‘John Denver Trending’: Inside the Cause, Success, and the Continuing Journey of the Cinematic Masterpiece

It is an important film that deserves a wide platform to make its message all the more resounding. The most awarded film of the 2019 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, John Denver Trending, is getting a national release via the streaming platform iWant starting this Saturday, April 25.

The film, with its impressive reception to audience and critical acclaim last year at the premier independent film festival, boldly talked about mental health and the perils of “mob mentality” exhibited in social media.

In a well-crafted story written by ABS-CBN writer-turned-first time film director Arden Rod Condez, John Denver Trending‘s impact was so palpable that it pushed Cinemalaya management to mount multiple screenings of the film on the last day of the festival on its way to the awards’ night, where the film took home multiple awards.

Production stills courtesy of Arden Rod Condez/John Denver Trending

The film zooms in on the life of its 14-year-old protagonist, John Denver, played by Jansen Magpusao, who was embroiled on a very public social media-fueled “trial”, after getting into a fight with a classmate after wrongfully-alleging him for theft of an iPad. The story delves in further into the dark road the young boy was pushed to tread alone, with little to no support other than his strong mother Marites, expertly played by the award-winning actress Meryll Soriano.

“It excites me. This is our chance to bring this film to non-Cinemalaya, non-indie film fests moviegoers. Now, more teens and parents can see it and I’m interested to what they would say once they have watched the film. For regular movie enthusiasts, ano kaya ang magiging tingin nila sa pelikula? Will they be bothered by the presence of non-professional actors? And also by the use of a regional language? Exciting s’ya,” Condez tells Rank Magazine upon landing this highly-anticipated deal with iWant.

Writer, director Arden Rod Condez. Photographed by Wilmark Jolindon for Rank Magazine

“But of course at the same time, I am scared because it will also open to piracy. That’s why I fervently ask for everyone’s help. Help us track these people who would steal a film like ours. iWant has spent a lot for this and yet they are giving it to the audience for free. Libre na nga. If they want to watch, sa iWant na lang sana.”

Aside from it being the director’s first feature film, it was not an a secret to movie fans that John Denver Trending featured an ensemble of first-time actors, which not only added to the authenticity of the film, but also masterfully showcased the maturity of Condez’ directing prowess.

Jansen Magpusao. Photographed by Wilmark Jolindon.

Apart from its lead actor, Magpusao, who would eventually take home the Best Actor trophy, the cast also includes a selection of independent film regulars and actual townsfolk from Glenn Mas, Sunshine Teodoro, Sammy Rubido, Vince Philip Alegre, Jofranz Ambubuyog, Christian Alarcon, Zandro Leo Canlog, Luz Venus, Andy Yuarata, Estela Patino, and Renato Sagot. Shot entirely in the director’s hometown in Pandan, Antique, the film then used Kiniray-a, the native language in Antique.

“iWant’s head, Ms. Ginny Ocampo, was once my boss. I was (well, still am) with ABS-CBN for almost 15 years. She and some of our bosses including Direk Lauren (Dyogi), Tita Cory (Vidanes), and Sir Deo (Endrinal) watched the film at the CCP during Cinemalaya. Luckily, they liked the film and they saw the need for it to be seen by so many people because of its relevance,” Condez shares on the journey of the film leading to its iWant release.

“Of course, we didn’t say yes right away as we also studied more options for the film. We attended several international film fests first, heard some offers from other streaming services, but in the end, iWant gave us the best deal. They were very passionate on their plan to use the film to jumpstart a campaign on responsible social media use. Hindi lang sila bumili ng pelikula para may maipalabas sila. They acquired it because they also believe in the film’s cause. I hope they would also partner with us as we still continue with our plan to bring this film to different schools. Well, pag natapos na itong pandemic at bumalik ang buhay natin sa normal. iWant, with its growing number of active and very vocal subscribers, I’d like to think that it is the best home for John Denver Trending as it brings us to an even bigger audience. And also, I always take pride naman as a Kapamilya and this film is a testament to the years and years of learnings that I got from working in ABSCBN.”

Production stills courtesy of Arden Rod Condez/John Denver Trending

Apart from receiving the biggest award of the night, John Denver Trending also took home the NETPAC Jury Prize, Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score trophies from the Cinemalaya, while also landing as the most watched entry from the year’s batch of competing films. After this, the film also bagged major awards in the international scene, from the Vesoul International Film Festival in France taking home the Special Jury Prize, Audience’s Choice Award, and Critics’ Choice Award, as well as several recognitions from various international film festivals.

While the film received raves and multiple awards here and abroad, John Denver Trending also met hurdles from parties who have been wrongly-interpreting the key messaging of the film given the sensitivity of the subject matter. Condez noted, “Up to this day, we are very careful about this. That’s why we really had a serious talk with iWant on how they would handle the promotion and distribution of this film.”

Production stills courtesy of Arden Rod Condez/John Denver Trending

In fact, to further its commitment in pushing the conversation on mental health awareness, John Denver Trending, through iWant, recently aired a primer for the film moderated by Jose Javier Reyes where Condez, with actress Meryll Soriano, and psychologist, Dr. Ed Caligner, who was instrumental in developing the project. This way, Condez, with the streaming platform, seeks to prepare and the audience on the heaviness and sensitivity of the subject matter, but nonetheless a relevant dialogue that needs to be ignited.

Condez added, “Also, even if MTRCB gave us a PG rating, I and iWant agreed to restrict really young audiences from seeing it. Of course, we are putting a warning at the start of the film and a hotline number of an NGO that deals with mental health issues at the end.”

When asked about the relevance of the film getting an opportunity to cast a wider net in terms of its audiences, Condez said, “I really hope that this can be an even bigger vehicle for us to get the film’s message through. iWant has millions of subscribers by now, I would be very happy if we can make some or hopefully most of them realize the importance and need for responsible social media use. I hope it would also open the conversation on mental health issues on teenagers.”

Production stills courtesy of Arden Rod Condez/John Denver Trending

He added, “I hope that this could also make these regular viewers appreciate Philippine indie cinema more. Na mararaming magagandang pelikulang indie. I also hope that this would also inspire future filmmakers. We made this film with a very limited budget, featuring almost all non-professional actors. I hope that they could get ideas from the film on how they could make theirs happen.”

After iWant’s release of the film in the Philippines, John Denver Trending is currently studying offers for international distribution. In fact, before the quarantine and the rise of cases of the pandemic, the team has been busy finalizing a deal with a US distributor.

Production stills courtesy of Arden Rod Condez/John Denver Trending

Condez adds, “Aside from this, we are still planning to push through with our school-to-school program. Iba pa rin kasi ang experience of watching it at the big screen. Plus of course, mas madali ang mga talkbacks with students after. That’s why we still encourage schools to invite us. I believe that kids really need to hear our story. As this happens, hopefully, we can still continue with our screenings in some international festivals.”

Prior to the enhanced community quarantine, Condez was slated to go to Sweden for a festival. Given the current global situation, the team behind the film is still looking for updates on the change in schedules for other festivals who have tapped the film for exhibition and competition.

He adds, “The latest awesome news that we got, was that our film has been considered ‘In Competition’ at the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) in Brisbane, Australia where we are competing in their Youth Category. APSA is considered ‘Asia-Pacific’s highest accolade in film.’ We will compete against films from 70 countries from the Asia Pacific region. Pretty stiff competition but who
knows. Since Cinemalaya, this film has been surprising us.”

Stream the award-winning film “John Denver Trending” on the iWant app (iOs and Android) or iwant.ph for free. For updates, like www.facebook.com/iWant, and follow @iwant on Twitter and @iwantofficial on Instagram, and subscribe to www.youtube.com/iWant.