Understanding Filipino film distribution: a PhD journey with Monash-Warwick PhD candidate Michael Kho Lim
Michael Kho Lim is a recipient of the Monash Graduate Scholarship and the Faculty of Arts International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (FAIPRS) for his joint Monash/ Warwick University PhD research into film distribution in the Philippines. In 2016, he was shortlisted for the Victorian Government’s Education Award for International Student of the Year (research).
We spoke with Michael to gain his insights into getting to and through a PhD, and how his research will impact the Filipino film industry.
You’re now completing a PhD on film distribution, but how did you get into the film industry in the first place?
I was teaching and completing a Masters in applied media studies at De La Salle University in the Philippines when my supervisor received a grant from the Cinemalaya Foundation. Ten aspiring filmmakers with no prior film-directing experience were selected and given seed funding to produce the film that would eventually compete in the very first Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
My supervisor is a renowned screenwriter and documentary maker and has always dreamt of directing his very first feature-length film. His name is Clobualdo del Mundo Jr. – we fondly call him Sir Doy. It was my first venture into film production, I was lucky that he trusted me and gave me that chance to become his producer. We took a leap of faith, and eventually our hard work paid off when our film Pepot Artista [watch the trailer] was declared best picture. Set in the 70s, the film tells the story of the kid Pepot who dreams of becoming a movie star. That was 2005 when I first set my hands on filmmaking; and I’ve loved it since then.
That was just over 10 years ago, then how did you arrive at the point of deciding to do a PhD?
After finishing my Masters, I taught in China for six months. When I returned to Manila, I continued teaching at my alma mater in 2008. However, something inside me was yearning for a new challenge; and I thought maybe this is the time to work in the industry. I became the Deputy Director of the Animation Council of the Philippines towards the end of 2008 before eventually assuming the Executive Director position in 2009. It’s the trade association for the industry that’s comprised of animation studios, schools, and vendors. It aims to promote and develop original Filipino content in animation. It is a non-profit organisation that has a very small team.
I was there for almost six years, and perhaps over time, I got a bit burnt out. This triggered me to consider the idea that has been lingering in my mind—doing a PhD. What was keeping me from pursuing this at first was the perception that you’d only teach after receiving a PhD, which I was happy to do anyway but I’d also want to contribute to the industry.
Then I thought of Sir Doy again—he holds a PhD but he’s still very active in the film industry. So I thought, what’s stopping me from working in the academia and the industry at the same time? It would in fact be beneficial to both sectors—I practice what I teach, while my industry experience informs my teaching. Then one day, I had a business meeting at the Australian Embassy and saw a banner that said, “Study in Australia.” And I thought, it’s calling me! Everything seemed to fall into place.
At that time, the Philippines was using the term “creative industries”, which I have always been a part of. So it was just natural that, if I’d do a PhD, it would be about something that I am very familiar with. I then googled: “creative industry,” “PhD,” and “Australia.” QUT came out on top due to its specific creative industry offering, along with Melbourne University and Monash University. Studying abroad was something new to me, so I was feeling my way through the process. I started sending cold enquiry emails and whoever replied positively was how I got the ball rolling. I chanced upon Dr Xin Gu who was with Melbourne University at the time but couldn’t take me in anymore so she recommended Professor Justin O’Connor, who then moved from QUT to Monash University.
Wow! What great serendipity. But that’s just the start – finding a supervisor, and you have more than one?
Yes, I started with two but I’m ending up with three. I have two supervisors from Monash: Professor Justin O’Connor and Associate Professor Therese Davis, and one from Warwick: Associate Professor Jonathan Vickery. It was after I started the regular Monash PhD program that I came across the joint PhD opportunity. So after my PhD candidature was confirmed, I asked Justin if I could apply for the joint program. After some discussion, he agreed and I went through with the process. Apparently, Justin has an existing partnership with Warwick’s Centre for Cultural Policy Studies and is working with Jonathan. Introductions were made, and it ended up being pretty easy for me to shift to the joint PhD. Everything just seems to be aligned, as I also have a cultural policy element in my research.
As an international student, you just want to expose yourself to all these new perspectives. I thought this would be a very enriching experience. I received the joint PhD offer right before going back to Manila to do fieldwork in December 2014. By the time I returned to Melbourne in June 2015, I did my mid-candidature review, transitioned to the joint PhD, and started my Warwick residency in September.
That all sounds quite smooth and fast. Going back a bit, after finding a supervisor, how did you come to your research proposal?
I had originally proposed research into the animation industry but changed it to the film industry when I arrived at Monash. I thought that if I were to do intensive study or research for three years, it has to be something close to my heart.
Besides, there is really very little literature in the business side of filmmaking, particularly film distribution in the Philippines. I discovered that I would be the first person to research on this and I would be able to make a mark.
PhD candidates often say the journey getting to confirmation is the hardest – the part where you have to articulate and buttress your proposal into a feasible research project to be assessed by the confirmation panel. How did you go?
It was seven years since I had been in academia, so in doing a PhD I needed like a jumpstart. It was quite a challenge to come back. I had to work really hard. I asked Justin if I could sit in any of his Masters classes so I could refresh my prior knowledge and update myself as well. This was on top of doing the PhD coursework Monash had introduced at the time.
I was attending Justin’s classes to make sure I hadn’t forgotten what I learned in my Masters but also to learn more about the cultural/creative industries and the cultural/creative economy. Everything was a blur at first, and those two concepts were the same up to that point. So the classes really helped with guiding how I could define my PhD. And without me realising it, I was already doing my confirmation 5½ months into the program.
Prior though, whilst you weren’t in academia, you worked in the industry for 7 years. How did that affect your PhD?
People often ask me, or say that my [PhD] progress is really fast; and I think it’s because I’ve worked in the industry for so long that I have enough knowledge, experience, and insights to assist me in my analysis and make it easier to integrate everything.
And to know what impact your research could have for the industry?
Yeah, having worked in the independent film sector—distribution has always been a problem. The usual question is, “Oh, you’ve produced a new film, where can I see it?” And you just don’t know how to respond. It’s not showing in the cinemas; it’s not available on DVD, so how to give an answer?
Having worked in the independent film sector—distribution has always been a problem. The usual question is, “Oh, you’ve produced a new film, where can I see it?” And you just don’t know how to respond.
Distribution is not very easy to understand, as it is often left to the business people—these distribution companies. Everyone else does not seem to know how it “really” works. So what I’m trying to do is understand distribution from the humanities perspective, from the point of view of the producer, director or the production side of things, and not just seeing distribution as the business part of filmmaking, so that directors and producers who read my work will understand film distribution outside of the numbers.
To break that down a bit, does distribution include entering the film in film festivals, competitions…?
Yes, film festivals, DVDs, campus tours, online distribution platforms—they’re all considered as non-theatrical distribution. But what everyone is after—whether you’re producing independently or in the mainstream—is theatrical distribution because that’s how you will get a return on investment. The problem is that indies don’t have access to this, as theatrical distribution is generally controlled by the mainstream—the big studios. Not to pre-empt the results of my research, but I still think that theatrical distribution will dominate. It works as a system, and you just don’t overthrow a system overnight. So theatrical release will still be a key element in film distribution.
Perhaps your research will shed light for indies on how to secure a theatrical release? Does the non-theatrical distribution help in achieving it?
My research is not really about finding a solution on how to secure a theatrical release; rather, it is about understanding the dynamics of the film distribution system and how this affects the industry players. In the Philippines for example, no matter how popular the film is or how many international awards it has received, it doesn’t automatically mean that it will have a theatrical run nationwide. Even if it does, there is no guarantee that people will flock to the cinemas.
The Philippines has a long history of colonisation such that colonial mentality is somewhat embedded in our system. No matter how good a Filipino film is, it is generally considered inferior to foreign films, specifically Hollywood. Then again, it’s very difficult to predict what the audience will like because even a Hollywood film can flop at the box office.
One of the case studies I have cited in my PhD is the film Heneral Luna (General Luna) [watch the trailer]. It is considered a game changer because it was independently produced and yet, it was commercially successful. By independent I mean that the producers were new players in the industry. They put lots of money into the film, similar to that of a mainstream budget. It was a big risk for them. They spent around 80 million pesos, and it only grossed around 1 million in the first week. No one thought they’d be able to recoup their investment but to everyone’s surprise, the film ran for nine weeks and grossed 250 million. It was indeed a phenomenon.
Interesting, so in analysing the film distribution system and what affects the industry players, what about policies?
The Philippines state will have to be part of it when we speak of cultural policy. Right now, we have a newly appointed Chair in the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) who is looking into some policy reforms. The new chair Liza Diño actually comes from the industry as an actor and has appeared in a number of indie films, so she knows the struggles and challenges of being an independent player. She’s not looking at the industry as an outsider; instead she’s someone from the ‘inside’ who crossed over to the government and now looking in at our industry. So we are optimistic and looking forward to the changes that she’ll put forward.
Diño also mentioned that the FDCP’s policy-making function has not really been activated, so this is where she will start. She shared some of her plans about lobbying for an antitrust law and film quota, just like what other countries have, as well as asking owners of multiplexes to allot some of their screens to show exclusively Filipino (indie) films. The Council has created many good programs before but with a priority of focusing on cultural policy now, we are hoping that things will be better for the industry.
Fantastic ideas. Lastly, I’m wondering if you might share with us some of your insights into Pinoy film culture with what your top Filipino films are?
That’s a very difficult question!
I’ve always admired the works of Mike de Leon, and he has always worked with my mentor Sir Doy. There are two films I really like:
Batch '81, which is about fraternity, and Kakabakaba ka ba? [watch the trailer]. It’s a musical comedy on drug trafficking. Critics often describe de Leon as a director ahead of his time because even before Sister Act, there was Kakabakaba ka ba?—which could also be said of my mentor Sir Doy, who wrote both films. So they’re really my inspiration.
Who knows, maybe one day I’d also be writing and directing my own film.
All photos courtesy Michael Kho Lim.