The Philippines’ biggest shot for Oscar gold this year anchored on the shoulders of Dolly de Leon, whose toilet-cleaner-turned-captain role in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness landed the actor historic feats, including wins for Best Supporting Performance at the 48th Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (shared with Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Ke Huy Quan) and at Sweden’s Guldbagge Awards, as well as nods at the 80th Golden Globe Awards and 76th British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
With her work’s critical acclaim—enlivened by multiple interviews and profiles such as those in British Vogue’s 2023 Hollywood portfolio, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times—it seemed like an Oscar nomination was within reach for de Leon. But when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced the official nominees for its 95th edition, de Leon’s name was nowhere to be found—a glaring omission noticed by several publications, industry professionals, and audience members. Rotten Tomatoes said “the film [Triangle of Sadness] would be nothing without Dolly de Leon.”
The actress didn’t contain her disappointment, saying in a TV interview that the Oscar snub “was painful.”
In hindsight, making the cut would not only mean recognizing de Leon’s towering effort but also putting Filipino talents and, by extension, Philippine cinema front and center, especially for a country that has yet to earn a single nomination in the Academy’s international feature film category (arguably the category that makes Oscars count elsewhere), let alone win the coveted award.In fact, this Oscar drought was put in the spotlight in a recent House inquiry, after the Philippines’ bet On the Job: The Missing 8 failed to secure a spot in the Oscar shortlist, interrogating the country’s decades-long campaign to reap the elusive Best International Feature Academy Award. Since 1956, when the category became formally competitive, the Philippines has submitted 32 entries—the fourth highest submission figure for any country that yielded neither a win nor a nomination.
But any participating country would know that merit alone cannot guarantee a nomination. A 2019 Variety report detailed that an Oscar entry would have to shell out at least $20 million to stand a chance. This budget goes to media visibility, screenings, and publicity efforts to draw the interest of roughly 9,500 AMPAS voters. As money becomes a barometer for Oscar glory, countries without deep pockets are put at a disadvantage.“Of course, we were excited, but we also balanced our expectations,” Erik Matti, director of On the Job: The Missing 8, told VICE in a mix of English and Filipino. “Slight restraint, because we know how tough it is to [campaign]. It’s a good idea to be sent to the Oscars, but to actually be noticed [by] the Academy, that’s difficult… I doubted if we could reach a level where the Oscars would pay attention to us, because it would take so much money to get into everyone’s radar.”
The need for deep pockets
The Missing 8, which follows the story of a journalist investigating the disappearances of his colleagues, premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, where it bagged the Best Actor Volpi Cup for John Arcilla. It was also re-released as a mini-series, alongside its predecessor On the Job (2013), for streaming service HBO Go. Variety’s Jessica Kiang tagged the film as “a sprawling, satisfying big-screen binge.”
But when the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) announced The Missing 8 as the country’s official selection for this year’s Oscars, Matti admitted that there was not enough time to mount a decent campaign, as the news came in late September, less than two and a half months before the Academy was set to release its 15-film shortlist. At least four months of preparation would have been ideal, according to the director, which would have allowed them to build a narrative that the campaign would hinge on and explore a non-traditional route.“[We could have gathered] everyone to talk about the film, talk about journalism in general and not just the story of the film, package the story in terms of how journalism is affecting disinformation, fake news, and manufactured realities of news, and how to talk about it that it’s not just happening in the U.S. or in Western countries, but it’s happening all over the world, more so with the attack on journalists here in the country,” said Matti. “But because we had a short time, we’re only able to employ straightforward campaign strategies.”
Even so, the director said that “more time entails more money,” which he said their team barely had. In its pocket was a measly 10 million Philippine pesos (approx. $180,000)—1 million Philippine pesos ($18,000) from the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) and the rest from Reality MM Studios and Globe Studios (now ANIMA Studios). “Of course, that’s a very small [amount],” added Matti. Fees for full-page ads in Variety and Deadline alone already cost a third of the entire campaign funding.Putting the film out there seemed like a Herculean task. The Missing 8 went on to hire a PR firm, which handled events, but having a longer theatrical release in the United States was already out of the question, since the film’s distribution rights had been solely acquired by HBO. In the Philippines, The Missing 8 had a 7-day theatrical run at select cinemas in Manila and three other cities throughout the country. “The challenge really is how [would you] know that they have your film on their radar, and how would you know if they like it and they will vote for it, so it’s tough,” said Matti. “So those included in the shortlist are the ones that, even before the Academy choice, are already high-profile titles.”
Budget constraints have long been a glaring footnote in the Philippines’ list of roadblocks in the Oscar race.In 2014, Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History) was touted as a strong contender for the Academy’s international feature category after premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section and having been acquired by The Cinema Guild, a distributor that handles acclaimed films, including those from Abbas Kiarostami and Hong Sang-soo. Norte also screened at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival, 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and 2013 New York Film Festival.
Past hopes, roadblocks
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called the film “a tour de force of slow cinema,” while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw lauded its “visionary filmmaking.” Norte went on to rack up further recognition, ranking ninth in Sight & Sound’s “The 10 best films of 2013” and 15th in Film Comment’s “2014 Best Films.” The film also landed a crucial Best International Film nomination at the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards, competing against Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (Russia) and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland). Leviathan and Ida both ended up as nominees at the 87th Academy Awards, with the latter winning the Oscar gold for the first time in Polish history.
Norte, however, could not sustain its momentum due to expensive campaign costs. The film did not even make it to the Oscar shortlist. “[W]e didn’t know what we were doing. We went there, with our borrowed barong tagalogs, smiling at the vast nothingness,” Diaz, who is also an official Academy member, told VICE.
“There was no campaign. We didn’t get any support. No money, no help,” added Diaz. “According to an insider, a person who works in the American Academy, for even just the modest campaign, you would be spending at least 12 million pesos [at the time]. You’d prepare booklets with DVDs to be sent to the voting members; you’d book and schedule special screenings with dinners, press conferences, or even Zumba campaigns and brass band parades for your film to be noticed and be considered.”Previous Philippine submissions, such as Gil Portes’ Mga Munting Tinig (Small Voices, 2002), Dante Nico Garcia’s Ploning (2008), and Jun Robles Lana’s Bwakaw (2012), also had promising campaigns but were eventually cut short by budget restrictions. Back then, team Ploning even had to do away with expensive food catering just to continue holding daily screenings during their campaign in Los Angeles.
This common thread in funding issues could have been averted many years ago. And as far as moving the needle is concerned, some critics and industry professionals zero in on the FAP, populated by cinema guilds tasked to decide on the country’s Oscar contenders. But the organization has been marred by a lack of transparency in its selection process and issues of non-submission. The latter is allegedly due to budget limitations, even as the Academy doesn’t require entry fees in any category.The Academy rules on the international feature film category require that a film selection “shall be made by one approved organization, jury or committee that should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.” National film academies must also submit a list of its selection committee members, but whether or not this list is made publicly available by the FAP has always been in doubt. Transparency in the national academy’s selection procedure is significant precisely because the organization is funded by Filipino taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Moving the needle
Diaz, moreover, looked into larger woes in the local film industry. “We don’t really have a clear-cut support system for cinema here in the Philippines. If there’s help, it’s very scant. We need to create laws protecting our cinema. We need to create better institutions. The great models are France and South Korea. Every year, since digital [filmmaking] came, there’s been a surplus of really good works here in the Philippines. We have so many masterpieces, but the biggest hurdle is there’s no space to show it. The theaters are almost exclusive for Hollywood and the big studios.”
Once tagged as “the best picture award for the rest of the world,” the Academy’s international feature film category is, for some, its most relevant recognition, although the Oscars’ idea of “the rest of the world” poses its own setback. But should the Philippines’ Oscar drought be framed as a problem at all? Filipino film critic Richard Bolisay weighed in.“The problem with this issue, ever since I got the sense of how art and industry work together, is that it’s being considered a problem. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s this culture of wanting so much to be admired by Hollywood that should be problematized and surrendered. Our works are being recognized almost everywhere. Why don’t we channel our energies to those?”
Nurturing “good soil”
Bolisay added: “If these institutions really deem this Oscar thing a problem, then why can’t they offer actual solutions? Financial support for filmmakers? Programs—not just money? Pathways for artists? This whole ‘not being nominated for an Oscar’ is vain and pointless, a low aspiration rooted in a colonial mindset.”
Bolisay said, if anything, the Oscar gold matters “more to the people involved.” “For them to be respected for the art they do and to be given a better livelihood. That’s why it gave me so much joy to root for Dolly de Leon. She’s great in the film and deserves these recognitions, which can turn into more worthwhile projects.”In 2019, Philippine cinema welcomed its 100th year, and perhaps it’s high time to reflect, long and hard, on this wish list for Filipino cinema by the late Alexis Tioseco. Because for an industry that has long carved its identity (“Filipino cinema is sui generis!” as Diaz put it) and endured pivotal swings and heavy drawbacks, an Oscar gold would only be a bonus.Yet, according to Bolisay, forging a better landscape for local cinema entails nurturing “an inclusive film culture that supports small efforts and new artists.”“Cinema will not save us. One film will not make everything right. My metaphor is a good soil. Plant seeds. Water it from time to time. Take care of it. Protect it. At some point it will be very hard to cut down a tree. Let’s be trees.”Follow Lé Baltar on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.