Movie nights with my family in Manila go a little like this: I, as the sole film student in the room, am entrusted to make an astute selection. There’s a murmured consensus from my dad and my big brother, both confident I’ve chosen something worthwhile.
But before I hit play, my mom quips, “Does it end well?”
If I say no, or I don’t know, we probably won’t watch it. If I say yes, then we do.
As a lifelong cinephile, I’ve always wondered why most Filipinos turn on their TV screens and flock to the cinema knowing exactly what they’ll see: the faces of beloved stars and a satisfying, (but predictable) happy ending.
Whether these stories follow rival families, star-crossed young lovers or a fearless policeman, they reliably end the same way: the good guys get rich, married or reunited; the bad guys get killed, thrown into jail or put away in social exile. And viewers expect no less.
Other cultures, especially western ones, may find this ridiculous and with reason. I’ve been studying film in Los Angeles for the past couple of years, and we’re taught to keep audiences guessing, hooked to the plot like a drug. Based on the sweeping success of Hollywood products worldwide, it’s fair to say this manner of storytelling resonates with many other audiences, too.
But those unpredictable endings aren’t exactly what gets the average Filipino an entertainment fix.
So, why is predictability so popular among Filipino audiences?
First Filipino films: Hope for a light at the end of a centuries-long tunnel
“These pioneer films thus mirrored the entertainment needs of their respective audiences who faced different realities”
Filmmaking began as technological marvel, but it gained speed among the masses for its ability to tell stories that entertain. But those stories differ depending on who is telling them, to whom they’re being told and, most importantly, why they’re being told.
If you compare the beginnings of films in the Philippines and the U.S., you’ll find films were shown for similar reasons—to entertain—but under completely different contexts.
Though different sources may dispute that Edwin S. Porter’s iconic, “The Great Train Robbery”, was the first American narrative film; it is an undisputed pioneer. Even in 1903, it bore many of the makings of a quintessential American epic blockbuster. The action-packed, industrial tale chronicles the good-versus-evil battle between innocent railroad workers, passengers and a group of thieving outlaws.
Meanwhile, the first Filipino feature, “Dalagang Bukid”, based on a well-loved musical of the same name, was made by Jose Nepomuceno not too long after. With a much smaller-scale story, the 1919 film follows a young flower vendor as she wrestles with a forced arranged marriage with an old rich man.
Both films end with the good guys winning—the immoral bandits are all beaten by the good townspeople and the young girl marries the man she loves. But what’s starkly different is what vantage point the stories came from.
In the 1900s, hardworking, specifically white individuals, Americans like Porter were in a position of power due to the era’s racially segregated society. These individuals were powerful because they had the means and resources to pursue autonomy. The opposite was true for Filipinos like Nepomuceno in the 1910s, who were second-class citizens in their own nation, which was under American colonization (and would continue to be until the end of World War II). And even before the archipelago was sold to Americans, it spent 500 years under oppressive Spanish rule.
These pioneer films thus mirrored the entertainment needs of their respective audiences who faced different realities: One found opposition to be an exciting obstacle to conquer, while the other one wished it was easier to defeat. One created a happy ending to reflect the rush of victory, while the other had to manufacture it for a semblance of relief.
Filipino films today: Rainbows promising a pot of gold at the end
“But like each one of my favorite movies, the future is uncertain. And like my mom and all my fellow Filipinos say, I hope it ends well.”
Both film industries have evolved to include a mix of big money-making studios and smaller independent ones and an amalgamation of films of different genres and styles.
However, despite the Philippines having been a sovereign state for decades, why will most Filipinos today still only pay to see the story of a struggling flower vendor if she ends up marrying her true love?
As American viewing audiences have diversified in terms of socio-economic statuses and backgrounds, so too have the screen stories they pay to see grown to vary. A movie that ends with Leonardo DiCaprio freezing to death in the middle of the Atlantic fares just as well as one where a band of superheroes saves the universe.
In contrast, even though the Philippines now has its own recognized constitution, its screen stories are the same because Filipinos still need them for the same reason: a respite from reality.
The lion’s share of Filipinos struggle financially. So, in order to appeal to the grand majority of the populace, the Filipino film industry makes the practical move to give them stories that offer stability rather than uncertainty.
To get an idea, here’s how the Philippines fares vis-à-vis the U.S.:
In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported 29% of Americans were in the lowest income brackets, 32% in the middle and 19% in the upper income brackets. In comparison, as the Philippines Statistics Authority reported in 2015, more than half of the population (58.4%) belonged to the lowest income levels, 40% to the middle and only 1.4% sat comfortably in the highest level.
Furthermore, unlike how I can watch up to three movies a week in LA with my AMC Theatres membership (at least, before the pandemic necessitated for theaters to temporarily close down), most Filipinos have to budget for each film they decide to see. The average movie ticket in the Philippines is about Php 250-300 ($5 to $6 USD), which sounds a whole lot better than the average American ticket price of $9.11 USD (according to USA TODAY in 2018). However, given the minimum wage in the Philippines is just about Php 450 per day (under $9 USD), many Filipinos are spending almost an entire day’s wage on a movie ticket (compared to just above an hour’s worth in the U.S. where the Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour or about $58 for an 8-hour day).
So, if average Filipinos choose to go see a movie, you bet they’re going pick one they know they’ll enjoy. If it ends up bumming them out more than the toil of the day’s work, was it even worth it?
A conclusion worth celebrating
Enduring a history and a present reality filled with uncertainty, it’s no mystery that when the everyday Filipino sits down at a theater for a suspension of reality, they’d like to see the heroes to whom they relate and achieve a conclusion worth celebrating.
Frankly, as the country spends more years as a free one and as young filmmakers and independent cinemas emerge, we very well may see an evolution in the way Filipinos respond to stories on the big screen.
But like each one of my favorite movies, the future is uncertain. And like my mom and all my fellow Filipinos say, I hope it ends well.
Liezl Bitas is a graduate of British School Manila in Manila, Philippines. She is currently majoring Film Production in California State University, Northridge, where she learns to further hone her craft as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Since 2018, she has also been a writer for the university’s online publication, CSUN Today. You can reach her on LinkedIn here.
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