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'Ploning' and the search for that elusive Oscar nod

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Aside from planning her upcoming wedding to Ryan Agoncillo, Judy Ann Santos is currently very much involved in fundraising, promotional and lobbying efforts for her film, "Ploning," which the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) chose as the country's entry to vie for a nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 81st Annual Academy Awards of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will be held in February next year. Since 1984, FAP chooses the country's entry to this Oscar category each year. According to Judai, more than P5 million have been raised, aside from the Film Development Council of the Philippines' P2.5 million doleout, to back "Ploning's" bid to at least enter the shortlist list of films that the 6,000 AMPAS members will screen and vote for and, hopefully, gain a place among the five Oscar nominations that will be read during the 81st Oscars night in February--a first-ever feat in Philippine cinema. Judai and her co-producer in the movie, Panoramanila Pictures, are currently in the thick of US-based promotions for the film, directed by Dante Nico Garcia, for a possible favorable vote among the AMPAS members that include Hollywood actors, directors, writers, producers, and other film professionals, particularly the foreign films committee that chooses the final roster of nominees on Oscar night. A key highlight in this effort, Judai said, is the rare partnership of ABS-CBN and GMA 7 to back "Ploning," a period flick about a mysterious spinster desperately in search for a lost love. “I’m happy to say that I’ve talked both to ABS and GMA and I’m very happy na they obliged to join forces and both ABS and GMA artists are willing to help. Pero nakikipag-usap pa kami sa mga ibang kumpanya (that) could unite for this particular event,” Judai said in an interview with GMA 7's "Startalk" two weeks ago. Judai waxed nationalistic in her effort to push "Ploning" onto the Oscar stage. “Ang buong fund-raising, ginagawa po namin ito para na po talaga sa Pilipinas. Hindi lang po para sa ‘Ploning’ na pelikula or para sa Panoramanila. Para sa mga Pilipino at sa buong Pilipinas na makilala tayo finally sa ibang bansa since very talented ang mga Pilipino. I think it’s high time na maipakita natin sa kanila na nag-sanib-pwersa naman talaga tayo for a good cause.” A noteworthy effort indeed. But some say, particularly pundits in the history of Philippine submissions to the AMPAS, it's Herculean. Even Judai admits, "para itong suntok sa buwan." Never since the inception of the Best Foreign Language Film category in 1956 did a Philippine film earn an Oscar nod for the award. Experts pointed to a variety of reasons -- from the FAP's "wrong choices" to a perceived AMPAS bias against countries who rarely produce films that merit international recognition. Not even the so-called independent digital cinema revolution helped in the cause despite having achieved film festival honors around the world. The film-otaku blog quoted AMPAS members as saying that despite the promise of these independent films, such as the 2006 entry "Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros" and the 2007 submission "Donsol," poor digital format transfers, which made copies of the film appear fuzzy and viewing difficult, led to their fall. But the most glaring reason was the mere fact that the Philippines only sent four films to the Academy in 28 years, from the 1950s to the 1980s. This gave the impression that the country lacked films that merit international recognition, said Ron, the film-otaku blog owner, who identified himself as an "assistant instructor at AdMU" in the blog's profile page. During those 28 years, only Lamberto Avellana's "Anak Dalita" in 1956; Gerardo de Leon's "The Moises Padilla Story" in 1961; Luis Nepomuceno's "Dahil sa Isang Bulaklak" in 1967; and Eddie Romero's "Ganito Kami Noon...Paano Kayo Ngayon?" in 1978 were submitted. Also from 1986 to 1994, no films were submitted, owing to what Ron said was a dearth in quality filmmaking in those years. If the category's claim of honoring the best film from each country was true, then for the Philippines, it would be unthinkable not to submit such films as Lino Brocka's "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang," "Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag," "Insiang," "Jaguar" and "Orapronobis"; Peque Gallaga's "Oro, Plata, Mata;" and Ishmael Bernal's "City After Dark" and "Himala." But they were not submitted. The Philippines could have gotten at least an Oscar nomination from any of these classic films. International visitors to the CNN "Screening Room" web site even voted for "Himala" last month as the Best Asia-Pacific film of all time, edging out Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," both Academy Award winners. Another reason, the film-otaku blog noted, were FAP's questionable choices, including those that did not even won local awards, like FAMAS or Gawad Urian. If our local award-winning bodies ignore them, what more can we expect from the Academy Awards? But even FAP's logical or correct choices were still shunned, including Brocka's "Kapit Sa Patalim (Bayan Ko)," Marilou Diaz-Abaya's "Karnal" and Tikoy Aguiluz's "Segurista." The film otaku blog noted that these films have themes that are not the AMPAS's "cup of tea." In an April 9 post, Ron said: "The Academy traditionally prefers costume epics, war films (particularly those that have to do with the second World War), culturally significant pictures, intimate interpersonal pieces, or works by renowned auteurs. With a few exceptions (like [Chito Roño's] Dekada '70, perhaps), the country's recent submissions have not played on any of these popular themes." To finally get an Oscar nod, Ron said, the Philippines must submit a film that "1) is co-produced by a foreign company; 2) is directed by a premiere, internationally known Filipino filmmaker; 3) is about a major historical event or figure, such as the revolution against Spain, the EDSA Revolution, or, the Academy's favorite, World War II (or another film on Jose Rizal, or one based on his "Noli Me Tangere" or "El Filibusterismo"); 4) and gets major representation (actual awards would just be a plus) in Cannes or Berlin." As for Filipino independent digital films that have won several awards in international film festivals and could have the best shot at an Oscar nomination, the issue of "flawed video transfer" should be addressed, Ron added. Will "Ploning" address these issues and have a strong chance in achieving a first-ever milestone in Philippine cinema? Direk Dante thinks so because, he said, "Ploning" offers a theme on love and hope that is fresh and positive, thereby attractive to AMPAS voters.  To further realize its goal, "Ploning" producers should use all the collected funds to improve the film's audio and video quality for better viewing experience that will further entice AMPAS members. These funds should also be used in the production and placement of promotional materials, such as trailers, posters and print ads, in Hollywood and the Los Angeles area, where most of the AMPAS members are concentrated. Panoramanila's reported hiring of a US-based publicist, Murray Weismann and Associates, should further boost the film's chances. Influential and prominent Filipino-Americans in the US have also thrown their support to "Ploning" by bankrolling screenings of the film across the US.  A jampacked screening of the film was recently held at the Kodak Theater. In spite of this, a lot of cinema buffs still argue about "Ploning" being a worthy choice to land an Oscar nod, moreso with the film's daunting task of competing against 67 other submissions, such as Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner, Laurent Cantet's "The Class" from France,  Aamir Khan's “Taare Zameen Par” from India, and Pablo Trapero's "Lion's Den" from Argentina. But for "Ploning" producers, lobbyists, and promoters, it seems the battle for the Oscar nomination can be won through effective marketing and publicity, including comprehensive promotional campaigns and US-directed packaging to further draw American interest in the film, something no previous Philippine entry has achieved before.

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