MANILA — “No boundaries, just vision,” goes a part of Black Sheep’s tagline which applies to its roster of big-screen offerings, including the just released “Alone/Together.”
The buzz surrounding the latest film from Antoinette Jadaone is notable. A month before its February 13 showing, “Alone/Together” inspired fan theories based on its viral teaser, as well as memes drawn from the portrayals of Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil as students of University of the Philippines-Diliman and University of Santo Tomas, respectively.
Fans clamored for the early release of the film’s soundtrack, and even shared artworks and photo reenactments of already memorable frames from previews.
The anticipation also turned a spotlight on newcomer Black Sheep, with many fans wondering if the film outfit is related to Star Cinema, which produced the last three LizQuen movies. It’s markedly different in terms marketing, fans have observed, but appears to also have the machinery of an ABS-CBN release behind it.
The quick answer: Yes, it does, as Black Sheep technically is a newborn sister to 26-year-old Star Cinema. They’re both under ABS-CBN Films, which expanded officially in 2018 to also include CinemaOne Originals and CineBro Originals.
Black Sheep, described by Star Cinema head Olivia Lamasan as catering to the millennial market, debuted in September 2018 with a film reuniting ex-sweethearts from that generation — Angelica Panganiban and Carlo Aquino, in the blockbuster “Exes Baggage.”
It followed up with the big-screen releases “To Love Some Buddy” starring Zanjoe Marudo and Maja Salvador, “Oda sa Wala” with comedienne Pokwang, and most recently, “Sakaling Maging Tayo” featuring Mccoy de Leon and Elisse Joson.
These films, akin to “Alone/Together,” had the backing of the country’s top media network, and starred its homegrown talents — so why weren’t they instead under the banner of ABS-CBN’s flagship film studio?
Put simply, they deviated from the established Star Cinema brand.
As early as 2017, ABS-CBN Films had noticed that the “taste of the market has become very segmented,” according Black Sheep creative director Kriz Gazmen.
The biggest indication of that shift, Gazmen recalled, was the mammoth success of “Kita Kita,” which launched the unlikely tandem of Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez. With its P300-million haul, the Sigrid Bernardo film is currently highest-grossing Philippine independent film.
“Na-realize namin na there’s also a segment in the market that’s rising right now who wants alternative content,” Gazmen told ABS-CBN News.
But the dilemma was: “Parang ang hirap na niyang ipasok under Star Cinema,’ kasi ‘yung brand ng Star Cinema naman ang mag-sa-suffer,” Gazmen said.
“We’ve tried experimenting a lot, but we’ve noticed na sobrang fixed na ng brand ng Star Cinema,” he explained. “Ang hirap nang mag-experiment, because when you say it’s a Star Cinema movie, people already have set expectations. It’s emotional, rollercoaster, malakas ang family element. It’s really meant for a broader market.”
The demand, however, could not be ignored — hence the formation of new brands under the larger ABS-CBN Films. CinemaOne would continue as a festival for “edgier, arthouse” movies, as Lamasan described it, while CineBro will produce content for the male market.
The millennial Black Sheep, too, was born among them.
“When we say ABS-CBN is in the service of the Filipino, we want to serve all the Filipinos. This market that we’re capturing is a market that wants an alternative taste. Hindi ‘yung usual fare mo, in terms of the themes that we want to tackle,” Gazmen said.
Whereas Star Cinema’s in-brand values help determine its filmmaking, Black Sheep has a different approach — “we want to hear first the story that the director wants to tell.”
“And if it’s a story worth telling, we’re going to produce it. Iyon kami sa Black Sheep,” he said.
So far, the directors whose vision Black Sheep has brought to life are Dan Villegas (“Exes Baggage”), Jason Paul Laxamana (“To Love Some Buddy”), Dwein Baltazar (“Oda sa Wala”), and JP Habac (“Sakaling Maging Tayo”).
The latest, Jadaone, is also behind “That Thing Called Tadhana” — her 2014 breakout film that’s perhaps the best early example of the “alternative taste” that prompted ABS-CBN Films’ evolution. Prior to “Kita Kita,” it was considered the highest earning independent film in the country.
Whether incidental or planned, Jadaone’s “Alone/Together” being “a love letter to her youth” is a perfect match for the millennial-oriented Black Sheep, with the film’s warm-hued depiction of young, idealistic notions like changing the world, and the decidedly glum colors of the lead characters in the real world — surely familiar situations to many millennials in the work force.
The more grounded and intimate storytelling of Black Sheep films may fit the so-called “alternative taste,” but may also be alienating to the broader market — hence the big-name casting choices meant to complement the experimental approach of its offerings.
Black Sheep recognizes that content can be made more attractive with its packaging, in this case niche stories headlined by A-list stars like Panganiban and Aquino, and Soberano and Gil.
“What we can leverage in ABS-CBN is that we have stars,” Gazmen said. “Why not produce movies for the actors of ABS-CBN na mas may draw pagdating sa masa? Ito ‘yung way of welcoming the people na, ‘Try niyo naman ibang lasa, ibang taste ng pelikula.”
That invitation is also dressed up differently, going by Black Sheep’s unique marketing blitz. For “Alone/Together,” for instance, lead stars Soberano and Gil surprised U-Belt students by personally handing them black roses, and went on a gondola ride at a crowded mall in Taguig.
Those are on top of videos of the two cheering for their respective character’s school in the film, and Soberano taking up a sinigang taste test challenge — a playful response to the 2018 meme about her candid defense over being cast in “Bagani.”
“We could’ve used Star Cinema, the page, but we really wanted to build our own brand,” Gazmen said, pointing out that the more established ABS-CBN Films outfit already has millions of followers.
“In fact, we hired a different promo team for Black Sheep. Kasi ang gusto talaga namin for Black Sheep, hindi siya ‘yung usual na nakikita mo. Ang gusto namin, where the young people are, we’re going to be there, kasi mas younger ‘yung market na gusto naming ma-capture sa Black Sheep,” he explained.
While these fresh executions speak to the social media-savvy generation, the traditional approach more identified with Star Cinema ensures that Black Sheep still reaches a wider demographic, such as through the usual — and dependable — TV appearances on “Tonight with Boy Abunda,” “Gandang Gabi Vice,” and “ASAP,” among others.
Black Sheep benefits from the best of both worlds, really, at least in terms of star power and mainstream reach. All that’s left to ensure, after the invitation, is the lasting appreciation of the Filipino audience for the alternative.
“Grabe na ‘yung sophistication ng taste ng audience when it comes to content. We’re very, very hopeful naman na ‘yung mga Pinoy ngayon, appreciative na sila sa bagong panlasa,” Gazmen said.