Philippine cinema generally has not taken center stage outside the region, which is a curious phenomenon since the Philippines has had a film tradition longer than most countries, has been one of the world's top ten movie producers for years, and has battled with governmental and other entities over issues common to the industry globally.

Imported film shorts were shown in Manila in 1897, and the following year a Spanish army officer filmed and showed scenes of the city. By 1909, the country already had three studios, and then two years later, a board of censorship and an association to oppose censorship. In 1912, two features made by Americans Harry Brown, Edward M. Gross, and Albert Yearsley, who resided in the Philippines, were released within one day of each other: La Vida de José Rizal ( The Life of José Rizal ) and Yearsley's El Fusilamiento de Dr. José Rizal ( The Execution of Dr. José Rizal ).

Credited with being the father of the Philippine film industry, however, is José Nepomuceno, an engineer who ran the country's most successful photography studio. In 1917, Nepomuceno sold his lucrative studio, read up on movies, and started Malayan Movies. His first works were documentaries; in 1919, he made Dalagang bukid ( Country Maiden ), considered the first truly Filipino picture. Nepomuceno remained a major force in the industry for nearly 45 years, producing more than 300 films and founding at least seven studios.

One of the studios he helped establish was Sampaguita Pictures, which became one of the Big Four (with LVN Pictures, Lebran, and Premiere Productions) that dominated Philippine films in the post-World War II years. When Sampaguita was launched in 1937, the big studio concept, reminiscent of Hollywood with its star system and genre films, was beginning. By 1939, at least eleven film companies were in operation, producing fifty films that year—the fifth highest total in the world. With the beginning of World War II, the industry nearly closed, partly because the Japanese believed Philippine movies were too attached to the United States.

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