Metro filmfest struggles between quality and box office

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No matter the growing number of movie festivals in the Philippines these past years, the Metro Manila Film Festival is still the country’s most anticipated movie event of the year—and it begins anew today.

For more than 40 years now, it has become a tradition for families and friends to watch and enjoy local films for their post-Noche Buena bonding on Christmas Day.

Through the decades, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has offered many films that are considered classics today, among them “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (1976)”, “Burlesk Queen (1977), “Himala (1982)”, “Jose Rizal (1998)”, “Tanging Yaman (2000)”, and “Dekada ’70 (2002).”

It also served as the springboard for successful movie franchises such as “Shake, Rattle, N’ Roll,” “Mano Po,” and the “Enteng Kabisote series,” titles which are almost synonymous to the festival itself.
Remembering 2016


While there are certainly years in the MMFF’s history that had better movie line-ups than others, one year stands out as utterly different from the rest, and that is the year 2016. The year will be remembered as the festival that supposedly discarded moneymaking mainstream movies for independently produced titles, effectively shaking the local movie industry as a whole. The unprecedented move was made in response to a controversy in 2015, which disqualified “Honor They Father” from the Best Picture race when its director Erik Matti won the award for his category. Unable to make sense of how he could win Best Director with his movie disqualified from Best Picture [basically since it premiered elsewhere before the MMFF], a protest ensued ending in a Senate hearing.
The MMFF committee was told to be clear with its rules and more so their implementation.

Whether it was a change for the better or a change for the sake of change, the all-indie line-up of 2016 turned out disastrous from the MMFF, which registered the lowest box office sales since 2009. It only earned a little over P400 million compared to P1 billion gross sales from 2013 to 2015.

The disappointing revenue also meant whittled down funding for MMFF’s beneficiary, the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation or the Mowelfund.

More changes

From a year full of changes in 2016, more changes took place in the lead up to the opening of today’s MMFF 2017. To start with, changes in the composition of the MMFF Executive Committee were announced in March in a bid to include more sectors of the film industry in selecting the yearly finalists. As such, the committee is now comprised of 20 individuals with representatives from the academe, government, media, and private sector professionals.

And with Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and MMFF Chairman Thomas Orbos’ announcement that the festival will feature a roster of titles with “quality and box office potential,” new rules and regulations were again put in place for the 2017 edition. First, a script submission was held from which the committee selected four stories to be made into movies, while the other four to make up the “Magic 8” were selected from completed movie submissions.

The selection criteria were also revised to reintroduce the controversial “commercial appeal/viability.”

The first four films were announced on June 30 based on script submissions, namely, “All of You” directed by Dan Villegas, “Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad” directed by Joyce Bernal, “Meant to Beh” directed by Chris Martinez, and “Ang Panday” directed by Coco Martin.

The last four official entries, on the other hand, were announced on November 17 based of the finished films. These are “Deadma Walking” directed by Julius Alfonso, “Haunted Forest” by Ian Loreños, “Ang Larawan” by Loy Arcenas and “Siargao” by Paul Soriano.

Criticisms

The MMFF Executive Committee (ExeCom) was promptly criticized for reinstating the script submission process, and accused of to do to accommodate big mainstream studios that were mostly left out in 2016.

Such an accusation however is false and unfair according to Boots Anson Roa-Rodriguez trustee and president of Mowelfund and MMFF ExeCom member, who in an exclusive interview with The Manila Times said, “This kind of process is not a cast in stone because in the final analysis, in the bylaws, the ExeCom really has the decision to innovate depending on the demands of the audience and the need to work out logistics for sustainability. After last year–the dismal 2016 results—there were meetings held. There was a Congressional meeting, there was a Senate hearing, and it was decided after all that [to do this]to be able to meet both the financial requirements and the artistic requirements of the MMFF.”

Rodriguez continued, “The buzz phrase that was then adopted was for the entries to come up with ‘good quality commercial films.’ That was the main and general basis for the changes in criteria.”
For this year, selection was based on excellence (40 percent), commercial appeal or viability (40 percent), Filipino cultural and/or historical value (10 percent) and global appeal (10 percent).

“There have been years where changes were adopted depending on the demands of the times. Like in 2009, the weight of the commercial viability was 50 percent. It was not strictly like this every year, and the changes in the criteria are never arbitrary. They simply depend on the different kinds of forces, which include the market forces, and each time, the ExeCom studies all the factors very closely. Consultations are made even with the cinema houses and the producers so that when decisions are finally made, all stakeholders have been heard.”

Resignations

Despite the hearings, meetings and consultations undertaken before the first four finalists were announced for 2017, it can be recalled that three members of the MMFF ExeCom promptly resigned. They were Ricky Lee, Rolando Tolentino and Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala who believed the committee failed to continue the reforms initiated in 2016.

In a joint statement, the three former members said they disagreed with the MMFF ExeCom “for putting too much emphasis on commerce over art.”

The three members were replaced by Maryo de los Reyes, Joy Belmonte-Alimurung and Arnell Ignacio. The remaining fourth slot has been kept open for representatives of the independent cinema.

Recalling the events of early 2017, Rodrigo declared, “We respect the decisions of these people who resigned.

But we also realized that when the rules were created or the rules were stipulated by the rules committee, they
were present. In fact, some of them were members of the rules committee. Rolando Tolentino was the head of the rules committee. The changes were announced before they were implemented.”

She continued, “Having been informed beforehand about the rules committee results and the criteria, I surmised it was a personal decision that pushed them to resign, and if that was a personal decision, we should not meddle with that.”

Issues

Besides the resignations, another issue raised by the new four-based-on-script and four-based-on-completed film ruling is the significant gap between the two announcements.

With the first batch announced in June and the last in November, several producers complained how the early choices have the advantage of advertising their movies longer.

Vincent Nebrida and Fernando Ortigas, pesident and executive producer of TBA Studios [makers of "General Luna”], respectively, told The Manila Times they originally intended to field “Smaller and Smaller Circles” to the 2017 MMFF.

“We were going to submit but our movie to qualify but then we were discouraged by the way they came up with the lineup. My first reaction when they picked the first four films based on script was—and I’m talking about financials here; nothing even to do with artistic considerations—you’ve got nine months to advertise your movie.

But the films who would be chosen in November, they merely have a month for promotions! I just thought how are you going to advertise that. So to me, it was, I’m sorry. It’s a no. That’s already a disadvantage,” Ortigas at Smaller and Smaller Circle’s press conference. [T[The movie had its commercial run on December 6]/p>

Nebrida, agreed and said, “You have so little time to get the word out [a[about your movie] I feel bad for those four films [s[selected in the end]I don’t think it’s equitable. If anything, all films should be announced at the same time. They should change that [r[rule]

Asked to comment on this particular issue, Rodrigo simply said in turn, “This is the first time an innovation like this was made. The guideline were established, the criteria were studied and we had a selection committee that’s composed of honest, honorable and knowledgeable people.”

She insisted, “For the Execom, this is the closest to approaching a win-win situation for MMFF. Kahit na anong desisyon siguro meron at merong magrereklamo.” (Someone will complain whatever the decision is.)

Box office

In the midst of allegations of favoring big movie companies and commercial viability, Rodrigo said there is a singular reason why the ExeCom needs to concern itself with box office results.

She said, “It took years for the industry to be able to get a Christmas play date—from December 25 to the first week of January—exclusively for Filipino films. Prior to 1974, foreign movies were the kings of Philippine cinemas. So it was a breakthrough that MMFF was able to get that play date.

“There were a lot of sacrifices by those people who promulgated it. We were among those who tried to help get that particular play date because that would ensure great results for the industry in terms of both of box office and quality. So if you look back at the history of MMFF this was a triumph.

“The theater owners said that if the festival didn’t become financially stable, business-wise they will always have foreign films waiting in the wings with schedules planned ahead of time.

“At the end of the day theater owners are business people. They want to help the festival, but of course, but the bottom line for the owners is that they also need to earn, otherwise they cannot be part of the festival.

“So this has to be a major consideration for the festival because in terms of logistics and financials for the industry as a whole, malaki ang mawawala.”

Roa also expressed that the films that were selected this year were not judged according to independent or mainstream films like many believe.

“Actually from last year and this year, the line between indies and mainstream have been blurred. If you remember in the selection last year, indies dominated the entries but there were still films that were considered mainstream or distributed or co-produced by mainstream. And to this day, the selection committee selected them not because they were indie or mainstream but because they met the criteria for that year,” she said.

“As regards to balancing quality and commercialism, that is what we are pushing for this year. If you look at the roster of entries, there is this thing called franchise entries and purely commercial entries but you can see from the trailers and promos that they put quality into their work.”

Overall, Rodrigo is confident that this year’s lineup will do away with any doubts or issues different groups have about the MMFF because the collection is of different genres and very varied in terms of story and even artists.

She admitted that the usual box office stars will lord over the festival but she is till hopeful there will be a sleeper hit to sweep the awards based on quality alone.

“There is no such thing as a formula. In the final analysis, tao na lang talaga ang pipili niyan. Of course promotion, marketing, and the elements need to be there. But the stories, the direction, nandun din dapat yun.”

Finally, Rodrigo, a veteran actress herself, stated how she is truly impressed and proud of the growth of Philippine cinema compared to four or five years ago.

“There is greater dynamism and greater activeness in the film industry,” she averred.

She also gave credit to independent filmmakers who became vital in getting everyone in the industry to up their game.

But at the end of the day, she believes that the most important thing the last year has taught the industry is to know who they are making their films for.

“It’s become evident that yes it is good to infuse creativity, technical excellence in the films, but it is also very important that you connect to your audience. In the process of perfecting your film, you should not forget about your audience. After all, that is the reason why you are creating a movie–to show it to your audience. It cannot be for self-expression alone or making social statements. It’s good to have all of those but we have to make sure that you have an audience first of all,” she ended.

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