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No happy endings for cinemas amid coronavirus pandemic

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

KURT ADRIAN M. DE LA PEÑA, 21, visited small cinema theaters that showcased independent films before a global coronavirus pandemic forced movie houses to shut down.

He had to turn to over-the-top content platforms to satisfy his yearning for alternative titles made by filmmakers who seek to inspire change through their masterpieces.

BW Bullseye 2020-focus“It was really hard for me to accept that I could no longer watch films inside microcinemas due to the pandemic,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “The experience cannot be compared to online film viewing experience.”

The global film industry has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cinemas and movie theaters were shuttered, festivals were canceled and a number of film releases got delayed after film productions were halted.

The global box office has dropped by billions of dollars, while streaming platforms such as Netflix becomes more popular.

Cinema ’76, a small film-viewing business with a seating capacity of 60 people, was one of the local enterprises badly hit by the health crisis.

What used to be a zestful space for film enthusiasts along Luna Mencia Street in San Juan City is now empty amid the pandemic, complicating the industry’s decline due to the advent of online streaming platforms.

“Like all other nonessential businesses, Cinema ’76 was forced to shut down when the pandemic hit the Philippines,” Carlos Villa-Abrille, senior vice-president at Cinema ’76 Film Society, said in an e-mail.

“With the rapid spread of COVID-19, management foresaw a prolonged lockdown but did not expect cinemas to be shuttered for an entire year,” he added.

As one of the world’s longest and toughest lockdowns dragged on, operators of microcinemas had to find ways to keep themselves afloat. For them, the show must go on.

The coronavirus has forced a number of companies to go digital. With more demand for content coming from the stay-at-home population, operators of small theaters were forced to use alternative platforms for film distribution and exhibition.

The pandemic allowed enterprises to find creative ways to keep operating.

In November, Cinema ’76 launched Cinema ’76@Home, its movie-on-demand platform that streams a broad array of titles including indie films.

The platform “allows us to continue bringing great content to our audience,” Mr. Villa-Abrille said.

The government has moved the reopening of movie houses in Metro Manila to March 1 from Feb. 15 after mayors who warned of coronavirus risks opposed the plan.

Cinemas might be allowed to reopen next month subject to the approval of local governments, Presidential Spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. said this month.

While the pandemic prevents studios from holding in-person film viewing, Cinema ’76 embraces digital transformation to cope with income loss, Mr. Villa-Abrille said.

Some microcinema operators were forced to close their physical studios. Cinema Centenario, an alternative theater, in October said it was shutting its studio along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City.

“Safety and sustainability were important factors in our decision,” Hector B. Calma, the studio’s founder and owner, said in a Facebook statement. “Even if cinemas were permitted to open again, it won’t work with our situation. The safety concerns brought on by this pandemic is no joke.”

Cinema Centenario, which started in 2017 was known for hosting screenings for mainstream and local Indie titles, as well as international films such as the award-winning Korean film Parasite (2019).

Shortly after shutting its small studio, the company launched a premium video-on-demand platform called MOOV.

During the lockdown, a cinematheque accommodating as many as 40 people along San Rafael Street in Mandaluyong City also had to close.

Angelo A. Santos, owner of Black Maria Cinema, said they had converted the cinema into a mixed-use venue months before the shutdown.

The studio might no longer hold film exhibitions in the future because “there’s just too much liability when dealing with the public,” he said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Film consumption has also shifted heavily online.”

“A lot of the microcinemas have transitioned to becoming streaming platforms,” Mary Liza B. Diño-Seguerra, who heads the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), said via Zoom Meetings app.

The council helps these small cinemas by referring them to film producers who might be interested to have their content streamed. Ms. Diño-Seguerra said micro cinemas, just like big studios, should be able to adapt to changing times and “capitalize on the growing demand for online streaming.”

The council owns four cinematheques in Manila, Baguio, Iloilo and Davao, which had been hosting film festivals and other screenings. Their closure allowed the film agency to set up its own online channel, which showed 90 full-length features during a Filipino film festival last year.

“If our microcinemas are interested in creating their own virtual cinematheques inside the FDCP channel, we would be happy to accommodate them,” Ms. Diño-Seguerra said.

The national film agency, along with other government agencies, is studying the “valuation” of online streaming platforms in the country, Ms. Diño-Seguerra said.

The House committee on ways on means last year approved a bill seeking to impose value-added tax on digital transactions in the Philippines, including lessors and distributors of films. The tax is equivalent to 12% of gross receipts from the sale or exchange of online services.

Cinema ’76 has been planning for the eventual reopening of their studios, Mr. Villa-Abrille said.

“The cinema business will return to form, although the timeline will depend on how the vaccine is procured and distributed to Filipinos,” he said. “People miss going to the movies.”

The Philippines is set to roll out its immunization drive against the coronavirus this month, with as many as 70 million Filipinos expected to be vaccinated by yearend.

“We expect to return with a renewed sense of purpose where safety comes first,” Mr. Villa-Abrille said.

Ms. Diño-Seguerra said their priority is to come up with clear safety protocols not just for cinema operators but also for moviegoers. “There has to be a campaign on gaining back their confidence on how they can safely watch films inside theaters.”

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