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The History of Philippine Cinema

Updated on September 21, 2018

The 2011 GMA Films thriller, The Road, was the first all-Filipino film in many years to be commercially released in North America. The movie ran in more than 50 American and Canadian theaters in May 2012, released through Hollywood-based Freestyle Releasing. The film is subtitled in English, with the original Tagalog soundtrack.

The film starred Carmina Villaroel, Rhian Ramos and TJ Trinidad and was directed by the internationally acclaimed Yam Laranas. The producers, cast and director attended the premiere at the Mann Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on May 9.

The Road may be the first Philippine movie to come to the attention of today's Americans, but it's just one of some 8,000 films produced on the Philippine Islands since 1919. Filipinos have been watching movies since the late nineteenth century.

Early Years of Philippine Cinema

Films were first shown in the Philippine Islands in 1897 during the revolt against Spain, when two Swiss businessmen sponsored the opening of the Cinematografo in Manila. From this, the word “cine” became slang for the movies.

The Cinematografo showed documentaries brought in from the U.S. and Europe, and closed after just a few months because the owners were unable to import enough movies. At the turn of the century, cinema struggled to compete with the dominant entertainment form, the sarswela, a Spanish dramatic genre juxtaposing spoken and sung scenes.

Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898 through the Treaty of Paris. U.S. forces spent the next three years quelling the revolution. Two movie theaters opened in Manila, in 1900 and 1901. They showed silent documentaries, the only fare being made at the time.

Named for national hero Dr. José Rizal, (1861-1896), who helped spur the Philippine Revolution, the Cinematografo Rizal opened in Manila in 1903. It was the first movie theater owned by a Filipino. Cinematografo Filipino opened sometime later in Tondo, helping to establish movies as an important element in Philippine culture.

Films started to change from documentaries to entertainment in 1909. Film distribution agencies were established in Manila to import these kinds of movies from Hollywood. Movie houses soon dotted Manila. Local films were successful as well.

The first locally produced film is thought to be La Vida de Rizal, a story about José Rizal. A second film about Rizal, La Pasion Y Muerte de Dr. Rizal, was hurriedly produced by rivals, opening the same day. Produced by foreigners, both films employed sarswela troupes acting out the parts.

The father of Philippine cinema, José Nepomuceno (1893-1959), was a successful photographer before switching to movies. He opened a production company called Malayan Movies in 1917. Nepomuceno released the first Filipino-produced film, Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden), starring Atang de la Rama (1905-1991), in 1919.

Released in 1930, Nepomuceno's masterpiece was Noli Me Tangere (The Social Cancer), based on José Rizal's Spanish-language novel of the same name. Rizal's story is credited with spurring a sense of nationalism among Filipinos of the day.

The American film Syncopation was the first “talkie” shown in the Philippines. The first locally produced film with sound, Ang Aswang (The Vampire) wasn't completely a sound film. That honor went to Punyal na Guinto (Golden Dagger), directed by José Nepomuceno, which premiered on March 9, 1933 at the Lyric Theater in Manila.

The Philippine Studio System

Philippine studios emerged in the period 1934 to 1941, producing several pictures simultaneously in the manner of Hollywood studios. The first internationally known Philippine film was Zamboanga, starring Fernando Poe, Sr. (1916-1951) and Rosa del Rosario (1916-2005). Most stars during this time were mestizos, i.e., Filipinos with mixed foreign blood or Caucasian features.

The Road to the Presidency

Just as Ronald Reagan made the transition from Hollywood to the White House, Joseph Estrada used his success as an actor to become president of the Philippines. Born Joseph Ejercito in Manila on April 19, 1937, he abandoned his studies at the Mapua Institute of Technology to become an actor, appearing in more than 100 movies and producing some 75 more. He used the name Erap Estrada because his parents forbade him to act using the family name.

Estrada was mayor of the Manila suburb of San Juan from 1968 to 1986, was elected to the Senate in 1969, and became president in 1998. Scandal ended his presidency in 2001. Unfazed, he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2010.

With World War II raging, the 1940s brought an awareness of violence and conflict to Philippine films. The Japanese occupation brought an end to filmmaking until the occupiers revived the industry for propaganda purposes. They brought Japanese films to the Islands, but the locals didn't take to them. The paucity of locally produced films drove Filipinos to live theater productions, which often relied on the talents of underutilized movie actors, directors and technicians. The Japanese appear to have produced two Filipino films during the occupation. Both were produced by Toho Films. Tatlong Maria was a romance starring Carmen Rosales (1918-1991). Dawn of Freedom was a propaganda film.

The war ended in 1945 and the Philippines became a free republic in 1946. With the Philippine film business essentially dormant due to the war, Hollywood studios initially dominated the market.

Four major Philippine film companies emerged after the war. These were LVN Pictures, Sampaguita Pictures, Premiere Productions and Lebran International. LVN specialized in comedy, Sampaguita in melodrama and Premiere in action movies.

All-Time Top Ten Philippine Films

Philippine Pesos (m)
The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin
It Takes a Man and a Woman
No Other Woman
The Mistress
This Guy's in Love with U Mare!
You Changed My Life
A Very Special Love
ÜnOfficially Yours
One More Chance
My Amnesia Girl
Source: Wikipedia

Post-war Philippine films featured raw emotion, patriotism and heroism. War films released in 1946 included Garrison 13, Dugo at Bayan (The Country's Blood), Walang Kamatayan (Deathless) and Guerilyera. The first acclaimed post-war film was Orasang Ginto (LVN), directed by Manuel Conde (1915-1985). War films celebrated resistance movements and also showed the relationship of friendship with the United States. Gerardo de Leon (1913-1981) directed a different kind of film, So Long America (1946), dealing with the Filipinos' independence from the United States.

In the 1950s, the big four studios produced about 350 films per year. These played in just two Manila locations, the Dalisay Theater and Life Theater, while Hollywood fare was shown everywhere else. The big four controlled the industry, each employing its own stars, directors and staff.

The first full-color Philippine film was Prinsipe Amante (1951), directed by Lamberto V. Avellana and based on the komik (comic) of the same name. A bumper crop of movies helped deal with the dearth of films from the war years. Films in the years immediately following the war often dealt in fantasy and adventure, giving way to a variety of other genres later in the 1950s, including adaptations of Filipino komiks. Many 1950s Philippine films dealt with the war.

Philippine movies developed high artistic values in the 1950s. This put the industry in the international spotlight, with Manuel Conde's Genghis Kahn (1952) competing at the Venice International Film Festival. Leroy Salvador won awards for best supporting actor at the 1953 Asia-Pacific Film Festival for the film Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay and at the 1960 Asian Film Festival for Biyaya ng Lupa. These and other honors established the Philippines as an important Asian filmmaking center.

"The Road" on Home Video

Bomba Films and the Failure of the Studios

The 1960s opened with some strong productions, notably Huwag mo Akong Limutin (Gerardo de Leon, 1960) and Kadenang Putik (Conrado Conde and Cesar Gallardo, 1960), both films dealing with infidelity. Unfortunately, the major studios crashed and burned, primarily due to labor issues. Lebran closed first, and then Premiere. LVN and Sampaguita were next. Independents replaced the old studios, and contract players started to go on their own.

A multitude of small studios now populated Philippine cinema, many producing bomba (erotic) films. These were inspired by Bomba Komiks, adult-oriented comics featuring nudity and sex, whose popularity peaked in the years 1967 to 1972. The first bomba film appears to have been Uhaw (Thirst) (1970), starring Merle Fernandez. Other bomba stars included Rossana Ortiz, Ryzza and Yvonne. This first generation of bomba actors tended to possess mestiza (mixed race) features such as fair skin and sharp nose.

President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and Bomba Komiks were suppressed. Bomba movies disappeared and were replaced by softer “bold” films, frequently produced as "art films" with financial assistance from the government. Movies often featured “the wet look” of females bathing or swimming in flimsy suits. Former Miss Universe Gloria Diaz was often seen in these movies. Actor Ernie Garcia became the “bold king” of Philippine cinema. Bomba movies returned when martial law was lifted in 1981. By this time, the players had more Filipina features: brown skin, straight hair and a slender face.

The 1970s marked the debuts of three important directors: Ishmael Bernal (1938-1996), Lino Brocka (1939-1991) and Mike de Leon (b. 1947). Bernal's debut as a director was Pagdating sa Dulo (1971). Brocka made Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in 1974 and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1976. Mike de Leon's first major work, Itim (1976), explored guilt and violence. De Leon looked at topics such as violence, labor issues and incest in his 1980s films.

Overall, about two-thirds of films produced in the Philippines between 1978 and 1982 were action films, with dramas accounting for just less than one-third and comedies constituting around 20 percent of productions.

Radical filmmakers during Marcos' reign criticized the Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement) and First Lady Imelda Marcos' plan to shield poverty-stricken parts of Manila from the eyes of foreigners. Notable films of this period, the second golden age of Philippine cinema, include Brocka's Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Insiang (1976), and Ishmael Bernal's Manila by Night (1980). Brocka documented atrocities committed by the Aquino administration in Orapronobisi (1987).

Modern Philippine Cinema

The new millennium witnessed a marked decline in the Philippine industry. Hollywood dominated local screens, with no more than a few dozen local movies produced each year. At the same time, the rise of the digital medium enabled independent filmmakers to enter the field. Jon Red's Still Lives (1999) led the way, and brother Raymond Red's short film Anino (Shadows) won the Palme d'Or the following year at the Cannes Film Festival. Outside of independent releases, action films declined, with formulaic romantic comedies dominating the mainstream.

The early 2000s were notable for the release of several inspirational films, such as the Gil Portes 2002 film, Mga Munting Tinig (Small Voices). Mark Meily made the comedy, Crying Ladies, in 2003, and Maryo J. de los Reyes released Magnifico the same year.

Popular foreign films concentrated on sex and violence. These included spaghetti westerns, spy movies, Asian martial arts films and provocative European fare. Local producers observed this and made movies with similar elements. Action films formed the most successful movie genre in the '70s, led by directors Fernando Poe, Jr., Ramon Revilla (b. 1927) and Joseph Estrada (b. 1937). Local movies in this period often displayed poor artistic values along with guns and cleavage.

From the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Filipino films were mass-produced and had unimaginative, predictable story lines. The acting tended to be uninspired over overplayed. Output centered on teen fare, massacres and soft pornography. Nevertheless, the industry was healthy, producing around 200 films annually. Several factors, such as the Asian financial crisis, high taxes, film piracy and competition from cable television, encouraged producers to skimp on film budgets. Most were pito-pito (seven-seven) films, produced in two weeks or less.

New laws gave more rights to women. The 1980s saw the entry of two notable female directors. Marilou Diaz Abaya made Brutal in 1980; Laurice Guillen directed Salome in 1981.

Filipino films have made strong showings at international film festivals in recent years. Brillante Mendoza's Serbis (Service) competed at Cannes for the Palme d'Or in 2008. The same year, about 40 Filipino films were featured at the Festival Paris Cinema. Mendoza was named Best Director at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for Kinatay (Butchered).

The first full-length animated Filipino film, Urduja, premiered in 2008. Another animated feature, Dayo: Sa Mundo ng Elementalia, was entered in the 2008 Metro Manila Film Festival.

A February 2012 government study indicated that piracy and competition from foreign films had caused a marked decline in the Philippine movie industry. Independent films were the one bright spot in the local industry, accounting for half the films being produced.

A 30-percent tax on gross revenues was instituted in the 1990s. This, combined with a 12-percent value-added tax, seems to have taken the life out of the local film business. The revenue tax was reduced to 10 percent in 2009.

The Philippines produced an average of about 140 movies per year from 1960 to 1999, for about 20 percent of the local market. Local film output fell to about half of that figure, some 73 per year, from 2000 to 2009, comprising about 11 percent of the local market. The Philippine film industry released 78 films in 2011, typically romantic comedies that didn't require big budgets.

Independent filmmakers produced 45 films in 2010 and 44 in 2011, according to the report. Independent directors, such as Brillante Mendoza, Pepe Diokno and Jim Libiran, have won awards at major foreign film festivals, but independent films tend not to do well at the box office because they usually address serious issues.

The National Film Archive of the Philippines

In late 2011, the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), a federal office, announced the establishment of the National Film Archive of the Philippines. An interim clearinghouse has been opened in Ortigas, with climate control to protect its precious contents. A permanent facility is being built in Cubao. It is thought that only about 3,000 of the 8,000 films made by Filipinos still exist.

The FDCP plans to open several cinematheques—archives incorporating small cinemas—with a pilot location at Casa Vallejo in Baguio City. Three others are planned, in Davao, Iloilo and Marawi.

A Very Special Love

Directed by Cathy Garcia Molina, the romantic comedy A Very Special Love was produced by Star Cinema and Viva Films. Released in 2008, the film starred John Lloyd Cruz and Sarah Geronimo. The hit film spawned two sequels with the same stars: You Changed My Life (2009) and It Takes a Man and a Woman (2013).

Long lines formed in Manila for the opening of It Takes a Man and a Woman on March 30, 2013. Released in Tagalog and English, the film opened just weeks later in the United States.

Related Hub

The Philippine Revolution: The first anti-colonial independence movement in Asia, the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1902 ended almost 350 years of Spanish rule.


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    • giocatore profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      All my information came from internet searches. I'm sorry I can't recall the exact sources, but if you spend some time searching, you will find what you seek. I used a number of sources, and added some material over time as I found new information. I hope this helps.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Hi! :) I was just going to ask what sources you used in writing this. We're researching this topic in school and I found what you wrote as something helpful so I was wondering if maybe you could suggest other readings related to this topic? Maybe on the history of Philippine movies, and romantic comedies in particular.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Its scary but I should have not watched it because I don't want to drive by myself at night anymore... lol

    • giocatore profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks for your comments. This looks like a great movie, but I'm not a horror fan, unfortunately. Perhaps this will open the doors to more Filipino films in the U.S.

    • precy anza profile image

      precy anza 

      6 years ago from USA

      Wow! Feels proud for this movie :) I haven't even seen it yet but just seeing the trailer it looks good. Since this is a horror film, I just had wished somehow that the other Philippine horror movie "Aswang" (pertains to the folklore, the aswang creatures/people) could be another good one too. ^-^'Voted up!


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