Friday, 29 January 2010

SM’s no-R-18 movies rule: How a mall changed the movie industry

JEFFREY O. VALISNO, Senior Reporter

The American war drama Inglourious Basterds starring Hollywood hotshot Brad Pitt has received critical acclaim since it debuted during the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in France last year. It went on to collect numerous accolades elsewhere in the world, including its win as Best Ensemble in last week’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.

While cinema audiences around the globe had the chance to watch the movie directed by maverick filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, loyal patrons of SM Cinemas in the country have no choice but to wait for the film’s release on DVD (or, if unwilling to wait for the legal version, look for a pirated DVD) and watch it in their homes instead.

Inglourious Basterds received an R-18 rating from the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) for its public screening in the country last December, reportedly for its violent content. An R-18 rating means that the movie is for adults only, and individuals under the legal age will not be allowed admission to cinemas to watch the movie.

Since 2002, it has been the policy of SM Cinemas not to screen movies classified by the MTRCB as R-18. So, despite critical acclaim and the clamor of Mr. Pitt’s local fans, Inglourious Basterds was shut out of all the 210 SM Cinemas nationwide.
The movie was later shown exclusively in Robinsons Movieworld cineplexes.

Sexless and the city

While many religious and women’s groups laud SM Cinema’s efforts to promote wholesome entertainment, there are also those who complain that the policy stifles creativity and artistic freedom in the movie industry.

With the SM Group controlling a third of all the 647 cinema screens nationwide, the movie industry is invariably affected by its policies. More importantly, since SM contributes more than half of the total gross revenues of the entire cinema industry in the country, movie producers will most likely pay attention to the company’s rules.

Edgar C. Tejerero, senior vice-president of West Avenue Theatres Corp. -- operator of SM Cinemas in the country -- said they do not show R-18 movies as part of the business principle of the Sy Family to offer wholesome and family-oriented entertainment.

"We don’t classify whether is its R-18 based on violence, or sexual topic or sexual content content, or even the gory type. It is a blanket statement that we will only feature wholesome movies," Mr. Tejerero told BusinessWorld in an interview.

He said the rule extends to movie trailers as well. He said SM Cinemas do not screen trailers of R-18 movies, especially during the screenings of movies for General Patronage (GP -- a rating which means all ages can be admitted) when children are allowed to watch.

SM Cinema’s decision not to screen R-18 movies has earned them critics who claim the rule impinges on people’s freedom to watch the movies they want.

For instance, many complained when multiple scenes were cut out of the 2008 comedy Sex and The City to enable the film to get an R-13 (only audience members 13 years old and above can watch the movie) rating from the MTRCB. The movie reportedly initially received an R-18 rating from the ratings board. Since the distributors prefered that the film be screened in SM Cinemas, some scenes that were found to be "too sexy" were deleted from the final version for public screening.

Mr. Tejerero said SM Cinemas received numerous complaints from people who said that the cuts eventually diluted the story of the movie. "While I am amazed on how it was connected to us, we never influence the cutting of the scenes," he said.

Mr. Tejerero explained distributors can always chose not to have cuts, and show the movie elsewhere. "We didn’t force the issue of cutting the film, we just simply expressed our principle that we will not show R-18 movies. If by management, or by commercial terms, [film’s producers] will see it fit to have [their movie shown] in SM, then it is voluntary act to do such cuts. We don’t have a hand on those cuts, it is a voluntary act on the part of the [people behind the film’s production]," he said.

Affecting producer’s behavior

Noted scriptwriter Ricky Lee said it is "unfortunate" that SM’s rule is affecting how the movie industry behaves.

"The industry should be able to do what it wants, without external pressure, especially from a corporate giant like SM. It is unfortunate that it seems that we have no choice but to follow their rules, or suffer in the box-office," Mr. Lee told BusinessWorld in an interview.

Mr. Lee said he already personally experienced the effects of the rule against R-18 movies.

"I cannot do a script that I know that producers will just reject knowing that it will get an R-18 rating from the MTRCB," he said. "There are many instances like that as well for other writers. It [the rule] really affects us," he said.

He noted that most of his award-winning scripts made during the 1970s and the 1980s like Himala and Insiang would likely have perished due to weak box-office revenues if they were released under the SM rule. "Imagine, if we had that rule before, producers might not even [have] considered doing those movies," he said.
Veteran producer Lily Y. Monteverde, the brains behind major production studio Regal Films, said producers have no choice but to toe the line, or suffer the consequences.
"No producer, unless he is crazy, will not worry about the box-office," Ms. Monteverde told BusinessWorld in an interview. "If hindi ka maipalabas sa SM, lagot ka na. [If your movie cannot be shown in SM, then your dead-meat]," she added.

Prior to the SM rule against R-18 movies, Regal Films started producing what the industry termed as "pito-pito" movies. The movies were done on a limited budget, and reportedly shot in just seven days or less to cut down costs. Regal Films began doing "pito-pito" movies during the late 1990s when the film industry started suffering from dwindling cinema ticket sales, and rampant film piracy.

Some of the movies, like Jeffrey Jeturian’s Pila Balde (1999) and Tuhog (2001) won multiple awards both here and abroad.

Most of Regal’s "pito-pito" movies were rated R-18.'

"I will not be able to do those movies anymore because it will be difficult [if they can]not to be shown in SM," Ms. Monteverde said.

Movie producer and distributor Wilson Tieng shares the same sentiment. "SM is the top dog. Everybody has no choice but to follow," Mr. Tieng told BusinessWorld in an interview.

Its their right

MTRCB chief legal counsel Attorney Jonathan S. Presquito said SM’s rule against R-18 movies is its "proprietary right."

"SM has all the right to implement the rule within its premises. It does not violate any rule of the MTRCB," Mr. Presquito told BusinessWorld in a telephone interview.
Mr. Presquito noted that since SM implemented the rule in 2002, there has been a steady decline in the number of R-18 movies that have been classified by the MTRCB.
"While I don’t have exact figures now, I can say that all major film producers did not have an R-18 rated movie as of last year," he said.

He said most of the movies that have been classified by the MTRCB as R-18 are independent movies which eventually get public screenings in stand-alone cinemas, the University of the Philippines Film Center, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, various embassies, and in Robinsons Indiesine (a theater located at Robinsons Galleria in the Ortigas Center that is dedicated to independently produced movies.)
Mr. Presquito said when producers apply for rating from the MTRCB, they usually request for a rating below R-18, to enable them to be shown in SM Cinemas.

"As you see, it is really a market matter. Only few can watch R-18 movies. Many people, including the children, can watch a GP movie. That’s why producers pray for that rating," he said.

He explained that if a producer, or a movie distributor insists on getting a GP rating despite some objectionable scenes, the MTRCB recommends cutting out the scenes.

"We do not impose the cuts. We do not want to cut movies. If we can give the rating that the producers prefer, we give it to them. But we have to understand that we have to implement the law. If it is really an R-18 movie, we have to give that rating," he said.

Mr. Presquito said those who complain about MTRCB’s "conservative" stance should lobby in Congress to amend the law mandating the board to classify movies and TV programs. "But at this point, for as long as the law remains, the MTRCB will implement the law as presently worded," he said.

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