Out of Print

Cinema Paradiso

by Emil Hofileña
Photos courtesy of TBA Studios and Cinema ‘76
TBA Studios president Vincent Nebrida on Cinema ’76 Film Society, memories of movie theaters, and the intimacy of the Filipino film community.

Cinema is in a weird place right now. As film studios and distributors continue embracing streaming platforms and the instant access they provide global audiences, physical theaters face an uncertain future. Every move made by industry giants seems to crack whatever thin ice movie houses and microcinemas are still standing on. In April of this year, the unexpected success of Trolls World Tour on VOD almost started an industry civil war. Earlier in December, Warner Bros.’ controversial decision to stream its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max has caused seismic shifts in the ways that Hollywood might choose to sell their tentpole features.

The jury’s still out on how the Filipino film industry is going to be changed by these pandemic-motivated changes, but it’s already experienced its fair share of casualties. Entire productions have been cancelled or put on hold, Quezon City microcinema Cinema Centenario has had to close up shop and move online, and the major theater chains of SM and the Ayala Malls have had to put up with much lower attendance than usual.

“Who would’ve thought, a year ago, that this would happen?” says Vincent Nebrida, president of TBA Studios and co-founder of the studio’s own microcinema, Cinema ’76 Film Society. “Who’d have thought na it would come to this kind of an era, na there would be less need for those big screens?”

Nebrida still chooses to see this “shrinking” of the industry as an opportunity for positive development. But as we talk over a voice call, even he acknowledges that something precious has gone missing: the ritual of going out with other people and inhabiting the same space together.

It’s understandable why Nebrida feels nostalgic about physical cinemas and sharing space with others. His whole journey with film has been incredibly intimate—the friends he started out with led him straight to TBA, and his memories of going to cinemas with his family and his classmates live on during Cinema ‘76’s audience events. Nearly every experience he recounts is bound to a specific place—a day spent watching Jaws at Cubao’s Remar Theater; interning for Mike de Leon at San Miguel, Bulacan; unknowingly crossing paths with his future colleagues at the very first Gawad Urian ceremony. Even with the state of the industry up in the air, when I ask him what he’d like to do when cinemas reopen, he thinks on an intimate level: he wishes he could watch something with his nephews, nieces, and grandchildren—a Marvel movie, perhaps, or a James Bond film.

“You can’t plan on how things are gonna turn out given this pandemic,” Nebrida says. “The fact is, you just have to somehow work around it and turn it to your favor. All we can do is to work towards building or rebuilding what we all have as a moviegoing community.” And at the moment, the local industry does seem to be adjusting. More and more Filipino movies are finding new audiences through online channels, while film festivals settle into a comfortable (if imperfect) digital ticketing system. And somehow during this pandemic, a new microcinema—Sine Pop!, located in Cubao—has quietly started holding very limited screenings.

As for TBA and Cinema ’76, Nebrida assures me that they are forging ahead despite everything. They’ve been releasing full movies on YouTube, hosting screenings on their own online platform (Cinema ’76 @ Home), and—against all odds—continuing production on their films, slowly but surely. “We will continue to be around,” he promises.

The following interview was conducted over Google Meet and has been edited for publication.

The pandemic has taken away something so essential in film and to a larger extent, our culture: the experience of movie-going. For Vincent Nebrida, he says that going to the cinemas laid the foundations of his love for film. “It’s heartbreaking that people don’t go to theaters anymore,” he says.

Emil Hofileña: I wanted to start by going all the way to the beginning of your own relationship with film. How did you first become interested in movies?
Vincent Nebrida: Well, this goes back to the ‘70s, when I was still in school—I think my late years in high school, and college. I would say two directors, basically, made me want to be in the film business, or made me want to have a career in film. Number one is Lino Brocka. When I saw Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, that was a life-changing experience. And then on the commercial level naman, ‘yung Jaws ni Steven Spielberg. My god, when I saw that in the morning, I stayed in the cinema till the last showing. So bumili na ako ng popcorn and whatever. I watched that film alone. But I was so in awe of that experience. How was this director able to do this movie? Grabe ‘yung suspense and everything. I had to watch it over and over. Because the first time I sat through it, siguro I saw only maybe one-third of it because I was covering my eyes. I could barely see it.

I majored in Humanities. Nakakatuwa because I did not really major in Comm Arts or Mass Communication sa Ateneo, but I majored in Humanities and left open the door. And of course, my parents said, “Nako, magtititser ka lang.Sabi ko, “Bakit titser lang? That’s a great thing kung maging titser ako.” But deep down, sabi ko gusto ko rin sa pelikula talaga.

Well, blessing of all blessings, si Father Alberto Ampil—who’s still alive, by the way, at age 90—he became my mentor in school. And upon graduation, because we always talked about films, sabi niya, “Ting, alam mo ‘tong si Mike de Leon, former student ko ‘yon. Naghahanap ng intern, ng apprentice for his new film.” Tapos ako naman, walang kamuang-muang, sabi ko, “Father, sino po si Mike de Leon?” [Laughs] Tapos sabi niya he is the son of sina Doña Sisang, he’s the owner of LVN [Pictures]. Of course, I knew about LVN, so—“Ah, ganun ba, Father?” Sabi niya, “Sige, subukan mo! I will recommend you,” and all that.

I went in for an interview with Mike, and immediately after the interview—wala pang 30 minutes—sabi niya, “When can you start?” Sabi ko, oh boy, this is really good—and this was siguro within a month or two after graduation. Sabi niya, “I will need you to stay sa San Miguel, Bulacan. Are you open to that? Kasi doon ang shoot.” Sabi ko, “Yes, magpapaalam lang ako sa parents ko but it should be fine.” Ayon, and that started it, basically. My life in film was started by that, so I consider it all providential, back in 1976.

Since you eventually co-founded a physical cinema space, do you have any fond memories of specific movie houses and physical cinemas?
Yes, I do have very fond memories, and it’s heartbreaking that people don’t go to theaters anymore. Because even when I was in that age na I was discovering for myself all these films—nung bata kami, my father, may he rest in peace, used to take us to the movies every Sunday. I recall pa rin… Nakakatawa because I recall those years but I cannot recall what happened last week. [Laughs] When I was siguro four or five years old, he took us to a film called Francis of Assisi, and this was in Makati, Rizal Theater. So this was in the early ‘60s, napanood ko ‘yon. And then of course, one of the highlights of my moviegoing experience, siguro nung 1965, we all went together as a family sa Ever Theater [in Manila] to watch The Sound of Music, which played for almost a year at that single theater. Kasi noon, wala pang iba-ibang theater. It just played there forever.

Ang fond memories ko noong high school and college, pupunta ako kasamang barkada ko. Before Cubao even started—ang unang-unang theater sa Cubao was Ali Mall, and that was in the early ‘70s na—we would take a jeepney or bus papuntang Avenida Rizal, and ayun, sunud-sunod ang mga sinehan doon. ‘Yung Ideal Theater, Ever, Galaxy, Odeon, oh my god. And of course andami kong napanood na pelikula ro’n. Mga James Bond series, Odeon lahat ‘yon, exclusive.

Tsaka iba ‘yung ano e—the sense of a communal experience of watching it with a crowd. Like when I watched Jaws, my god, everyone was gasping. Now, of course, almost everyone I know watches in the confines of their homes, especially given these pandemic times. Okay rin siya! But the sense of a communal experience is gone. Iba na ‘yung pumalit. [But] I do have fond memories. Sa Cubao, of course sa Ali Mall. ‘Yung Tinimbang, I watched na nga sa Cubao, sa Coronet Theater. Jaws, I saw probably at Remar.

So from those casual experiences with film, and after working for Mike de Leon, how did you come to work at TBA Studios?
Okay, again, providential. Interestingly—who wrote Itim, [de Leon’s] first movie? The writers then were Clodualdo “Doy” del Mundo and his brother-in-law, Gil Quito. Naging friends ko sila pareho. I lived in the US from 1980 through 2012. I came back here 2013. Of course, pabalik-balik ako, but basically, professionally, I lived in the US for that long. Ang naging best friend ko sa US si Gil Quito.

Back in 2013 or 2014, when wala pang TBA no’n, itong anak ni Doy del Mundo, si Ida del Mundo, was chosen sa Cinemalaya. And ‘yung film niya, ‘yung script na gagawin niya, was called K’na the Dreamweaver. And guess who were the executive producers of that film? [TBA Studios founders] Ed Rocha and sir Nando Ortigas, whom I did not know previously. Although kami ni Ed, we both attended the same Urian Awards, which was the very first year of Urian back in 1976 or ’77—because it was such a golden year, andaming magagandang film. Ed was a nominee for Best Supporting Actor for Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon ni Eddie Romero. And ako naman, naging good friend ko nga ‘yung mga Urian because one of them was ‘yung pinaka-stills photographer ng Itim, si Cesar Hernando—who already passed away a few years ago—and his brother Mario Hernando.

So one thing led to another—kaya ko ikinikwento. Because what led me to TBA was Doy del Mundo, who I met in 1976 sa set ng Itim. And he was the one who called me and said, “Ting, punta ka nga dito, manood ka ng preview ng K’na the Dreamweaver, itong unang pelikula ni Ida.” “Oo sige,sabi ko, “I’ll watch it,” kasi he wanted my comments, my thoughts on it. I went to see it and then in-introduce niya sa akin si Ed and sir Nando. And of course, they were the co-founders—silang dalawa lang naman talaga ang nagpaumpisa ng TBA. And so when they did K’na the Dreamweaver, wala pang TBA no’n, but it was formed na nga. I started as a consultant, and before we knew it—I think their second film was also that same year, ‘yung Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo—ayun na ‘yon, I became part of it. And thanks to Doy, thanks to the Lord—si Father Bert Ampil started it all with Itim. And knock wood, but so far so good naman ang TBA.

Isa ring model is ‘yung sa Film Society of Lincoln Center,” says Vicent Nebrida of  the vision for Cinema ‘76. “They also had a small cinema which was dedicated to arthouse fare, and also to films that could not have a longer run sa mga commercial movie houses.”

How did TBA come to the decision to start Cinema ’76?
I told them about my experience living in New York City and how we had theaters like Bleecker Street Cinema and Carnegie Hall Cinema, na maliliit lang na mga 150–200-seater. But ‘yung mga sinehan na ‘yon, that’s where the arthouse films would go, or they would be the move-over theaters ng mga pelikulang natanggal na sa mga major screens. Isa ring model is ‘yung sa Film Society of Lincoln Center, because they also had a small cinema which was dedicated to arthouse fare, and also to films that could not have a longer run sa mga commercial movie houses. And we all shared the same feeling, kasi nga we wanted to support these like-minded films—parang TBA ang gumawa, pero walang kapupuntahan. So that’s how it started. And the reason we called it Cinema ’76 is because, for some reason, we started all in that same year.

Like Lincoln Center, Cinema ’76 is also branded as a “film society.” Could you expound on the meaning of that phrase?
It’s really to encourage regularity of viewing, and brand loyalty. Kasi if they’re part of a film society, ayun, it’s part of their program. They would check out ano bang palabas this week sa Cinema 76, ganon. We call it “film society” because we want it to be a lifestyle, a part of a lifestyle—to get people in the habit of watching at our cinema, or if not, at least checking out what’s playing. And a sense of pride in being a part of the film society.

Are there any specific Cinema ’76 events or experiences that you’re particularly proud of?
Wow, it’s too many. I mean, hindi ko nga maalala to cite which one. Obviously we’ve had events, mainly sa San Juan [branch], before these pandemic times. And of course they would involve inviting the director and the stars, to just engage the audiences. So in terms of the kind of events that I’m really proud of and that I look forward to, it’s actually [the ones that involve] the audience and introduce them to the filmmaker and some of the artists. And of course, we also have now mga master classes about writing. That one I look forward to—‘yung part ng nagiging film society [ang Cinema ’76.]

“Number one thing I miss is the sense of a communal experience, of watching with a group of other audiences, other people.”

I know that TBA has also been getting the rights to distribute foreign films. Is it fair to say that having Cinema ’76 makes TBA more appealing to foreign distributors?
I would say yes. Because even before the pandemic times, they would always look forward to a screen where they can play their film. And of course, kami nga, we’re known to be leaning towards the arthouse fare. In terms of foreign distributors, they kinda like the fact that there’s at least a venue or venues that they can play in, as opposed to wala talaga. So yes, it helps open the door to those foreign distributors. I’m not talking about the commercial ones like ‘yung mga Disney, Warner, Universal. I have nothing against them; they’re great, I enjoy their movies also. But more like ‘yung mga maliliit na distributors who are really more into arthouse kind of films.

Now that access to cinemas is limited and Cinema ‘76’s events have been put on pause, what do you miss most about the theater experience?
Boy, number one thing I miss is the sense of a communal experience, of watching with a group of other audiences, other people. Whether it’s friends or family, masarap manood na kasama e, ‘yung nase-sense mo—people gasping like in the case of a movie like Jaws. Masarap ‘yun. May sense of excitement. You feel that there’s something electric in the air.

Pangalawa, I miss the bigness—the size of the screens. Kapag may mga tawag na tentpole movies, mga Marvel superhero movies, I miss going to the cinemas. Because obviously kahit anong laki ng movie screen mo, it’s not the same as when you’re watching it sa giant screen talaga to enjoy it.︎

Emil Hofileña is a graduate student and freelance writer.