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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

entry arrow11:41 PM | The Thing About Indie Films

By Vincent de Jesus

"An independent film, or indie film, is a film that is produced outside of the big and commercial studio system. The term "independent film" may also be used interchangeably with the term Art film." From Wikipedia

Baptism of Fire

The very first “indie” film I ever got to score was Ellen Ongkeko’s Angels back in 2001. It was a small movie about two blind masseurs played by Gina Alajar and Nonie Buencamino. And though it didn’t get it's much deserved movie theater run and went straight to video I was happy to have been part of the film production. It was, in my honest opinion, well-written, well-directed, well-acted -- decently made.

I’ve known Ellen Ongkeko since the mid-80s through PETA and as a friend I agreed to score the movie even with limited budget. (Limited budget means you have quite a comfortable budget to work with. Minimal budget means having very little to work with. No budget means humanda kang mag-abono.) Yes, Angels' recording budget was limited but Ellen as our director still found ways of coughing up the the extra amount when music revisions were needed, mostly coming from her own pocket. As a friend I would’ve willingly absorbed part of the recording expenses as a sign of my support but she insisted she pay even when she was obviously running out of resources. I admire her for validating the importance of a good musical score by not telling me “Puwede bang libre na lang ang music?” No, she never said that.

Since then I have had the pleasure of doing the musical score of indie movies like Aureus Solito’s multi-awarded Pisay, Cinemalaya's and Dennis Marasigan’s Tukso, Tony Gloria’s and Gawad Kalinga's Paraiso and Cinemalaya's and Jay Abello’s Namets. Aside from being, in my opinion, well-crafted indie movies, the directors and producers of these films are also friends of mine. And how can you say "no" to friends, di ba? Siyempre tutulong ka. There was very minimal budget to make the score but at least there was a budget to work with. Thankfully, these people were aware that they should include MUSICAL SCORING in the production budget at hindi ganoon kalaki ang inabonohan ko. At the end of the day, again just like Ellen Ongkeko's Angels, I was happy to be part of these indie films because they are films I can be proud of. The money and talent I invested was well worth it. Such is the reality of indie film-making: You don't become a millionaire but it leaves you with a sense of achievement you can carry to your grave.

But sadly not all indie films, or any other form of art for that matter, are of good quality. A famous actor-friend once told me "Okay lang kung walang budget basta maipagmamalaki ko ang produkto. May redeeming value man lang sana. Pero kung T.Y. na nga, abonado pa ako tapos ang chaka pa ang film parang gusto kong magtago sa Angola." Let's just hope there's a thriving movie industry in Angola. (Of course, debatable kung ano ang "chaka" sa "hindi chaka." That topic deserves another blog.)

Anyone Can Do It

The thing about independent films is anyone can do it. All you need is a camera (heck, a handicam will do), an editing software (pirated version from Greenhills), a desktop (kung pa-sosi ka preferably a Mac?) and voila! You have a movie! Nagkakatalunan na lang talaga kung sino ang merong magaling na “movie craftsmanship.” And just like any other form of art, merong matitino diyan, merong hindi, merong good intentions, merong hanggang good intentions na lang, may balahura, may soft porn pretending to be an art film, merong walang good intentions bukod sa kumita ng pera, merong nagkakamali, merong sumasabay lang sa uso, merong passable, merong puwede na, merong tsumatsamba, at marami namang consistently of good quality. And that's good! People are now experimenting with different forms and styles. Some succeed, some fail, but I guess that's the whole idea: to see what works and what doesn't work. People are doing edgy films which you rarely see in big, studio-produced formula movies.

Some have said "Huy, indie movie. Panoorin natin! I'm sure maganda yan." Uhrm... hindi rin. Like I said, depende yan sa gumagawa at sa dahilan ng paggawa. Dahil nga maliit ang budget, one would hope babawi na lang sa aesthetics. Pero minsan, unfortunately, sumasablay din. Some indie movies have big budgets pero unfortunately hindi nadaan sa dami ng pera ang pelikula at ayun... sumabit din. Meron namang film na dumaan sa napakaraming problema at hindi mo akalain magiging maganda pala ang kalalabasan. At siyempre meron diyang napakaganda ng pelikula pero galit naman lahat ng production staff at mga artista nila dahil binarubal sila ng mga mayayabang at nagpapaka-"holier-than-thou" nilang producer o director.

I guess, at the end of the day, the important thing here is people are consciously trying to make better films -- better stories, different styles, etc. Yun nga lang, some people are artistically well-equipped while some... urhm... grope in the dark with only their softwares to compensate for whatever they lack in... ahem... talent. Ouch.

Starving the Starving Artists

Indie movies, because it's not backed up by big studios and advertisers, have very little budget. Some have none at all. And quite a lot of new “indie movie makers” have very little or no experience at all in running a movie production team. Maganda man ang intensiyon, ang main focus nila ay gumawa ng pelikula at medyo deadma na sa business side of the production. This is well and good when everyone concerned with the movie have willingly “donated” their services -- meaning working for free. But the reality is, artists like cinematographers, writers, actors, scorers, and production designers need money to survive to be able to do their “art” well. They cannot live on a movie’s good intentions alone. We keep hearing horrors stories about actors getting stuck in endless shooting days in the middle of nowhere with beginning directors (with a lot of attitude) without pay. Kahit pumayag silang umarte ng libre, umaabot din sa pagkakataon na napapagod na ang mga artista -- at mas madaling mapagod kapag wala kang bayad, hindi ba? I'm not suggesting you shower these actors with million peso paychecks. At least give them spending money to get by, feed them well, konting gasoline money or transpo allowance, or pick them up and bring them home. These actors are not rich. They need to survive. They need food to help nourish themselves and internalize their roles.

(In fairness, marami namang matitinong indie filmmakers. Marami pa rin namang producers diyan na alam pa rin ang tama sa mali, nadadamay lang sila sa ilang pasaway na abusado.)

Some actors have told me na sana sabihin na lang ng producers from the very beginning kung walang budget o walang sulweldo para alam nila kung ano ang pinapasok nila. “Tatanggapin ko naman kung sa tingin ko maganda ang intentions ng film. Pero sabihin nila lahat ang dapat sabihin para wala nang gulatan at habulan.” Some do tell you right there and then na wala silang ibabayad sa iyo, but when you turn down the project bakit parang ang dating sa kanila ay dahil mukha kang pera? Huwag naman sanang ganoon. Most artists find it difficult to or don't have the capacity to negotiate for fees because basically artists are better in creating and not in negotiating. Kaya nga may mga talent managers at agents ang iba. Siguro kung beterano ka na sa kalakaran kaya mo nang makipag-negotiate. Pero in reality mas marami ang nahihiya at hindi kayang makipag-haggle for fees. That's the reason why a lot of talented people end up working for free most of their lives because they don't realize how much their talent is worth. At inaabuso ito ng iba! At eto na nga... dinadaan na lang sila sa libre porke't "indie" lang daw. Which is, I think, very unfair. Huy, mahiya naman kayo sa mga artista.

Director's/Producer's Responsibility

Lately, I’ve noticed, that there are more and more producers/directors who DON’T EVEN TRY to look for money to finance their indie movies--- which I think is wrong, irresponsible and totally unacceptable. What are we making here? A high school project? Some producers and/or directors would call you, pa-feeling close, and make ligaw for you to get involved in their "dream" movie but then during the last day of shoot, you’ll find out wala palang kahit katiting na compensation at kailangan mong maglakad pauwi kasi ni singkong-duling wala kang sinahod. As if parang itinago talaga nila ang usaping pera? Tsk tsk tsk. At kung meron mang naipangakong kapiranggot na honorarium DAW... kadalasan hindi pa maibibigay sa iyo. One actor said, “Kaya nga indie film. Indi nagbabayad. Indi kumikita.” Ayan tuloy. Nagkakaroon ng pangit ng reputation ang indie filmmakers in general. Kasi some producers wouldn’t even answer your calls when it’s collection or reimbursement time, and if they do take your calls, they'd say the movie didn’t make money and they can't pay you. Ni hindi man lang mag-thank you.

(Paano nga pala kikita ang film hindi naman sila marunong maglako ng pelikula kasi nga walang alam sa business side ng movie-making. What happens to the film? It sits in the attic collecting dust just like the diary of Anne Frank.)

In my case, since I do the musical score during post-production and I don’t have my own studio -- which means I rent a music studio per hour -- kadalasan abonado ako. When I did Pisay, Namets,Tukso, and Paraiso it was clear to me that there was minimal budget to produce the musical score but I accepted it anyway because I believed in these films. Malinaw sa akin kung ano ang pinasok ko. Malaking tulong din na matino naman ang kinalabasan ng mga films na ito kaya okay na okay lang. Namets even made me a co-producer so I’ll eventually recoup (hopefully) the money I invested if ever it gets a successful commercial run. I wish all indie producers can be this honest because, after all, wala na ngang pera sa indie films you can at least be generous with honesty. Be transparent.

Producing an indie film is no joke. Hindi mo yan madadaan sa chika. Indie movie-making is not some poetry reading event that you can just organize overnight and serve tuna sandwiches and iced tea. Even if you have many friends to support you, darating ang panahon na siguradong mapapagod din ang mga friends mo at kailangan nilang kumita ng totoong pera para mabuhay.

You Can't Live on Good Intentions Alone

As movie-makers, indie or mainstream, you have a responsibility to your cast and artistic staff. Hindi na dapat isama pa sa pagdurusa ang mga artists na kinuha ninyo sa dahilang kayo bilang producers ay hindi handa financially and artistically, walang production management at business skills. Real artists will grab a good role any time, and will do their jobs for very little, but my God, please let’s not take advantage of them. Bad yan. BAD.

If you feel you have a good story and you feel you can direct and make a movie out of it, the first thing you have to do is GO AND LOOK FOR THE MONEY TO PRODUCE IT. Don’t start shooting with only your kiddie savings account in hand. Look for real funding. If you’re so passionate about your "dream" movie, go sell your house or pawn your jewelry collection. If you’re not ready to part with your worldly possessions, then save up until you’re financially ready. At please lang... kung may pera kang pagbayad ng cameras, ilaw, at sound equipment, dapat kaya mo ring magbayad sa mga artista, artistic at production team mo. One new “director/producer” told me once “Puwede bang libre na lang ang music? Wala na kasi akong budget to pay for actors and musical score, kasi naubos na sa camera rental at sa baranggay tanod.” Pucha naman oh. Nakakaloka. I told him, "Gumawa ka na lang ng SLIDE SHOW."

Don’t take your people for granted dahil kung wala kang mga taong gumagalaw sa harap at likod ng iyong camera -- wala kang pelikula.

The industry has to police itself and make sure people aren't taking advantage of the "spirit of indie film-making." The industry has to professionalize its working process by issuing contracts to talents and artistic staff to assure them that they will be taken cared of. Siguro kahit sa mga magkakaibigan na involved sa isang production maganda ring magakaroon ng "written agreement," kasi minsan kahit friendship nanganganib kapag nagkaroon ng mga problemang hindi inaasahan. If the production has limited resources--- I suggest join festivals, and apply for grants. Huwag niyong pasanin lahat ng gastusin. I would even go as far as making key persons in your production as co-producers. Or create an artists-producers cooperative. So when the movie makes money, with crossed fingers, everybody makes money. That way, everyone has a stake in the film, it makes your people feel they're more than just underpaid artists -- if they were paid at all. Don't get me wrong. This is not just about MONEY. It's about protecting and respecting the rights of everyone involved.

When you make a film you hope to recover your investments, right? But if you're making a film just so you can pat yourself on the back and say, "Man, I'm a good filmmaker," and have something to watch during the Lenten Season break with your friends while drinking wine -- you better rethink your filmmaking dreams. Nagtatapon ka lang ng pera at sinayang mo ang oras ng mga taong naniwala sa iyo na hindi mo naman binayaran. Films should be watched by other people, not just by those who created it.

It’s this simple: if you can’t afford to make an indie film, do not make an indie film. There are other forms of art that require less money but give you the same artistic fulfillment.

Here’s to the good, honest, capable and talented indie directors, producers, actors, artistic and production teams that have made the Philippine movie industry its much needed boost. I pray the time comes when you are allowed to practice your craft in a more inviting, creative space and ultimately a healthier artistic environment to nurture your artistic souls. God bless you all for your tireless efforts.

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