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The first ‘indies’

Indies or independent (non-major studio-financed) movies are the rage and the local film scene’s “saving factor.” But it would do us good to realize that the indie film “fever” is not just of current or recent coinage.

In fact, most of the country’s first movie producers started out as makers of “indie” films. If you look at the list of Filipino production companies through the years, most of them folded up after only a film or three. Nepomuceno Productions, LVN, Sampaguita, Lebran and Premiere are the few exceptions to that desultory rule.

‘The Big Four’

After the most successful survivors formed “The Big Four” in the 1950s, however, local movie production became a mainstream studio affair, with the most popular companies making 20 or even 30 feature films each annually.

Around the ’60s, however, the country’s biggest movie stars experienced a belated mental and psychological epiphany: They realized that Filipino films were big hits at the box office, partly or even principally because they were starring in them.

If their stellar presence resulted in huge grosses at the tills, they wanted a bigger share of the action—and profits. So some of them eventually decided to produce their own movies, mostly starring themselves.

Before that, however, a few businessmen tried to produce their own movies outside of the heavily entrenched and institutionalized studio system. They had money and the desire to succeed, but most of the big stars were under contract to the Big Four studios, so they didn’t have the crowd-drawing names they needed for box-office “insurance.” What to do?

They zeroed in on stars whose contracts were about to expire, and offered them double or even triple what the studios were paying them. Then they teamed them up with the new faces they were launching for their own stables of stars, and the enticing mix of tested and popular veteran stars and new discoveries clicked with the fans.

A key production that illustrates the daring and successful entry of some of the country’s first indies is the then spanking-new Tagalog Ilang-Ilang Productions’ drama-action film, “Mga Tigreng Taga-Bukid.”

Its audacious combination of popular stars and new talents, coupled with interesting innovations and departures from the filmmaking norm (like a purposely rough instead of studio-glossy look, and action stars singing aside from just feuding and fighting) made the film a big hit—and portent of even more innovative indie productions to come.

In time, Tagalog Ilang-Ilang lost its indie spirit and became a mainstream studio in its own right, producing a string of Tony Ferrer and Vilma Santos starrers. But for a few years, it did shake up the industry.

Stars-turned-producers

So did the movies bankrolled by the first stars-turned-producers, the list of whom includes most of the industry’s biggest names.

The seminal example in this regard is Emar Pictures’ “Geron Busabos,” starring Joseph Estrada, written by Augusto Buenaventura and directed by Cesar “Chat” Gallardo.

Other pioneering indies include Ishmael Bernal’s “Pagdating sa Dulo,” which was financed by the then new filmmaker’s friends and other people who believed in his emerging talent; Lino Brocka’s “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang,” which was similarly funded, and the early films of Mike de Leon, the most indie-spirited filmmaker of them all—who, ironically enough, is a grandson of LVN Studios’ pioneering matriarch, Doña Sisang de Leon.

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