Millennial Traversals – Interviews


Bancom Audiovision’s five-million-peso epic project Aguila may earn about a million in profits. This was disclosed by Philip Rillorta, vice president for the Bancom Group of Companies. The revelation is significant because Aguila, before its screening, was widely predicted to fail at the box-office. Aguila is the most expensive production in local movie history. According to Rillorta, the usual maximum for a local quality movie would be only about two million pesos.

So when Aguila had grossed over five million within two weeks of screening, progressive movie executives rejoiced. Rillorta said that the movie’s box-office performance is an indication that “the Filipino audience is ready for quality product.” Moreover, he considered Aguila to have broken ground in other aspects as well: moviegoers who refuse to watch locally made films were persuaded to check out the release; and people who never habitually go to the theaters went out to see what was publicized as a “must” event.

Aguila’s success is all the more encouraging when one considers the fact that it is over three hours (almost four, in fact) long. Whereas ordinary-length movies can be screened as much as eight times a day, Aguila had to be shown at most only four times daily. Rillorta attributed the movie’s box-office success to “the promotional campaign we launched. But that would be valid for only the first four days. From the fifth day onward, the product was entirely on its own.”

The movie, however, was as controversial critically as it was financially. Reaction was generally one of approval with reservations. Technical complaints concentrated on the characters’ make-up, loose strands in the story, and some performers’ inadequacies in delineating their respective roles. In terms of content, criticism was more heated. Director Eddie Romero’s humanist approach did not augur well for material that was more political than anything else. Most quarters found Romero’s politically neutral stance exasperating. There were also charges of historical inaccuracies, especially in the movie’s later portions.

Critical reception notwithstanding, the movie drew in crowds and broke all existing box-office records. Apparently the movie’s offering of big-name stars (headlined by Fernando Poe, Jr.) had much to do with its mass appeal. As for the turnout of upper-income viewers, Romero’s laid-back style and recent cinematic achievements could have effected enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations. In 1976 he won the Metro Manila Film Festival and Filipino film critics circle’s best-picture awards for his comeback production Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? in spite of the fiercest competition ever afforded by any single year in the preceding decade.

According to Rillorta, Bancom spent as much as 700,000 pesos just to promote Aguila. the campaign strategy for the movie was conducted on two levels: one for the upper-income audience, another for the masses. Accordingly, press releases were modified according to the nature of the publication involved – whether for komiks, dailies, or magazines. The Sunday before the movie came out on February 10, Bancom ran a full-color center spread in some dailies. Expenses for that day alone, according to Rillorta, cost 80,000 pesos.

Strategies were also aimed at TV and radio, although promotions concentrated on the former. Aside from movie trailers shown on TV, there was also an Aguila special on Channel 9 (Inday Badiday handled Aguila’s TV campaigns). Interestingly, most promotions “technocrats” refused to handle the Aguila campaign. Rillorta said this was because of the certainty of the movie’s financial failure. He named Douglas Quijano, Bibsy Carballo, and Digna Santiago as among those who refused.

Meanwhile movie producer Jesse Ejercito was consulted for layouts a week before the movie’s exhibition. Rillorta said Ejercito’s contributions lay in capturing “bakya” or mass interest in the movie. “Before he came in,” Rillorta said, “we had been concentrating on the A and B [socio-economic level] markets.” When it came to booking, Rillorta said that Bancom chose the circuit which allowed a film to continue exhibition if it exceeded its hold-over figure. This was preferable, he said, to another circuit which stopped exhibition after seven days, irrespective of box-office performance.

Because of Aguila’s soaring figures, Bancom Audiovision has been encouraged to undertake more big-budget projects. Rillorta said that proposals on Philippine nationalist general Macario Sakay, national hero Jose Rizal, and the legendary Kuta Bato are being considered. These of course promise to be worth watching out for. But then producers would do well to consider that big returns on big investments do not always a good film make. During the previous year’s Urian awards, for example, a box-office failure and, relative to Aguila, a small Bancom Audiovision production (Lino Brocka’s Jaguar), won the best picture award. In any event, the prospect of more Aguilas being hatched would certainly not be too high-flying for the industry.

[First published March 6, 1980, as “Why Aguila Was a Success at the Box-Office” in Philippines Daily Express]

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No other newspaper section is bound to be as controversial as the editorial section. This is as easy to grasp as the newspaper itself, since it is in this section where the staff may discard with pretensions to objectivity and show, in black and white, its true colors regarding issues. Such a section, especially after eight years of biased views and analyses, can become offensive and predictable. Entire column-inches of text are wasted on one-sided, often amateurish writing, made all the worse by photographs of the writers themselves.

But not all is lost to, say, fish-wrapping. The editorial section could yet rely on the drawing power of cartoons. And this does not apply to local journalism either. In the United States, where editorial cartooning can be considered to have realized its fullest potential, the profession is already widely accepted as an art. Since the history of modern Philippine journalism has been inevitably tied up with the American occupation of this country, local editorial cartooning owes a legacy to that of America.

The editorial cartoonists of today’s three major dailies, for example, consistently count American cartoonists among their influences. Paulino “Pol” Galvez of Bulletin Today names Herbert “Herblock” Block and Ranan Lure; Romeo “Boy” Togonon of Philippine Daily Express, Patrick Oliphant; and Wilfredo “Willy” Aguino of Times Journal, Ranan Lure again. As may also be apparent by now, these three prefer using nicknames, since they can sign their works more easily and are easier remembered that way.

Which brings us to the essence of editorial cartooning. According to Bill Maudlin, an editorial cartoonist who teaches the profession at Yale University, “The Trend is more interesting drawing, less complicated captions.” Unfortunately local cartoonists, the above trio included, still have to wean themselves away from using labels, as a casual skim through their works will show. As to the use of captions, Pol Galvez claims that the ones he submits to the editorial desk sometimes get edited or even rejected along with the proposed sketches.

“Since I try to avoid rejection, I also avoid making critical drawings,” he added. His is th eonly such procedure in town. Alternating daily with Roni Santiago, he submits two to three sketches to the desk, which in turn approves one for him to develop. Boy Togonon and Willy Aguino, on other hand, submit finished works and risk staying longer should their proposed cartoons be rejected. Of the two, Willy admitted coordinating occasionally with the desk, while Boy claims to maintain editorial independence.

But in spite of a seemingly fail-safe procedure, Pol Galvez has also his share of controversies; his responses to them, though, have been more conciliatory than contentious. In contrast, the other two cartoonists rely on their editors’ support to be able to stand by their works. The fact that Pol is a generation older than either Boy or Willy may help explain why he is less inclined to court controversy. At 44, he has remained a local cartoonist when most of his peers have either gone abroad or engaged in more profitable pursuits.

Also, he has been with Bulletin Today since 1961, after having finished fine arts at the University of Sto. Tomas. Married and with three children, he has found out that going out of his way in pursuit of principles beyond a certain point would not benefit the fanatic in him anymore. Still he reads every newspaper he could come across and bases his approach on public opinion, as long as the powerful are left out, of course. “Before it was different,” he says. “Under martial law, you [are expected to] know what they want. We are not told what not to do.” Another difference is that he tends to use a positive approach – praising instead of criticizing – because “there is pressure toward such approach.” In doing so he violates New York Times founder Adolph Ochs’s dictum that editorial cartoons work best against rather than for something.

Pol, however, seeks to contribute his share to local cartooning in other ways. As president of the Society of Philippine Illustrators and Cartoonists, he is working for the stabilization of cartooning rates and the realization of at least a fifty-percent share of the comics page for local cartoon strips. Although similar representations were made with former Information Minister Francisco S. Tatad, publishers found the proposals financially threatening and resisted the ex-minister’s “requests.”

Hence the staying power of foreign syndicated cartoons and the exodus of local talent to either foreign countries or other professional fields. For Boy Togonon, it is no surprise that cartooning has remained “the lowest-paid media profession in the country.” Boy was graduating in fine arts, also at UST, in 1972, when he joined Expressweek. A few months later he was with Daily Express and has stayed there ever since. In terms of finances and freedom, Boy, 29, believes that local cartoonists are “far behind our Western counterparts. Not one local cartoonist has had his own house solely through the practice of his profession.” This he considers anomalous. Like sports, editorial cartoons and comics are, for him, “the only unblemished activities in today’s newspapers.”

That, of course, cannot be entirely accurate. As in the boycott movement against the 1980 Moscow Olympics, cartooning cannot be spared the machinations of partisan politics. Recall, for example, the exposé of Disney cartoons as imperialist propaganda in Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelar’s Para leer al Pato Donald, [How to Read Donald Duck] (trans. David Kunzle, New York: International General, 1975), as well as the endorsement of right-wing political cartoonists by Time and Newsweek magazines.

Nevertheless Boy considers cartooning an effective means of establishing his name and meeting business contacts. Eventually he intends to go into graphics and corporate design, where he considers himself more proficient. More important, these fields are more lucrative than editorial cartooning. Boy looks forward to the day when he will not have to work on the side “to earn extra income to support my wife and two kids.”

Willy Aguino, on the other hand, intends to go abroad, either to study or to work. He had “practically finished,” according to him, his A.B. in fine arts at the University of the East when he started working. In 1977, when he was 22, he joined Campus Journal as artist and contributed to the overseas publication Manila Journal. This was two years after he had applied as editorial cartoonist for Daily Express and refused to make spot contributions. In 1978 he entered Times Journal and has since been given his name-space – “As Willy Sees It” – in the editorial page.

So far the most innovative and original cartoonist at work today, Willy has won the first SPIC award for editorial cartooning under martial law. His strangely shaded and grotesque figures, allegedly an eclectic ensemble of various influences, are unlike those of any other local cartoonist in recent memory. This is not surprising, considering that Willy has brought to the field a respectable handful of awards and distinctions, among them the first prize for the UE seal contest and cartooning for the UE student publication Dawn. In effect, Willy has evolved a style that is sardonically ambivalent: “I aim to cover as many sides [of an issue] as possible.”

Sometimes, though, this aim proves ambitious and results in a cartoon too complex and messy even for enthusiasts. Or, as some of his apparently critical works turn out, his style could also unintentionally convey a seemingly esoteric or absurd message. Willy is at his finest when at his simplest. After all, as Ochs put it, “A cartoon cannot say, ‘On the other hand.’” Nevertheless Willy can be considered the epitome of the competent cartoonist doing his best within the restrictions of martial rule. Like the other two cartoonists, he presents, more often than not, the regime’s case to the public. Yet he strives for a tone that results in satire, if not outright criticism.

Of course Filipino cartooning cannot and will not end with Willy Aguino or with any other cartoonist working at present. It will be able to attain a historical high only when two conditions are fulfilled: the unqualified restoration of press freedom and the provision of fair compensation for cartooning talent. At the moment the reading public will have to be content with liberalized extensions of a newspaper section essentially devoted to the service of the ruling elite.

[First published May 17, 1980, as “Cartooning in the Philippines: A Win, Lose, and Draw Proposition” in Who]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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