FILM

Will a Filipino movie ever win an Oscar?

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Filipino filmmakers share their experience in trying to hit Oscar gold. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Our hope for Oscar gold in 2013 rested on the paws of a little film called “Bwakaw,” the Cinemalaya entry directed by Jun Robles Lana that tells the story of an old gay man and his dying dog.

“Bwakaw” had the makings of a strong Oscar contender. It premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews, and generated significant buzz when it was screened at the New York Film Festival. The New York Times hailed the performance of lead actor Eddie Garcia, calling him "a Filipino Clint Eastwood." In a glowing review, Variety magazine called the film “a quiet charmer.” And industry website AwardsCircuit.com bet that the film was a top contender for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

But when the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film category was announced, “Bwakaw” was nowhere to be found. This, despite the fact the film was backed by Fortissimo Films, an international sales company that represents acclaimed films such as Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” This, despite the multi-million peso advertising campaign, funded by a few good Filipino souls, that ran across Hollywood publications.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the Oscar campaign arsenal is publicity. The film has to be seen and considered by Oscar voters. Films with constant press coverage and screenings can gather enough momentum to be included as Oscar nominees. The nomination can’t rely on merit alone. It has to be out there.

In "Bwakaw" (2012), Eddie Garcia plays an aging gay man who takes a street dog in his care. The film was the Philippine entry to the 85th Academy Awards. Photo from OCTOBERTRAIN/YOUTUBE

The race for the shortlist

Since “Bwakaw,” the Philippines has consistently sent entries to the Foreign Language Film category and none of them even made it to the shortlist. Of all the entries submitted from different participating countries (92 as of 2020), nine will be chosen for the shortlist, which will further be cut down to five for the actual nominated films.

Lav Diaz’s “Norte: The End of History” (2013) actually had a good shot of getting a nomination. It premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival at the Un Certain Regard section where it was nominated for the Prix Un Certain Regard. It was picked up for distribution by The Cinema Guild, the distributor behind award-winning films by filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Asghar Farhadi.

“Norte” went on to premiere in other prestigious festivals around the world such as the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and the 2013 New York Film Festival, where it was screened alongside Oscar nominees such as Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Ethan and Joel Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips.”

By the end of 2013, “Norte” was in several Best Films of the Year lists, including Sight and Sound and Film comment. It also holds a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But the strongest awards precursor was its nomination at the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards for the Best International Film category where it competed with films such as Russia’s “Leviathan” and Poland’s “Ida,” both of which went on to become Oscar nominees.

“Norte” still didn’t make the Oscar shortlist. The film did hire a U.S.-based PR company that had handled Oscar campaigns but “Norte” didn’t get enough financing to sustain the campaign. “Although our executive producer spent a substantial amount that covered print ads, publicity, and screenings in the U.S., it turned out to be quite modest compared to what the other [Oscar] contenders [were doing],” said producer Moira Lang. 

After “Norte,” the Philippines subsequently submitted these other films to the Oscars: “Heneral Luna” (2015), “Ma’rosa” (2016), “Birdshot” (2017), “Signal Rock” (2018).

For this year, our entry was Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s “Verdict.” The film went into the race with a certain pedigree. It premiered at the Horizons section of the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2019 and played at film festivals in Telluride, Toronto, and Busan. It did not make it to the Oscars shortlist, which actually featured ten films this year.

Not surprising

The Philippines has been sending entries to the International Feature Film category of the Academy Awards since 1953, with Manuel Conde’s epic “Genghis Khan.” We have not been nominated a single time, even if we’ve had our hopes set high before.

In 2008, Philippine press was abuzz with talk about “Ploning,” the Judy Ann Santos-starrer that was our entry to the Oscar race. “Ploning” is still remembered as that small Filipino film that dared for a shot at the gold. The words “impossible,” “herculean” and “daunting” were thrown around the film’s campaign. Santos herself flew out to Los Angeles to promote the film.

The road to the Oscars was a mad scramble for “Ploning.” After the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) selected “Ploning” as our official entry, the team had to immediately rush to meet the October Oscar submission deadline. They only had two weeks to have the film subtitled and get the print shipped to the U.S. since the FAP’s selection was announced late September.

Another obstacle that they had to go through before actually starting the campaign was looking for a publicist to help them lay the groundwork. Their team haggled with Murray Weismann and Associates, the PR film that handled the Oscar winners such as “Crash,” “Chicago,” and “Shakespeare in Love,” to get their services.

Raising funds

Team “Ploning” raised funds through the help of celebrities, friends, auctions, dinners, and government assistance (P2.5 million) but it still wasn’t a match to mammoth the $50-million campaigns that other films had. Full-page ads in industry publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were also supposed to be part of the campaign, but the fees already amounted to the entire production budget of “Ploning.”

“Ploning” then had to rely on screenings to generate awareness among potential Oscar voters. According to the rules of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), you are not supposed to know or contact Academy voters for the International Feature film category.

“They will make a few screenings of your film, they will give you the dates but you are not allowed to come,” said “Ploning” director Dante Nico Garcia in a 2013 interview. “And you’re not allowed to give anything to anyone. They told us that the idea is you’re doing a blind campaign. Hindi nila sinasabi talaga, but the idea is just keep on going.”

Garcia had to set up screenings of their own, something that they didn’t have budget for. Screenings outside theatrical venues required you to cover the insurance of the audience. Food also had to be served after the screenings, which was estimated to cost $15 per head. Fortunately, Santos had a fan who does Filipino food catering in LA, which only cost them $2 per head. It was then a succession of daily screenings, meeting Filipinos in Los Angeles and tracing Filipino connections to big Hollywood studios and Academy-related groups.

Judy Ann Santos waits for her lover in "Ploning." It was one of the rare Filipino entries in the Oscars to attempt a full campaign. Photo from PLONING/YOUTUBE

Lessons learned?

History repeats itself, however. Despite lessons learned from “Ploning,” “Bwakaw” hit similar roadblocks when it was chosen as the Philippines’ entry in 2013.

“Wala talaga kaming money for the campaign,” said Tonee Acejo, line producer of “Bwakaw” in a 2013 interview. “Ang naging problem kasi dun ang dami namin expenses sa “Bwakaw” hindi na kinaya ‘yung Oscar campaign. Hindi naman namin alam na [mapipili kami for the] Oscars. Na-excite lang kami kasi nakapasok kami ng film festivals. Nakapasok sa Toronto? Go agad! Pero ang shino-shoulder nila ng expenses is ‘yung filmmaker lang,” Acejo shared.

“Bwakaw” through its sales agent Fortissimo Films, was not even able to find a US distributor.

Selection process

It seems all previous attempts at an Oscar campaign have fallen through because of funding. While publicists and sales agents help in generating hype for a film, it is the distributors and studios’ multi-million-dollar companies such as Warner Brothers, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Sony Pictures that actually lobby Oscar voters into considering an entry.

But some industry insiders also look to the FAP, an organization composed of the cinema guilds in the country, in untangling the procedure of selecting the country’s Oscar entries in the first place.

The FAP chooses our entry among a pool of films that have garnered an A-rating from the Cinema Evaluation Board, and have had a seven-day theatrical run in the country. But the FAP only finalizes its selection in September which severely limits our chances. Previously, it took until October to announce the official entry of the Philippines.

“When you go to the US [by October],” Garcia shares, “The oldies of Hollywood (the average age of Oscar voters are said to be 63), from Thanksgiving, they’re on vacation until Christmas. They only return in January. The only relevant festival you can be screened at before the Oscar shortlist is released is the Palm Springs International Film Festival. After which, you only have two weeks to campaign before they make the shortlist. So tigok talaga ‘yung oras mo kung October lang.”

It’s important to keep in mind that a nomination or a win isn’t just glitzy showbiz prestige. It opens up a whole new perspective for the film industry. The Brazilian film industry, for example, was completely enlivened by the nominations of its 2004 entry, “City of God,” a film which went on to be a big international hit, contributing millions to the Brazilian economy.

"Heneral Luna" was selected as the Philippine entry to the Oscars in 2015.

From “Foreign Film” to “International Feature Film”

It is in the International Feature film category that the Oscars matter elsewhere. The category has been around since 1956 but its name was only changed from “Best Foreign Film” to its current title in April 2019.

“We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” commented Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee said in a press release when the category name was changed. “We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.”

The strong momentum of South Korea’s “Parasite” in the Oscar race, even landing a Best Picture nomination, is an encouraging sign for Asian cinema (although it can be argued that for Hollywood, Asian cinema only counts as films from China, Japan, and India — not much from South East Asia). Since 1951, there have been 47 Asian films nominated in the Best International Feature Film category. Majority are from Japan (16 films) and Israel (10 films). India and Taiwan have three nominations each (all films nominated from Taiwan are by Ang Lee who went on to become a major Hollywood director, even winning an Oscar for Best Director). “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho has even called the Oscars a “very local” (and not an international) film festival.

But should we care about getting to the Oscars at all? Is this chase for Oscar gold another form of our obsession with Western validation? It should be noted that there are Filipino members of the Academy such as Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza. Seven more were named last year. The inclusion means representation for Philippine cinema, especially now in the clamor of more authentic faces in the films that we watch.

The category has been controversial ever since and many have called for changes, not only in terms of the category name, but also in the rules as well, where Hollywood’s idea of “foreignness” is still rooted in a very dated worldview (all detailed in this Vox article). But the Philippines’ main struggle, if we really want to continue chasing the elusive Oscar nomination, is money. Filmmakers look to the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) to help them with this headache but a full-scale Oscar campaign shouldn’t be the sole burden of a government arm that should be tasked to fixing problems in the local film industry first.

Philippine cinema just celebrated its 100th year. To some, an Oscar nomination could have been the cherry on top. But elsewhere, there have been many international wins for Filipino movies: Jaclyn Jose’s Best Actress award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Lav Diaz’s Golden Lion win at the 2016 Venice Film Festival (yes, the same award “Joker” won last year), and the Museum of Modern Art’s “A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema” film series in 2017. We have a cinematic heritage to be proud of already (though riddled with its own problems). If a Hollywood institution like the Academy Awards finally nominates a Filipino film in its, perhaps only relevant, category, it’s just a bonus.

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An earlier version of this article appeared in The Philippine Star’s Supreme section on Feb. 23, 2013. 

UPDATE: The quote by Moria Lang has been expounded to explain the extent of the campaign of "Norte: The End of History."