It should not have worked. All of its elements, taken individually, should have been red flags at the box office. They took two fairly popular actors—not superstars, not in the traditional sense—and put them together for an unlikely romantic pairing. There was no colorful support ensemble, no comic relief B-plot to help the main story chug along. Just these two characters and a simple script that did not bristle with hugot one-liners that audiences can latch on to and retweet. The director was assumed to be a newcomer despite having toiled for years behind the scenes in the mainstream industry and working as an independent film maker. Worst of all, they killed the leading man in the middle of the film. There was no happily ever after.
Despite defying Pinoy romcom’s tried and tested formula, Sigrid Bernardo’s Kita Kita held its ground in movie theaters nationwide for three weeks, outlasting Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. The little film that cost P10 million to make turned a staggering profit of P300 million, surpassing Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna as the highest-grossing Filipino independent film.
Pressed for what they thought was the magical component of Kita Kita, both director Bernardo and producer Joyce Bernal of Spring Films could only shake their heads in bemusement. “[A film like that] has never been done before. Maybe audiences are looking for something new,” Bernal says. Bernardo thinks it’s the film’s relatability that endeared it to audiences. “Here are two people who don’t look like models. They could be anyone. And anyone can have a great love story.”
The seed that would be Kita Kita started with producer Lucky Blanco, who pitched the idea of a love triangle between three ugly people to Spring Films. The heads of Spring Films, Bernal and her partners Piolo Pascual and Erickson Raymundo, thought the idea was worth exploring and greenlit a script for development. Blanco then approached Bernardo to direct the finished manuscript with the proposed cast—Empoy Marquez, Alessandra de Rossi, and another popular comedic actor.
“I read the script. I couldn’t direct it,” says Bernardo. It was not something she believed in, and she has been working in the industry long enough to know what lies down that path. She asked for Blanco’s permission to write a new script, this time with just the two actors. Blanco said to give it a shot.
“At that time, I had a broken ankle. I was in crutches for three months. Ang hirap pala!” Bernardo explains. She attended meetings, pitch sessions, and foreign film festivals in crutches, making her aware of the challenges disabled people face every day. Despite her handicap, Bernardo believes those three months to be her most productive. Her experience informed that of de Rossi’s character Lea, who goes blind early in the film. “I realized it’s all a matter of perspective. That’s what I wanted to explore in Kita Kita. How our personal perspectives can limit or broaden our world.”
Even the idea of a love story between two ugly people was a matter of perspective. “Have you seen Alex [de Rossi]? Hindi siya panget!” Bernardo laughs. De Rossi is morena and often cast in maid roles, but she’s the farthest thing from grotesque. Marquez isn’t bad-looking either. He wears his hair flat over his forehead and keeps the silly moustache because it’s part of his personal brand, but underneath all that is an average-looking guy.
“I gave [Spring Films] the new script and told them to take it or leave it,” says Bernardo, and we share a solid minute laughing at the sheer ballsiness of that move. None of the heads of Spring Films had heard of Bernardo before or seen any of her previous indie films, but Bernardo knew what she wanted and did not want to make a bad movie. “Why would they be interested in me [as a director] if they didn’t trust what I can do?” Asked what she would have done if Spring Films turned the manuscript down, Bernardo says she would have still made Kita Kita, but maybe with a different cast and a dramatically scaled back production.
Fortunately, Spring Films liked the script. “It was a really good story,” Bernal says. She and her partners are mainstays in the mainstream TV and film industry, and they know what sells. Bernal admits that Kita Kita was a risk, but the same can be said of their other films, Kimmy Dora and Relaks, It’s Just Pag-ibig. “We’re producers. We want our investments to pay off, but we’re also fans of films. Magkano na ba ang [movie] ticket ngayon? P250? P300? We want people to watch a movie and not feel cheated out of their hard-earned money.”
With the approved budget, Bernardo, the cast, and a small crew flew to Japan to film and showcase the winter wonderland of Hokkaido in all its summer glory. It’s a love story, a disabled story, and an OFW story all rolled into one.
“There are pros and cons to working with a producer,” says Bernardo. On her independent films, she was the writer, director, producer, and the entire marketing team. “With a producer, I didn’t have to worry about the budget, permits to shoot, or what the cast and crew would eat every day. I can focus on directing. But with a producer… you have a producer.”
Spring Films came in to flex their producer muscles during post-production. At nearly every stage of the process, they would have focus group discussions with friends and family and then an initial screening at the University of the Philippines, Diliman to get comments and feedback. This went back and forth as Bernardo and Spring Films strove to reach a compromise.
Kita Kita’s post-production woes dragged on long enough for Spring Films to pull it out of the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival despite having paid for the film’s registration. One of the newer festival guidelines stated that the films had to be on picture lock stage by November 2, which means no additional editing can be done by then. Instead of risking a half-baked film, Spring Films dropped out to continue editing and cutting the movie to satisfaction.
The producers deemed Bernardo’s initial cut too long for commercial release and had Bernal step in to trim it down. “[Bernardo’s] director’s cut is longer and has less music,” she says. “It’s just seven minutes longer,” Bernardo adds. “And there’s Tonyo’s (Marquez’s character) alternate death scene.”
In Bernardo’s original script, Tonyo dies when he gets hit by a truck. But when they were shooting the scene in Hokkaido, permits and other limitations yielded shots that Bernardo wasn’t too happy about. “It’s my scene. I wrote it. But I didn’t like the way we executed it, so I changed my mind,” she explains. With Spring Films’ permission, Bernardo rewrote the scene to what she felt made the narrative tighter: Tonyo dies by heart attack. “What was supposed to happen was that Tonyo dies, [the audience] doesn’t know what happened, Lea is seen picking up the pieces, and there’s all these clues that Tonyo has had heart problems all this time they were together. The audience joins Lea in putting the clues together.”
Another shooting day was added for the rewritten scenes. Bernardo put it all together in post, and Spring Films held another focus group discussion to see how audiences would respond. Audiences seemed to prefer the less ambiguous death-by-truck version, which made it to the commercial cut released nationwide. The director’s cut with the heart attack death is the version screened at international film festivals.
Regardless, Kita Kita was finally released in the Philippines on July 2017 and became an undisputed sleeper hit. Before this, Spring Films approached film studio giants Star Cinema and Viva Films to help distribute the film nationwide. At that time, however, Star Cinema was already backing their own projects: the horror film Bloody Crayons and the too-big-to-fail Finally Found Someone that headlines superstars Sarah Geronimo and John Lloyd Cruz. Instead, Viva Films gambled on Kita Kita and hit pay dirt.
Though Spring Films hoped for the best, they certainly weren’t expecting it to blow up the way it did. They just wanted to tell a good story and maybe earn back what they spent, but word of mouth and social media buzz sent more people trooping to the theaters to catch the unlikely hit. “Suddenly everyone on Facebook was a movie critic!” Bernardo says, elated. “Everyone had an opinion. There was an active discussion about the film. That’s a culture we have to bring back.”
“People were making one to 10 memes (like de Rossi’s character counting one to 10 when she’s trying to calm down),” says Bernal. “We knew that was good dialogue, but we didn’t expect [audiences] to make it trend.”
Kita Kita did well in the box office, and the demand for it spilled over to the internet. By the second week, a leaked version was making its rounds on Facebook, prompting the producers and the director to release strongly worded statements.
“The leak probably cost us P3 million,” Bernal says, visibly annoyed. She mentions that they already know who first leaked the film, and alludes to an inside job if not in post-production, then on the distribution end with co-distributor Viva Films. This wasn’t a camcorded, pirated version, but a clean commercial cut that was being passed around. Bernal is dead serious about seeking legal action, but admits that investigations with the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime group is a complicated process. “Most Filipinos aren’t aware [that watching pirated films] is a crime. They think just because the film is already in cinemas, it’s free for everyone. But there are people’s livelihoods at stake.”
Bernardo’s stance is less hardline. “Here’s the thing: I learned to make films by watching films. Some of the films I watched were never released in the Philippines. But I don’t watch pirated local films. So I turn the question back to the audience. If you want more films like Kita Kita, support the filmmakers. Don’t pirate it.”
There may be a lesson here, one that the American music industry has learned the hard way. With less people buying physical CDs or digital albums, music artists have turned to live performances and merchandise to earn a profit. “It’s difficult to fight piracy,” Bernardo admits. “But we can make the experience of going to a movie theater more enjoyable. I don’t know how to do that. Should there be a Q and A session with the cast afterward? I don’t know. But we have to make people go back to the theater.”
Films like Kita Kita and Antoinette Jadaone’s That Thing Called Tadhana are challenging industry norms with smaller production budgets, a smaller cast, a simple love story, and a visually arresting location. While these films buck the mainstream formula, they also run the risk of becoming the new formula. Mainstream film studios are now sweeping through independent film festivals for the next small-in-cost-big-in-profit thing and tapping indie filmmakers to write or direct mainstream movies.
Bernardo does not see this as a bad thing. She sees Kita Kita’s success as opening the gates for lesser-known filmmakers like herself to be given the opportunity to say something new, in a way that hasn’t been done before. “Just because you have two actors and a nice location, does not mean you’ll have a guaranteed hit,” she says. “Do you have a good story to tell?”
This article was originally published in the December 2017-January 2018 issue of Rogue.