What does it take for a Filipino film to make it to the Oscars?

Published April 27, 2021, 4:22 PM

by John Legaspi

A much better question is, does it even matter?

Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Being at 93, the Academy Awards, commonly known as the Oscars, has definitely seen a lot—from racial discriminations to political assassinations and world wars. Now with the pandemic topping its list, it still remained true to its “the show must go on” mantra by hosting an intimate gathering amid a global health crisis. All throughout the years and through those dark times, the Oscars has endured, making it perhaps one of the few things in the world that is immune to anything.

Every year, Hollywood’s brightest stars converge to celebrate the art of filmmaking, from the people that brought characters to life to the engineers that worked behind the camera. While the pandemic brings a touch of sensitivity to this year’s ceremony, it cannot be denied that glamor still attended the awards. But if there is one thing to lionize, it is the continuing inclusion of Asian films and filmmakers in the roster of the Oscars champions, from 2020’s “Parasite” best picture win to director Chloé Zhao’s victory this year.

For the Philippines, the Oscars 2021 is also a historic one as yet again a Fil-Am artist, singer H.E.R, won the Best Original Song award. It is not the first time an artist with Filipino roots has won the honor. Fil-Am composer Robert “Bobby” Lopez earned two of them in the past with his musical works for Disney films, songs “Let It Go” (from the film “Frozen,” 2014) and “Remember Me” (from the animation “Coco,” 2018). What is also not new is the absence of a Filipino filmmaker or movie in the Oscars.

As early as 1953, the country, through the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP), have been sending entries to the Academy to consider as a nominee for the Best Foreign/International Film award. Our first entry was a Manuel Conde movie and starrer titled “Genghis Khan,” a biopic about the life of the Mongol emperor. Through the years the country has sent films that created a buzz among Filipino cinephiles, seen as positively to be nominated—“Ploning” (2008), “Bwakaw” (2012), and “Ma’Rosa” (2016). But the golden ticket is still elusive. Although there are no doubts that many Filipino films are true masterpieces, one must ask the question: Why have local films, even those recognized by distinguished international festivals, never made it to the Academy? And, more importantly, does it even matter to snag an Oscar nod?

Selecting a champion

Prior to hoping for a nomination, a champion must first be selected. With hundreds of entries received by the Academy all over the world for the best foreign/international film award, a stand out one must be endorsed. This usually means a movie that has a great storytelling power, made by a master director, acknowledged internationally, among others.

As for director Jose “Joey” Javier Reyes, he believes that there have been a number of quality movies that “were never even sent to the Oscars for consideration.” Films such as Lino Brocka’s seminal work “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang” (1974), as well as “Insiang” (1976), and “Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1975), were, according to him, “bypassed or completely set aside because of political or partisan reasons.”

“These films remain as the foundations of Philippine cinema as we understand the art and craft today,” he adds.

Campaign demands

Another barrier that makes achieving a nomination a difficult feat is the campaign for the movie, which costs a lot. A local movie aiming to be among the nominees should be publicized globally, which heavily relies on international screenings and promotion.

“What a Filipino film should have to earn an Oscar nomination is financial support for its Oscar campaign. Yes, it’s a given that the film should have its artistic merits, and our past entries have proven that—the FAP have previously submitted entries by prominent directors and films which have won prestigious awards at major festivals,” Hannah Espia-Farbova, director of “Transit,” the Philippine film submitted for the Oscars 2013, says.

“Still, out of hundreds of entries, only nine films get shortlisted and five eventually nominated for this single category,” she continues. “The Academy members are less likely to vote for a film that they have not seen—so creating a buzz around the film is just as important as the film itself. The Oscar campaign can get very expensive, especially for independent producers, so having support from the government and/or the private sector would help tremendously in lobbying for the film.”

Does it even matter?

Earning an Oscar award, even just by being nominated, provides a great affirmation to any performer and filmmaker. It opens doors, in a Filipino sense, for other local films to be recognized. But is having it an ultimate goal for film professionals? While there are nothing but benefits to gain in bringing home the gilded trophy, filmmakers should never consider altering their craft’s identity just to fit the Oscars’ bill.

According to Jerrold Tarog, director of “Heneral Luna,” the 2015 Philippine entry for the Oscars, the Academy generally favors a film with “an entertaining story that’s culturally specific but has universal appeal, good production value, and a solid, well-funded campaign.”

Although these can be seen in many Filipino films, independent or not, he also pointed out that playing with Hollywood’s preferences can help score a slot. But, he imposes a question: Do we need to? Just recall Direk Joey’s past entry preferences of political movies.

“If I am to be coldly pragmatic (and sarcastic), we might increase our chances if we make a film that falls in line with Hollywood’s dominant ideological bias and political agenda,” Jerrold says. “But do we really want that? Whether we should strive for nominations or whether the Oscars really matter are questions that deserve more emphasis, I think. Maybe imagining paradigm shifts is more productive? I don’t really know.”

How about you? What do you think?