegas’ “How to be Yours,” or Prime Cruz’s “Can We Still Be Friends.” The reception is, to a certain extent, mixed. The takes on rom-coms are refreshed but there is a distrust, from both Star Cinema’s new audience and dedicated followers.

“Napansin namin ‘yung market [that we capture], hindi talaga sila talagang naniniwala that Star wants to experiment,” says Gazmen. “Parang may feeling of judgement. ‘Yung market naman ni Star Cinema, na-tu-turn off when we do something new. They say, ‘Pumapasok kami sa mga pelikula ninyo kasi we’re expecting the flavor na usually binibigay ninyo — the rollercoaster [of] emotions, the confrontations, the family stories.’ So kapag wala nun, sila ‘yung na-tu-turn off.”

Then came the success of small-budget films such as “That Thing Called Tadhana,” Jadaone’s little rom-com-that-could, and “Kita Kita,” an unlikely rom-com buoyed by the pairing of Alessandra De Rossi, a character actress, and Empoy, usually a comedic sidekick. “Tadhana” earned a ₱120 million gross against a ₱2 million budget while “Kita Kita” struck a ₱320 million gross against a ₱10 million budget. These small victories proved that there is indeed a middle ground for “maindie” (mainstream indie) films with auteurist sensibilities. This is where Black Sheep wants to come in.

Angelica Panganiban and Carlo Aquino in "Exes Baggage." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

Julia Baretto and Gerald Anderson in "Between Maybes." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

The studio is barely a year old but it already has produced six films, two of which are box office hits: “Exes Baggage” (₱360 million in worldwide gross) and “Alone/Together” (₱380 million in worldwide gross). The other films, such as “To Love Some Buddy,” “Between Maybes,” and “Sakaling Maging Tayo” haven’t earned as much but have earned acclaim on their refreshed takes on celebrity love teams and tired tropes.

It might seem, so far, that Black Sheep is just an arm for charming rom-coms (Gazmen says it’s because the rom-coms wrap up earlier so they’re the films that get released right away) but Black Sheep has also produced “Oda Sa Wala,” probably the best Filipino film of 2018. The film’s black humor and the stunning performance of its lead actress (Pokwang, or Marietta Sumbong, as she was credited in the movie) as a lonely embalsamador looking for love, is a killer combination and resulted into one of the most confounding yet intensely enjoyable films in recent memory. In the pipeline are other genre films such as the international co-production “Motel Acacia” by Bradley Liew, about a motel bed that kills immigrants; the '90s coming of age “Death of Nintendo” by Raya Martin; the sci-fi Cinemalaya entry “Ani: The Harvest;” and the possession flick “Clarita” starring Jodi Sta. Maria, which opens this June 12.

A still from the Cinemalaya 2019 entry "Ani: The Harvest." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

A still from Raya Martin's "Death of Nintendo." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

It’s arguable that a Black Sheep release is an opportunity to shake local cinema’s zeitgeist from the inside of a giant media company. Much of what Star Cinema has deemed “experimental” in terms of storytelling are still marred by a third act that is forced to adhere to a pleasant ending. Imagine “Alone/Together” if it was made under Star Cinema. Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil would each have gotten a sidekick or a boisterous barkada. There would have beene more quotable quotes, higher stakes, and, perhaps, less of the undercurrent of activism that ran throughout the whole film (would they even want Liza Soberano’s character to be an art history major?).

It’s too early to tell if Black Sheep is just Star Cinema in disguise (although some may argue that it is) but there are encouraging signs in its films that it wants a shift in the way familiar stories are being told, that even rom-coms are more than just vehicles for celebrity pairings. In “Alone/Together,” a man is just fodder for a woman’s emancipation. In “Sakaling Maging Tayo,” a brief encounter is a remembrance of how liberating it feels to experience innocent love. And in “Between Maybes,” the language of love and longing is telegraphed in the landscape and small glances.

We sat down with Gazmen, who was later joined by Black Sheep’s head of marketing Shinji Manlangit, to talk about birthing pains, quiet victories, and their quest to diversify mid-budget offerings in mainstream theaters. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Why do you think the auteur-driven kind of films will work with the market that you want to capture?

Compared to Star Cinema, we’re trying to capture a younger, more upscale market. And when you look at context, the upscale market has access to better education, mas meron silang choice for better entertainment because they can pay for streaming, they can pay for Netflix so mas exposed sila to different languages of content, film languages, filmic styles. Kapag nasanay ka sa ganitong klase ng mundo, hindi ka sanay sa ganitong putahe lang.

However with the mass market, ultimo pelikula nga wala sila pambayad, ano lang ang access nila? Ang access nila is what’s shown for free, sa television, on Facebook, kaya ang laki ng difference.

You were saying that the “Star Cinema audience” has expectations when they go into a Star Cinema film. How did that brand affinity start?

Feedback. We do a lot of audience research. Normally after every movie, may FGD [focus group discussion], may nationwide research so may insights. We can track based on performance. We did “Love You to the Stars and Back,” feeling ko ito ‘yung precursor to Black Sheep, hindi siya naka-molde na Star Cinema pero it tried to show something new in terms of promo, pero ramdam namin ‘yung hesitation of the Star Cinema audience to accept it. Makikita mo naman kasi people give us constant feedback.

In terms of Star Cinema, which is a legacy brand, saan ipoposisyon ng Star Cinema ‘yung sarili niya. Magre-reinvent siya, it will do an “OTJ,” “Last Night,” pero ‘yung [mismong] market ni Star Cinema na-lo-lose niya. “Anong ginagawa niyo sa mga pelikula niyo ba’t ganyan na?” “Hinahanap namin ‘yung pang-pamilya, hinahanap namin ‘yung tatawa kami.”

Hindi na common ‘yung taste. But the world doesn’t work like that now.

Jodi Sta. Maria in "Clarita." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

How was the experience of releasing your first film under Black Sheep, “Exes Baggage”?

Madugo! Black Sheep was born by people who came from Star. What happened with “Exes,” mahirap siya kasi kailangan mo ipaglaban what you think your brand should stand for.

[But] full disclosure, hardest ang “Alone/Together.” [Laughs]

“Exes Baggage” kasi may kapaan na ano ba, gusto niyo ba ng mainstream o directors vision? Paano ba tayo magpo-promote? We got Shinji [Manlangit] because he’s the best in digital marketing. We really want na 90 percent digital execution because the millennial market is there.

Pero napapansin na namin na hindi lang millennials ang kumakagat sa “Exes Baggage.” May part ng masa audience na gustong manood. That 90 percent, nababawasan na nang nababawasan kasi we wanted to make use of ABS-CBN’s armory. Meron ka nang broadcast plugs, guestings, all of a sudden meron ka nang [guesting in] “Magandang Buhay.”

"Ang malaking barrier talaga now is ticket price. Kung meron lang talaga akong magagawa na mababagsak ko ang ticket price, ginawa ko na. Kasi kaparehas mo na ngayon ang presyo ng isang Hollywood film."

We saw how it worked. But it was still so difficult. It was our first project so we were allowed a lot of experimentation.

CarGel [Carlo Aquino and Angelica Panganiban] was a very millennial team-up. Sa LizQuen [Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil] kami sobrang nahirapan. They’re basically one of the top love teams of ABS-CBN, and we have this very mature material, are we really gonna offer it to LizQuen?

They took a risk. And may feeling ka na this project cannot fail. The higher the budget the bigger the stars, the higher the pressure, the more comments you get. ‘Yun ang reality of it.

Black Sheep creative director Kriz Gazmen. Photo by JL JAVIER

What was the hardest part about convincing the management for a film like “Alone/Together” since its an unconventional treatment for a big love team movie?

The hardest part is convincing them that there is an audience for this kind of film. Kasi sanay na “We want the big confrontations, etc.” Kasi ‘yun naman talaga ang gusto ng mass market. Siguro the hardest part was really pushing for what we stand for, pushing for what Tonet’s vision is. And I’m just so happy that in the entire experience, I had nothing but gratitude for Inang [Olive Lamasan] kasi at then end of the day, it was an exercise on trust. Pinagkatiwalaan kami na “Sige, if that’s what you believe then I’m going to trust you, go with it.” Swerteng-swerte kami na our leader also believes in the brand as much as we do.

Ang hirap i-convince lang, that “‘Pag nag-aaway po kami hindi naman po kami ganyan mag-away, kapag nag-uusap kami hindi naman kami nag-ko-quotable quotes sa isa’t-isa.” So marami kaming nilalaban na [sensibilities] as people from our generation.

Malaki ‘yung generation gap with the top brass. Kasi parang, “Talaga, ganyan na ba kayo makiramdam ngayon? Kasi nung time namin ganito kami mag-away. Kapag kami ‘yung nasa desisyon ni Liza, ganito ang desisyon namin.” Eh kami, kami ang nasa posisyon ni Liza, ganito ang decision namin. So dun siya nag ka-clash. Pero in the end ‘yung trust ni Inang ang nag-prevail.

Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil in "Alone/Together." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

Elisse Joson and McCoy De Leon in "Sakaling Maging Tayo." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

You also have a particular style when it comes to marketing your movies. How did that come about?

Kriz Gazmen: I want Black Sheep to be a person. Black Sheep isn’t a company, it’s not a company na “Hoy panoorin niyo itong pelikula namin!” Gusto kong i-portray na tao siya. Kabarkada mo na nag-recommend ng pelikula. So we marketed to the generation na ka-generation ng Black Sheep. I think that’s how we become faithful in the campaigns na ginagawa namin: makulit siya, we try to be as fresh as possible, we try to think of new executions as possible kasi alam namin na kung ‘yung kabarkada ko paano ko siya ma-ko-convince na manood ng pelikula, ganito. Hindi ko siya ma-ko-convince by just shouting and shouting na “Panoorin mo ang Alone/Together!!”

Shinji Manlangit: Lahat kasi ng [movies] na hinawakan ko personified sila. For example, “Heneral Luna.” ‘Nung mina-market namin ‘yung pelikula, ‘yung [social media] posts niya, nagsasalita as Heneral Luna. Or kahit nung “I’m Drunk, I Love You,” ganun din. So dinala ko ‘yun [dito]. Pero [inisip ko kung] paano ko siya ibang gagawin dito. So ang tawag namin ni Kriz [sa kanya] ay “Classy na Jologs.” [Laughs]

What are the challenges of producing a film in the streaming era?

I think the biggest [challenge] talaga is ano ang pang-streaming at ano ang pang-theatrical. Kapag sinabi mo na pang-theatrical, automatically hahanapan mo ‘yan ng magandang artista, it’s really how the entire industry is designed. You’re demanding 280 pesos from each of your audience. Bakit ako magbabayad ng 280 pesos sa taong ‘di ko kilala? Diba, napaka-logical lang naman ng thinking na [ganun]? Again, normally itong mga taong ‘to, dahil nga may limited access to more sophisticated kind of content kaya ‘yun ang nag-de-draw sa kanila.

Dati ang mga kalaban lang namin ay ibang pelikula. Ngayon, my god, kalaban na namin, sandamakmak na shows on Netflix … na hindi local! It’s now a battle for screentime, for attention.

Ang hirap lang talaga ngayon, Netflix always revolutionizes content. They revolutionize trends, taste and that’s because they have data. Ang laking bagay talaga ‘nun. They can predict exactly what the audience will want — and [that’s] what we don’t have. We don’t have the kind of machinery and technology that Netflix has. Ang nangyayari ngayon, hirap na hirap kami, Netflix is already there, alam na nila ‘yung susunod na magugustuhan ng mga tao, kami hinuhulaan pa namin. So doon talaga mahirap.

Kaya kami siguro ang ma-o-offer na lang namin sa audience, that Netflix still cannot offer now, we can tell you the unique Filipino experience. Kasi ‘yan na lang talaga feeling ko ang major advantage talaga namin sa market. Mas kilala namin ang mga Filipino kaysa sa inyo, mas alam namin ang pinagdadaanan ng Pilipino, what they can relate to kaysa sa Netflix.

But of course when you make stories now, ibabalanese mo talaga na lahat. ‘Pag for streaming, dahil mas mababa ‘yung budget, mas pwede ka mag-approve ng edgy na concept, pwede kang mag-cast ng hindi ganun kamahal na artista, pero kapag mainstream theatrical, marketing nandyan na, T.V. plugs, cost ng artista, so ‘yun ang malaking difference. And you can’t experiment so much. That’s the reality.

Indonesian actor Nicolas Saputra, JC Santos, and Agot Isidro in the upcoming horror movie "Motel Acacia." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

Marietta Subong (Pokwang) in the award-winning film "Oda sa Wala." Photo courtesy of BLACK SHEEP

That also applies to Black Sheep?

Yeah. Pwede naman kami mag experiment pero napapansin namin ‘yung audience namin … even “Kita Kita,” I think it was an experiment in terms of casting. Cast natin si Empoy at Alessandra [de Rossi] tapos bulag pala si Alessandra. Pero ‘pag tinignan mo ‘yung narrative ng “Kita Kita,” hindi naman masusuka sa pinanood niya, or hindi siya maintindihan. May feeling ako what the audience wants is a fresher take on a familiar experience. Kasi kung wala na silang familiarity sa tinitignan nila, nasa cinephile na siya na category.

There’s been a complaint na hindi na nanonood ang audience but there are more films being produced. There are even big artists who are experimental when they take on roles. Why do you think this is the case?

Eh kasi totoo naman. Believe it or not, sa data pa lang, sa lahat ng nilabas ng ABS-CBN films last year, tatlo lang ata or apat ang naging super hits. All the rest, talagang hindi nag-fly sa box office. And if you [check] the pattern of those films, ‘yun ‘yung recipes na malaking casting and magandang content na relatable to our audiences.

Ang malaking barrier talaga now is ticket price. Kung meron lang talaga akong magagawa na mababagsak ko ang ticket price, ginawa ko na. Kasi kaparehas mo na ngayon ang presyo ng isang Hollywood film. That’s why hindi tayo makasabay kapag may “Avengers” na palabas kasi there’s no alternative market! Meron kang 280 pesos, come on, may local film na palabas tapos nandiyan ang “Avengers” na may high [special] effects, ang lalaki ng artista, cinematic experience siya, saan mo itataya ang 280 pesos mo? [At] alam mo na pag-uusapan ng buong mundo ang “Avengers” at ayaw mong mahuli. ‘Yun ang malaking problema now. Ticket prices are so prohibitive to our audiences to be able to watch our film.

‘Yung nagdidictate ng ticket prices hindi naman kami eh. It’s mostly theaters, ang laki-laki ng tax ng government — ang laki talaga ng kailangan natin i-battle. But if I pinpoint the problem to just [one thing], feeling ko it’s really the ticket price.

What goes into ticket pricing?

Hindi ako masyadong knowledgeable pero ito ang natutunan ko after being in the business for so long: for a producer to be able to recuperate ‘yung nilabas niyang pera, the movie has to earn three times its budget. Ang nakukuha na lang talaga is ⅓ of the whole film because ⅓ goes to theaters and the other goes to the government. So you can imagine gaano nakakabaliw mag-produce ng pelikula. Kung meron kang 10 million na nilabas, automatically dapat may 30 million pesos ka [na gross] for break even.

Takang-taka din ako, bakit ang dami pa din nag po-produce ng pelikula despite this reality? I think it’s because of [films like] “Kita Kita” and other indie films that made it give them hope. Parang tataya ako nang tataya kasi baka one time makatimbog ako ng “Tadhana” and lahat ng nilabas ko na pera bawi. Baka swertehin.

"Kapag sinabi mo na pang-theatrical, automatically hahanapan mo ‘yan ng magandang artista, it’s really how the entire industry is designed.

Sabi nga nila ang business ng cinema ay unpredictable. Hit or miss siya talaga. Pero kapag gumagawa ka ng pelikula hindi ka natatalo kasi it’s with you forever at namomonetize mo siya in many ways. You can show it on T.V., sa eroplano, [etc.]

What should we expect more from Black Sheep?

I’m getting tired of our romance films to be honest [Laughs]. We have a lot of international co-productions. We attend film markets, we do international deals. We have “Motel Acacia.” May gagawin din kami with Raya Martin. Locally, I want diversity of content, that’s what we’re pushing for. May comedy kami na gagawin, meron kaming gagawin na horror, so mas marami kaming voices.

Of course, ang plastic ko if I say wala na kaming gagawin na romance, because to be honest with you that’s our bread and butter. ‘Yan ang totoong kumikita. I will always say this, we need to do those films so we can do other films that we want to do.