Local industry was hard hit by Asian financial crisis

MANILA — Filipino filmmakers may have finally found what it takes to save their local film industry — digital technology.

The local industry was hard hit by the Asian financial crisis, from which it never fully recovered. Producers and directors coped with the forbidding peso to dollar exchange rate by simply producing less.

Movie production slowed down to about 30 films in the past several years — a far cry from the industry’s heyday when it churned out 150 to 200 films per year. Many actors dropped out of the scene, while others migrated to TV.

In November last year, producer Tony Gloria of Unitel Pictures made the first full-length, commercially exhibited digital film, “Santa Santita” (international name, “Magdalena”).

Directed by helmer Laurice Guillen, it deviated from the eye-candy romances that replaced the sex-and-violence pics popular in the late 1990s. Focusing on a religious theme, “Magdalena” also hyped digital as the medium that would give local filmmakers new options and limitless creativity.

Less than a year later, high-def digital fever has caught on. Young directors, many of them first timers, now produce material that challenges the content and style of the main studios. The government and film schools opened up opportunities for production and competition.

In October the Cinemalaya (Freedom Cinema) Independent Film Festival released digital pics produced by film school students, including Mario Cornejo and Coreen Jimenez’s dark, irreverent comedy “Big Time.” The filmmakers were hailed for “making a Tagalog movie that doesn’t oversell a joke or rely on slapstick.”

Several digital entries in this year’s Cinemanila Film Festival suddenly perked up the moribund Philippine movie industry. Big winner was “Ala verde, ala pobre” by Briccio Santos, who focused on the favorite Filipino theme of poverty and corruption as seen from life along the railroad tracks.

Already, studio Viva Ent. has announced that it will produce 12 digital films next year to take advantage of the cheaper filmmaking technology.

Philippine cinema may the oldest film industry in Asia, but it looks like it may take the newest technologies to save the local biz.

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