By Director Eddie Romero
(Excerpts from articles and speeches of Director Romero, a National Artist for Film, about the alarming downtrend in the production of local movies. Reprinted from this year’s Luna Awards souvenir program.)
The continuing decline of the Filipino motion picture industry is depriving our nation of its strongest tool for the dissemination of attitudes and values indispensable to the fulfillment of its most urgent need– a population largely made up of self-respecting, self-reliant people.
That need is one that transcends any program that our government can or has ever initiated and it is our failure to attend to it effectively that has made all public policy ambiguous and unconvincing. Poverty and corruption cannot be reduced nor economic productivity enhanced simply by laws, unless there is widespread willingness to support them among ordinary citizens.
Creating conditions that encourage people to believe in themselves rather than on who they know, and to be capable of defending it, is the first priority of any emerging nation. Communications media free of manipulation by powerful interests are indispensable to that task. None of them come close to matching the influence of movies on prevailing values. It is time for our government to realize, however belatedly heeding the example of our neighboring nations, that it is of vital national interest to develop and maintain a strong motion picture industry, do what must be done to eliminate the senseless official inhibitions which have strangled the Filipino film for so long, and institute appropriate measures to make up for lost time.
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At a meeting of National Artists with the chairmen of the Batasan committee of basic education and the house sub-committee on language, culture and arts and their members, each of the guests, representing the various disciplines of Philippine art, was asked what Congress could do to improve the present state of their respective areas of activity. The responses from our artists tended to be of a general nature, pleading for more direct incentive programs from Congress. Hoping for something more substantial to come out of the occasion, when my turn came, after stipulating that I could only speak for myself, I said that the major problems of the film industry had come out of the fact that under our Internal Revenue Code, Filipino films were still classified as a non-essential amusement, on pretty much the same level as horse-racing, alcohol, tobacco, and massage parlors and treated accordingly, when in fact it had become the most influential mass communications medium in this country as well as throughout the world. I went on to say that by this impediment, our government was not only imposing unwarranted difficulties on the industry’s efforts to improve the quality of its products; it was also depriving the government of the best medium available for bringing prevailing cultural values into line with the most vital requisites of national stability.
Later, some of us were presented by Committee Chairman Edmundo Reyes to Speaker Jose de Venecia who, addressing me directly, pointed out that the creation of the Film Development Council and his own personal contributions to the FDC’s international film festival fund was evidence of our government’s, as well as his personal, concern for the welfare of the domestic film industry. I replied that although these concessions were certainly beneficial to the industry, they still left our filmmakers dependent on government benevolence, instead of being able to do these things for themselves, as they could very well do if only they were given the same official recognition that has long been enjoyed by our press, radio and television media. I suggested that what needed to be done to achieve this was to amend the Internal Revenue Code to reclassify motion picture production as an essential industry, and thus free it from all taxes and other impositions that have severely restricted its progress for more than eighty years. Speaker de Venecia and Congressmen Reyes and de Castro reacted positively to the idea, and suggested that I try to get the leaders of our film industry to get behind a clear and detailed proposal to this effect for submission to the House of Representatives.
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The nation’s most eloquent and influential vehicle for the depiction of prevailing social attitudes and values is in crisis. The domestic movie industry’s output has steadily declined from an average of 130 full-length features a year up to about seven years ago, to a low of 80 in 2003 and 52 last year. High taxes, formidable competition from foreign films as well as cable TV and video recordings, the stubborn persistence of film piracy and, above all, the growing stagnation of the industry’s creative energies, constitute a combination of factors that, unless mitigated, threatens to bring about the virtual collapse of the industry.
From the perspective of national interest, that eventuality is far more serious that it seems to be. For although public policy has always tended to regard the industry as a non-essential source of cheap entertainment for the lower economic classes, it burst unnoticed out of that category more than a generation ago. The rapid proliferation of Tagalog as a national language among all classes of society across the length and breadth of our archipelago is owed almost entirely to Filipino movies, a feat clearly reflected in the fact that it is among our elite and purportedly educated classes that fluency in speaking and writing in our national language is most noticeably limited.
Indeed in terms of measurable economic stature, the Filipino film business stands little higher than a cottage industry. Yet it is our movies that nurture the artistic talent that goes into our popular telenovelas and variety shows, and the role models that go into the massive advertising campaigns of our largest corporations. No popular newspaper or magazine would dare deny prominent space to movie news and gossip, and in fact the most widely read writers in the land, like it or not, are movie columnists. No candidate for a national elective position would turn his or her nose up at the prospect of open endorsement by a motion picture celebrity, and not a small number of them have been elected to high office almost solely on the strength of movie-based celebrity.
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Under the present circumstances, it is too late to persist in trying to persuade the government to lighten the now traditional tax burdens that we have had to bear for so long. A blanket moratorium on all taxes on production and distribution and even income tax on net profits might begin to make a difference, but with a national economy in equally dire straits (very likely for the same reasons) that is a will-o‘-the-wisp. The only conceivable way to stop, or at least to slow, the seemingly irreversible decline of the Filipino movie, is for all of its immediately concerned sectors, producers, distributors, theaters, television networks, videogram distributors, to pool efforts to generate a continuing fund out of a stipulated increase in movie box-office ticket sales on all films shown commercially in this country, the sale of television rights on domestic films, and other viable sources, the proceeds of which would be used to finance a comprehensive (and under government sponsorship, non-taxable) motion picture development program covering all aspects and by-products of domestic motion pictures for commercial theater or television release, to be implemented by a select group of industry leaders under the fiscal oversight of a public-cultural agency—the NCCA comes to mind.
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Passage of Congress of the law creating the Film Development Council of the Philippines and its Cinema Evaluation Board would have been a godsend a dozen years earlier, but it came too late. With production volume down to perhaps less than fifty a year, and box office returns down to its lowest averages in a decade, rebates awarded to deserving movies can only rarely compensate for the beating that most of them have to take at the box office. Moreover, the Film Development Council’s share of the tax rebates accruing to the Cinema Evaluation Board are barely enough to pay for its own operations, let alone initiate programs to re-energize the film industry.
The industry cannot be kept alive by periodic rich-uncle handouts. It needs resources adequate to sustain a program to protect its viability and enhance its efforts toward realizing its full potential as our nation’s most effective instrument for the dissemination, above everything else, of the virtues of self-reliance and civic responsibility, among the humblest sectors of our society, without corrupting the process by trying to guide it.
That this appeal comes at a time when our government is in the midst of a massive fiscal crisis may be a blessing in disguise, because it raises the possibility that our film industry, with the help of its friends in government, may be able to help itself on its own resources, with the enactment of a new law requiring all movie theaters in the country to collect an additional two pesos on all tickets sales on the exhibition of all theatrical films, and remit all collections (local and national tax exempt) directly to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for the purpose of establishing an endowment to be called the National Film Development Fund, a special program to be run by a board of trustees.
The proposed enabling law should also provide for exemption of all importations of 35 mm and 16 mm unexposed film stock and film recording tapes from compensating and customs taxes, as well as from specific taxes on the processing of feature-length (minimum 70 minute-running time) motion picture prints intended for theatrical exhibition.