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 Global Perspective

January 8, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 39

Antonio D. Sison
Antonio D. Sison is a doctoral student at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, doing research on systematic theology and Third Cinema. He wrote the screenplay for "9 Mornings," a film from the Philippines. He has written for the online Journal of Religion and Film and has contributed a chapter to the anthology Representing Religion in World Cinema: Mythmaking, Filmmaking, Culturemaking for Palgrave-Macmillan.



"To talk about 'global standards' is really to talk about approximating the theme-park entertainment that is the Hollywood export."

Lito Zulueta,
a Manila film critic

Playing David to Hollywood's Goliath

By Antonio D. Sison

NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands -- I was at an international conference dubbed "Ethics and Responsibility: Theology, Literature and Film" held in York, England last year. Having missed Q&A after a talk given by keynote speaker Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, I rushed to his car as he was leaving and asked, "What advice can you give the marginal Third World cinemas in the face of Hollywood dominance?"

"There no longer are marginal Third World cinemas," he replied.

Lord Puttnam of Queensgate (a.k.a. David Puttnam) was CEO of Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988 and producer of such critical and commercial hits as "The Mission," "The Killing Fields" and "Chariots of Fire." The knighted producer qualified that Third World Cinema is now a force to reckon with. He cited the Iranian new wave, which has produced a string of critical gems to its name, as a case in point.

After thanking him for indulging my question and for giving "Chariots of Fire" to the world, I went back to the conference … with more questions.

Is there a level playing field in world cinema? Has Iranian cinema been a commercial success as much as it has been a critical success? Can Third World cinema really compete with Hollywood?

To help give some perspective to my querying, I turned to Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha, who said: "The influence of cinema is the influence of American cinema ... every discussion of cinema made outside of Hollywood must begin with Hollywood." Rocha, one of the movers of a Third World "guerilla cinema" concept known as "An Esthetic of Hunger," made this assertion in the 1960s. His prognosis resounds more loudly today.

The world entertainment market is overwhelmingly dominated by Hollywood. By sheer volume, India's record 900 films a year outranks the U.S. output of 250. But in terms of budget and global market share, no film industry comes close to Hollywood. From the initial movie script, which is considered "intellectual property," down to eventual distribution ownership and royalties, Hollywood enjoys an unchallenged near monopoly. Most aspects of international film production and distribution fall under the control of multinational media conglomerates that are not necessarily purely American, but still produce Hollywood movies. Columbia Pictures, for instance, is a subsidiary of the Japanese corporate giant, Sony. More than half of Hollywood's captive audience is based outside of the U.S. As such, fostering the development of national cinemas in the Third World would not be in the best interest of Hollywood distribution companies.

Whoopi Goldberg nailed it when she opened a recent Oscar Awards ceremony with the line, "the best of Hollywood cinema, which is the best of world cinema..." Hollywood is Hollyworld.

While Lord Puttnam rightly notes that the works of Iranian filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have enjoyed a measure of global success, much of that remains confined to art house circles. Third World cinema does find an appreciative audience in the screening halls of Cannes, Berlin and Venice, the "big 3" international film festivals of Europe. Niched as exotic art films, Iranian titles, such as "Birth of a Butterfly," "Kandahar" and "The Circle," became critical successes. But ask the man in the streets of Tehran if he is familiar with any of these films and he is more likely to recall Hollywood blockbusters like "The Matrix Revolutions," "American Pie" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."

The omnipresence of Hollywood has, in fact, created a global audience thoroughly weaned on Hollywood standards.

Philippine cinema, which had its genesis a mere two years after the invention of the cinematographe by the Lumičre brothers in 1895, has seen a dramatic reduction in its impressive record of 160 films a year. Its output last year dipped to about 90. On the average, a Filipino movie is produced on a shoestring budget of US$200,000. Nowadays, only 1 out of 10 yield box-office profits. Failing to match the big-budgeted sheen and star power that go with every Hollywood blockbuster, many locally produced films fail to attract a sizable audience.

For some local productions, a deliberate mimicry of the Hollywood formula is the key to success. Chito Roņo's "Yamashita: The Tiger's Treasure" exemplifies this trend. An entertaining spin on a popular World War II fable, the film boasts of state of the art computer graphics reminiscent of the smash hit "Pearl Harbor" and had its own line of merchandising paraphernalia ala Hollywood. "Yamashita" won Best Picture at the 2001 Metro Manila Film Festival and was a box-office success. Manila film critic Lito Zulueta pointed out, "To talk about 'global standards' is really to talk about approximating the theme-park entertainment that is the Hollywood export."

To be sure, fitting into the footprint of Hollywood is not an option for many of the cash-strapped producers of the Philippine film industry. Beset by escalating production costs, exorbitant taxes, state censorship, and of late, film piracy, industry naysayers have made an annual habit of predicting the demise of Philippine cinema.

The world's fifth biggest film industry, however, has, time and again, proved hard to kill. This year, a small but earnest film by Gil Portes aptly titled "Small Voices" (Mga Munting Tinig), has been doing the rounds of international film festivals and picking up an award or two. It also generated enough attention to clinch an international distribution deal. A poignant look at the harsh socioeconomic realities of the Philippines through the eyes of a young country teacher, "Small Voices" is finding a bigger voice on its own terms. Ironically, the film was drowned out by Hollywood blockbusters in its home country.

Until there is greater democratization in the global film industry, small films will have to put up a brave showing at international film festivals. There, the Davids of Third World cinemas are given a chance to challenge Goliath.

And, if only in token, win.

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