The Filipino filmmaker has always had it rough, but even more so in the last few weeks. Between national budget cuts and the audience’s recent dismissal of the MMFF (and Philippine cinema as a whole) is yet another negligent act doing local films a disservice: the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP)’s failure to submit an entry to the 94th Academy Awards.
The Directors’ Guild of the Philippines (DGPI) deemed the news, which only came to light a month after the submission deadline, a “great disappointment.” In an official statement, they noted that this is only the second time the country has not submitted since 1984. They even offered possible contenders, like Erik Matti’s “On the Job 2: The Missing 8,” starring Volpi Cup-winning actor John Arcilla, and Antoinette Jadaone’s “Fan Girl,” the highest-grossing title in the 2020 Metro Manila Film Festival.
It was all the more dismaying considering the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), who is behind the annual awards ceremony, made the rules more lenient to account for theater closures globally. While entries for the Best International Feature Film category previously had to complete a seven-day commercial theater run, this year, films that premiered in streaming services were eligible. This would have allowed more independent filmmakers to qualify for the category — an unprecedented opportunity that is unlikely to happen again, as the rule change is not expected to apply beyond the current extraordinary circumstances. The DGPI also pointed out that this would have made a robust Oscar campaign more logistically feasible for local producers.
The guild called for an industry-led initiative to recalibrate the way we select our submissions. “As our industry struggles to rise above survival, some changes are necessary,” they wrote.
In response, the Film Academy of the Philippines said on Facebook that scant funding prohibited them from vetting an Oscar entry, which is “not an inexpensive and simple process.” They shared the DGPI’s disappointment but unfortunately had to “deal with the realities of today.”
The Film Academy of the Philippines, established in 1981, has two major responsibilities every year: to hold the annual Luna Awards and to submit an entry to the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category (which was previously called the Best Foreign Language Film category until it was changed in 2019). Its sole source of funding is 20% of amusement tax collected from MMFF, handled by the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), which, according to the Film Academy’s statement, “dried up quickly in early 2020.”
It’s easy to see why — MMFF saw a 98.1% drop in box office numbers in 2020, earning only ₱19 million compared to 2019’s ₱995 million. But even before the festival’s financial flop, Film Academy’s director-general Vivian Velez has been adamant in collecting ₱82 million in amusement tax that the MMDA has failed to allocate to the Film Academy over the years. Between December 2019 and December 2020, Velez said the Film Academy only received ₱2.7 million. “How can I run an agency with a budget that small?” she told The Philippine Daily Inquirer at the time.
The Film Academy also said in their recent statement that the little budget they did have went into programs offering aid to members who lost their monthly income. While no documentation of this could be found on their Facebook page — their Twitter and Instagram accounts have been inactive for more than a year, and their official website is defunct — they did have a mass casualty training for barangays in partnership with the Department of Trade Industry’s Philippine Trade Training Center – Global MSME Academy.
Understandably, many questioned the Film Academy’s reason behind its non-submission. It was still able to hold the Luna Awards in 2020, as well as submit Brilliante Mendoza’s “Mindanao” to the Oscars. There is also no entry fee for all Oscar categories; the only requirement aside from digital media assets is one film print or digital cinema package for projecting the film in theaters.
“[The Film Academy’s statement] was surprising to me, because during my time, there wasn’t really a budget allotted for Oscar entries,” filmmaker Hannah Espia-Farbova told me over Zoom. When her debut film “Transit” was submitted in 2013, the Film Academy head at the time told her and her producers about a campaign strategy, but beyond that, she felt she wasn’t getting the support she needed.
It was only when American production company Electric Entertainment picked up “Transit” for U.S. distribution — something that is not guaranteed for all Filipino entries — that Espia-Farbova grasped how a budget could make or break a country’s chance at a nomination. At the time, the category saw 76 submissions, including entries from auteurs Wong Kar-wai (“The Grandmaster” for Hong Kong) and Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty” for Italy), who eventually bagged the prize. Campaigns vied for Academy voters’ attention through festival buzz and hosting screenings in Hollywood; both of which cost a lot of money that local producers often have to shoulder. “France and Germany are famous for having these screening parties where they invite Academy members and they have a screening and coffee and cocktails afterward,” Espia-Farbova shared. “We don’t really have a budget for that.” France has the second-most wins in the International Feature Film category; Germany is the tenth.
The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) understands this: chairperson and CEO Liza Diño-Seguerra wrote in a Sunday Times column that a country needs at least ₱50 million and a win from an A-list film festival to implement a noticeable Oscars campaign. In 2016, the FDCP launched the Oscars Assistance Program, allocating ₱1 million to chosen entries. It also has the International Film Festival Assistance Program, which provides airfare and accommodation allowance to filmmakers with entries in major international film festivals. But while Espia-Farbova is glad to know there’s now a budget, she noted that it’s not much compared to how much other countries were spending. After all, the Philippines has never been shortlisted, let alone nominated.
“The category needs fixing anyway, like in how [nominees] get selected,” Espia-Farbova added. “It’s like the Olympics or Miss Universe; the only difference is that the judges are able to see all the candidates and judge them accordingly.” Several American outlets annually reveal that many Academy members don’t watch all films before voting, even in the Best Picture category. There are no figures specifically for Best International Feature Film, but in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot” series, several voters admit not seeing all five nominees; some watched only one.
In an effort to combat this, the AMPAS mandated that an Academy member must meet a minimum viewing requirement — 12 films, which is not even a fourth of the 93 entries last year — to be eligible to vote. Once votes are tallied, a handpicked executive committee discusses the top seven titles and selects three additional films they deem overlooked to complete the shortlist. When in-person meetings became impossible, the committee opted to forgo these three ‘saves’ and expanded the shortlist from 10 to 15 films.
While this move appears to make the category more inclusive, not much has changed in this year’s International Feature shortlist. Countries with well-established movie industries still dominated. Almost all entries have won in a prestigious festival: Japan’s “Drive My Car,” Austria’s “Great Freedom,” Belgium’s “Playground,” Finland’s “Compartment No. 6,” and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” all garnered prizes at Cannes, Kosovo’s “Hive” is the first film in Sundance history to win all three main awards, while Germany’s “I’m Your Man” won at Berlinale. Others were made by or starring previous Oscar winners (Iran’s “A Hero,” Italy’s “Hand of God,” and Spain’s “The Good Boss”), while some were picked up by prominent North American production/distribution companies (Mexico’s “Prayer for the Stolen,” Denmark’s “Flee,” Iceland’s “Lamb).
Alarmingly, 76% of International Feature winners are European — Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which is the first international film to win Best Picture, is actually South Korea’s first International Feature nomination and one of seven Asian films to win the title. It’s historic precisely because it’s anomalous.
It’s also very likely that submissions are selected not purely due to merit but American appeal. Espia-Farbova remembered being told by the Film Academy that “Transit” was chosen because its Jewish elements might entice a Hollywood audience. “That’s why a lot of poverty porn films exist; this is how they choose to see us,” she added.
“One of America’s biggest exports is culture,” director Jerrold Tarog said via email. His film “Heneral Luna” was the Philippines’ Oscar entry in 2015. “We eat it up, for better and worse, and offer it right back to them with our Oscar submissions, hoping the work falls in line with the current tastes and ideological agenda of Hollywood elites.”
Tarog revealed he’s ambivalent about the Oscars. He explained, “My idealistic side says we shouldn’t really put too much attention on the Oscars in the first place. Instead of scrambling for the adulation and approval of Hollywood, we should find more ways to cultivate a trusting and stable relationship between local storytellers and the audience.”
The Film Academy’s non-submission is definitely part of a much bigger problem — something they have no full control over — but this dereliction of duty unnecessarily closed the door on Filipino filmmakers at a crucial time where things may be in their favor, even just slightly.
Still, Tarog acknowledges that “any Filipino film that wins an Oscar immediately gets an attention boost, increasing its chances of financial gain and cultural capital, opening more opportunities for other local filmmakers in ways we can’t predict.” FDCP’s Diño-Seguerra agrees, writing that an Oscar nod would “legitimize the country as an important contributor of films to the world.”
The Film Academy’s non-submission is definitely part of a much bigger problem — something they have no full control over — but this dereliction of duty unnecessarily closed the door on Filipino filmmakers at a crucial time where things may be in their favor, even just slightly. After all, if this can happen with little to no consequence, who knows what other forms of neglect bubble beneath the surface? (the Film Academy’s statement did indicate that they are open to change or dialogue, though they have yet to respond to my request for comment.)
Espia-Farbova urged the Film Academy to be more transparent, especially about the Oscar selection process. She admitted she wasn’t sure about the procedure, but she did say “a lot of politics” are involved.
“Whatever solution we come up with, it should be something that unites our film community,” Espia-Farbova said. “Because one Filipino filmmaker’s success in the world is a success for all of us.”