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Jessica Zafra: Stars vs. Zombies
You love the movies so you become a screenwriter. You write scripts for Star Cinema, the number one movie studio in the country. It’s an arduous process, like giving birth to a baby that is raised by total strangers so that when you see him again you barely recognize him. But you keep at it and you end up writing some of the biggest box-office hits of Star Cinema.
Then you get together with other writers and start making your own movies outside the studio system. You scrape together the funds from grants and generous friends. You make the sort of movies you want to watch. One becomes a small hit, one not, but these babies are truly yours. You learn that finding the money to make your movies is a trip to purgatory, but putting them in theatres and getting people to watch them is a tour of the Nine Circles of Hell.
This is the life of the Indie Filmmaker.
You make a horror-comedy about a boy living with a secret curse. Sometimes you feel like you’re living with a curse yourself, because things never turn out the way you want them to. But you luck out. Your choices turn out to be genius. Your movie is in the can. After much discussion, you give it the title Zombadings 1: Patayin Sa Shokot Si Remington.
You may be an indie, but you know how the movie industry works and you need help.
So it begins.
1. In December you show your film—complete except for sound design, color grading, final music and some visual effects—to the head of Star Cinema. She calls to say she’s not sure about the movie. “Isn’t it anti-gay?” she asks. You are gay, by the way. The studio head says she will show your movie to her team—the heads of the creative, production, and booking departments.
2. After a while they call to say, in a roundabout way, that they don’t like your movie. They don’t find it funny, they don’t think it has commercial appeal, and they do find it anti-gay.
They commend you for being so brave, for making a movie “with no market”. In short, they reject it. Fair enough, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
3. A few days later they call again. They take it back: they want to release your movie. What changed? Their head of promotion saw the movie and loved it. He thinks it’s funny, it has commercial appeal, and it is not anti-gay. In short, he disagrees with the first opinion.
The studio now wants to release your movie—as long as you don’t put their name on it. You don’t have a problem with this, you prefer it actually, but it underscores their lack of belief in your movie.
You say Okay, but to seal the deal you ask for TV spots so you can air the trailer for your movie.
The studio head says Okay and sends a screening copy of your movie to the head of TV of their giant network.
4. In January they get back to you with the verdict from the head of TV: No. They think that once the censors are through with your movie there will be nothing left to air on TV.
The deal falls through. You don’t push it because you know that with one exception, they don’t care for your movie.
5. In February you decide to distribute your movie yourselves. You’ve had lots of practice, and the last movie you distributed was a box-office hit. But first you have to raise the money for your marketing and promotions budget. You put off the release date and focus on the post-production work.
6. You choose a playdate, August 17, and list it with the National Cinemas Association of the Philippines (NCAP). But when Star Cinema also signifies its intention of opening a movie on that date, you back off. You know better than to run headlong into a giant.
7. You move your opening date to August 31. Star Cinema also has a tentative booking on that date, but since their movie is a drama and yours is a comedy, you decide to risk it.
8. On July 23 you have your first public screening at the Cultural Center, as the closing film of Cinemalaya. The midnight screening is packed. Your movie is a hit with 1,600 people laughing so hard they’re in tears.
9. On July 26, Star Cinema revises their August 31 booking. They are not opening the adult drama after all. Instead, they are showing a comedy. Which is headlined by one of the stars in your movie, the fabulous Eugene Domingo.
10. On July 28 you meet with the studio head and ask her to move their booking because both your movies are comedies, both star Eugene Domingo, and you’ve already released all your materials advertising August 31 as your opening day.
The studio head says she will consider it, but she may find it difficult as Star is not the sole producer. She’ll let you know in a few days.
11. On August 3, Star’s booking manager calls to say they are pushing through with their August 31 opening. You call an emergency meeting.
You complain to the NCAP, which is supposed to regulate bookings and make sure that things like this—two comedies starring the same actress opening on the same day—don’t happen.
They advise you to move your playdate and save yourselves from certain financial ruin. “Wala kayong kalaban-laban” are the exact words.
You are given a few days to think it over. You review your options. You decide to stand your ground.
12. The NCAP keeps asking you to change your mind. Your partner asks a simple question: How come no one is asking Star to change their playdate?
No one has an answer to that.
So your release date is set: August 31. You didn’t ask for it, but there it is, bring it on. You focus on your movie’s strengths. You stretch your very limited budget. You handle the bookings with the movie theatres yourselves.
The worst is still to come.
13. You raise additional funds to make more 35mm prints of your movies for the theatres. But your theatre line-up is severely compromised: most of the theatres have been booked by Star and by Hollywood distributors. Your movie is effectively blocked from provincial theatres (Malls in the provinces are much smaller and have fewer screens). You accept September 7 as the playdate for most of the provincial theatres.
14. To boost your movie’s chances you sign agreements with a couple of malls to hold sneak previews on August 29 in 28 theatres nationwide, particularly in the provincial theatres that can’t accommodate you on August 31. On August 27 and 28 you send out the 35mm prints and 2,000 giveaway Zombags for early ticket-buyers.
15. On the morning of August 29 the malls call you. The sneak previews are cancelled. There have been complaints to the NCAP, which ruled that sneak previews are not allowed on holidays, and August 29 is part of a long weekend. The mall cinemas are threatened with sanctions—they have no choice but to comply.
16. On August 31 your movie opens in 56 theatres. Star’s movie opens in more than 100 theatres.
Your movie is a hit. Your movie outgrosses theirs in Metro Manila and parts of Luzon, beating them by 50 percent or more in some theatres.
On September 7 they release another movie in 50 theatres, once again blocking your movie from many provincial screens. On September 14 they release another movie which takes away your evening screenings at your two strongest venues, Glorietta and Trinoma.
But three weeks after opening, your movie is still in theatres. Zombadings is showing at 30 cinemas and screening to full houses in Glorietta.
You’re so tired all you want to do is sleep.