2016 has been branded as the Year of Change ... and, boy, are we getting an overwhelming amount of changes. This has been such a crazy year that some of us are wishing it will soon be over. But before that happens there is still the fiesta to end all fiestas in this country --- the MetroManila Film Festival!
The reactions to the choice of the eight entries to the MetroManila Film Festival have been nothing short of dramatic.
Depending on which side of the fence you are standing, the selection of smaller films, devoid of the usual franchise materials we have been fed from as far back as we can remember, sent shock waves not only to the film junkies but to the popular audiences as well.
The cineastes --- those film enthusiasts, scholars and experts --- were doing cartwheels while applauding the brave choice of films for the all-Pinoy film festival this Christmas. They were short of announcing the Renaissance of Filipino movies. The selection committee was headed no less than by professor and film scholar, Dr. Nicanor Tiongson. Included in this august body were Attorney Trixie Angeles of the NCCA, journalist Crispina Martinez-Belen, film director Lawrence Fajardo, young actor Ping Medina among others. From more than twenty-five submissions, the committee chose the top eight to be shown this Christmas.
The festival this coming December will show many firsts.
This is the first time that a documentary film, Baby Ruth Villarama's Sunday Beauty Queens will be put side by side with Erik Matti's horror entry entitled Seklusyion which stars Ronnie Alonte. Alonte happens to be one of the lead actors of Star Cinema's Vince and Kath and James. Great. And for those who are still unfamiliar with the song-and-dance all-male group called Hashtags, Ronnie Alonte is one of the most popular members of that tribe.
This is also the first time in ... well, history ... that the names of Vic Sotto, Vice Ganda and any of the franchise films of Mother Lily are not in the roster.
What?!!! How can we have a Philippine Christmas without Enteng or another edition of Mano Po or Shake Rattle and Roll? Pasko bang talaga sa Pilipinas kung wala tayong mapapanood na pelikula ni Vice Ganda?
This was precisely the reason why reforms were instigated at the conclusion of last year's MMFF. Remember that there was such a mess involving the disqualification of Erik Matti's Honor Thy Father and questionable affiliations of members of the Executive Committee with certain producers who have entries in the festival that a scandal erupted.
This was why there was even another congressional investigation (as we have investigations at the slightest provocation) trying to iron out what really happened, who made the decisions, how money was being made and where the money was going from the biggest all-Filipino film event to end each calendar year.
Nobody budged when a chorus of complaints rose from the ranks for indeed there was a need for re-evaluation. It was time for reassessment. So changes were suggested, new ground rules were implemented. There was hope for the improvement of the festival if not rework its mechanics in the selection of entries and truly make this deserving as the capstone of the cinema industry to conclude a passing year and welcome a new one.
So this was the result.
Whereas before producers were only asked to submit first drafts of screenplays for selection purposes, now the committee required completed films (eventually picture lock submissions were accepted provided that no major changes were made after the pre-selection committee examined the works). It was made clear that the selection of the eight finalists will be based on the quality of the material which, of course, includes audience appeal and the faithfulness in capturing truly Filipino values.
Although later subject to debate, never was there any promise that there must be a fifty/fifty rule accommodating four mainstream and four independently produced films to constitute the roster.
That was more of wishful thinking from some sectors and commercial producers who feared that there would be a bias against the usual kinds of films submitted to the festival. They were unsure if the committee will favor of smaller cutting edge films considering that a number of those in the Executive Committee were stalwarts of independent filmmaking in the country.
In other words, the major studios agreed that changes should be made. Their unanswered question was just how much of paradigm shifts will be implemented ... and, more important, how were the changes going to affect the kind of films to be chosen for Christmas showing.
After the list constituting the Magic 8 was announced, it was really quite clear where the Selection Committee steered the festival. But wait: the Magic Eight films. There were entries from the commercial producers as well as a sequel of a previous film (though not part of the MMFF). They were not all indies depending on how one defines an "independently produced" film.
Contrary to the knee jerk reaction of some industry people, Star Cinema still has an entry but not its more favored (and expensive) Vice Ganda/Coco Martin tandem directed by Joyce Bernal. Instead, what got in was Ted Boborol's Wattpad-based romance with relatively new and therefore untested in the box office above the title performers in the person of Julia Barretto, Joshua Garcia and Ronnie Alonte.
Similarly, Jun Lana's award-winning Die Beautiful (starring Paolo Ballesteros) will be released by Regal Films. Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 ( with Eugene Domingo) was put together by another seasoned producer, Attorney Joji Alonso of Quantum Films and Erik Matti (Seklusyon of Reality Films )has already created his own branding with the track record of his most recent releases which included last year's controversial Honor Thy Father.
Realistically, these four films already have the advantage over the others because of their built-in machinery if not reputation of their producers and filmmakers.
Ballesteros won the Best Actor and the film won the People'[s Choice at the recently concluded Tokyo Film Festival giving Die Beautiful a word-of-mouth curiosity edge. Eugene Domingo is making her big screen comeback in Babae sa Septic Tank 2: it should be remembered that Domingo holds the record of being one of the most successful actresses in independently produced films thanks to Kimi Dora 1. And whether we like to admit it or not, Star Cinema is Star Cinema with a publicity machinery as big and powerful as Godzilla that can plow through enemy territory and leave competition completely obliterated. Then there is Erik Matti with a horror movie with an uploaded trailer that promises to be yet another technical tour de force.
However,let us remain very real too. None of these four films can match the monolithic drawing power of Vice Ganda and Vic Sotto or the power of recognizable franchise like Mano Po or Shake Rattle and Roll. Now the challenge is to convince the Filipino audience that these are viable alternatives for their Christmas entertainment.
The other entries --- especially Real Florido bringing back Nora Aunor in Kabisera or the experimental Saving Sally that proves to be another first in mixing animation with live action deserve to be seen as well --- but how can you sell these films in a crowded and noisy market in a span of three weeks? Marketing requires money ... and that is the bane of most producers in being able muster enough funds not only to make their films but to sell them as well to an audience larger than the usual film students and enthusiasts.
The overwhelming joy of the film scholars became the dismay of the movie lovers.
The most common complaint is that Christmas is family time and there is not a single movie in the line-up which can entice the typical Filipino pamilya who at the crack of dawn or even before moviehouses open for screening are already lined up in the box office waiting for the first salvo of ticket sales.
This is not to say that the movies selected for this year's festival fail to serve the needs of the audience as some are family-worthy entries.
But the power of branding and franchise still prevails in the choice of the everyday moviegoer as to where he will spend two hundred fifty pesos worth of movie money. You can tell them that Die Beautiful and Babae sa Septic Tank 2 are comedies --- and they would still ask Where's Enteng? or Bakit walang movie si Vice? And this is because the two brands have become habits ( but let us not prematurely call them traditions) for the past so many years. Remember that Vic Sotto and Vice Ganda only do one movie a year ... and they reserve that as their Christmas gifts to their legions of loyal followers.
The woes of the commercial producers that their three franchise movies (Super Parental Guidance of Star Cinema, Enteng Kabisote 10 of Mzet/Octo/APT and Chinoy: Mano Po 7 of Regal) were not selected were somewhat misinterpreted. Of course they were disappointed --- but then again, on hindsight, what did they expect? If any of the submitted films will be the object of nitpicking, then it was bound to be the very movies they were citing as the cause of the trivialization of the festival from last year. These producers took great risks in submitting more of the same --- and maybe, just maybe, they were hoping that there would still be space accommodated for them. But apparently the organizers and the selection committee were also insistent in proving their point.
Whether there is great truth that these franchise films have diminished the aesthetic and cultural value of the festival in the past, that is an argument easily refuted by the commercial returns. The highest grossing Filipino movies are harvested during the MMFF: these movies bring not only profit to their producers but also funding for their beneficiaries as well --- namely the Film Academy of the Philippines and the Movie Workers Welfare Fund (MOWELFUND).
Whether it is time to try something new considering all the years that we have been having more of the same, then why not? If not now ... then when? Are we ready for this? Then let's find out. Don't knock it until you've tried it ... and let us open the opportunity to a greater number, especially the smaller producers who do not have the dinero or the machinery to stand a chance against foreign films and large studio-produced Filipino releases on a regular run.
There is nothing wrong with wanting and implementing change if it broadens the horizon of the film industry. Whether they are commercia/mainstream movies or independently produced films --- they are all products of Filipino ingenuity and talent. There is no distinction in the branding of Filipino cinema.
And this gulf that divides the commercial studio producers and the maverick indie folks should be bridged with the nobility if not the largess of a common purpose: to give people good entertainment if not thought-provoking cinema.
However the after-effects of the announcement of the finalists did not seem to foster genuine congeniality.
But what rubbed the commercial producers and the popular audiences the wrong way was the manner by which the explanations of the selections were being made. No, it was not in the formal announcements but the side comments, the social media postings brought about by understandable euphoria at the chance for change.
Change has been implemented: fine. No one can do anything about that since it is already there and the Big Three Producers have no option but to abide by the rules. However to brand the big commercial films as basura and to say that it is time to educate the audiences rub people the worst way possible.
Movies are cultural artifacts. They are products of evolution, a manifestation of needs and the way filmmakers respond to address what the audience wants.
You cannot simply tell people that they should pay good money to watch this because this is what they should want. You cannot go ramming your taste down the throats of others --- because they will react and even repel your efforts.
As somebody in the business so bluntly puts it, "These guys better realize that people watch movies to have fun ...and to relax especially during the holidays. They are not there to be educated by people like them." Similarly, it can be said that people should also be spending their money on films that are enriching and do not mock their common sense and intelligence.
More so, condescension and wagging your finger at the audience telling them,. "Let me educate you ..." will not exactly generate the enthusiasm (ergo, the feedback ... and the box office) that you aspire to achieve at the end of the day,.
There should be a better strategy or even more creative ways to entice the larger audience (over and above those who watch Cinemalaya, CinemaOne, the Quezon City Film Festival, SinagMaynila and CineFilipino ) who you want to watch a different kind of film. You do not tell them that they are saksakan ng bobo if they prefer the tried and tested popular entertainment.
As a taxi driver candidly said, "Pera ko yon ... bakit nyo pakikialaman kung saang sine ko gastusin yung pinaghirapan ko?"
The fact that Vic and Vice and all those editions of Shake Rattle and Roll entertained and therefore made money means that these films are addressing needs --- perhaps just different from those that films like Thy Womb or Honor Thy Father can provide.
Understanding the audience is the key to bringing them to you --- and not by chastising them for not wanting or appreciating your preferences.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to bring a greater variety of films to the Filipino audiences. God knows we badly need them.
As Matti himself used as comparison in his Facebook shoutouts, you cannot serve the same dishes year after year after year. Picking up his analogy, you cannot force feed people either to taste the dishes you have cooked for them. You cannot tell your customers, "Yan lang ang nakahanda sa menu. Yan lang ang makakain nyo. Masustansiya ang mga yan kaya kainin nyo." Ay-ya-yay!
What is important is to slowly introduce them to the possibilities --- make them realize that there are other choices rather than yelling at them (and the chefs or short order cooks who concocted them) for sticking to a fail-safe menu. Change cannot be rushed. It should be naturally desired in order for this to be accepted and evolved.
I shall be the first to be so overjoyed if people actually go out of their way and see Villarama's documentary about OFWs in Hong Kong. From those who have seen this and attested by its audience at the Tokyo Filmfest, Villarama is emerging to be a potent voice in documentary filmmaking --- an underdeveloped genre among our filmmakers.
However the Christmas audiences should be made aware of the significance of documentaries beyond what they watch from GMA News TV or ABS-CBN's News and Current Affairs. Docus are not mere segments of a magazine show --- they are masterful treatments of non-fiction in cinematic form. Thus, if the MMFF chose to show Sunday Beauty Queen, then please push the material in a campaign that will bring this to the radar of the crowd.
Without the publicity machinery of a big studio and because you are offering something extremely unique (and important) the MMFF itself should help in marketing and promoting the eight films so that they all have even chances during the big Christmas opening date.
The same goes for three ot other films that do not have the initial push of the four mentioned earlier. Alvin Yapan's Oro (starring Joem Bascon), the experimental Saving Sally and Florido's Kabisera need tremendous drumbeating to enter the consciousness of the Filipino moviegoer to consider them as options.
Now here lies another rub.
When the big three movies were locked out of the Christmas opening date, they decided to show their movies ahead of the MMFF with Enteng and Vice showing on a holiday, 30 November and Mano Po 7 screening on the 14th of December. These movies are now being promoted as The Early Christmas Festival.
This, of course, opened a new can of possibilities which may or may not affect the box office receipts of the Christmas showings.
Firstly, by mid to end of November, regular employees have already obtained their much desired 13th month pay. They have already budgeted their Christmas and entertainment expenses which they would need to stretch until the holidays. And they have also set aside their pangsine money which they used to consume in the duration of the festival, watching at least one or at most all the entries at a time when they have no work and kids have no school.
People used to hold onto their money to stay within budget only to splurge starting Christmas Day which includes watching as many entries of the film festival.
But what if they do it three weeks ahead? How will the box office receipts of Vic and Vice showing outside the festival affect the sales of the actual movies in the festival where there is no entry being sold as the most child-friendly?
What if, as one colleague pointed out, people started celebrating their moviegoing tradition ahead of the actual Christmas playdates? Could that not steal a good 30% of the total gross of the festival? Oh, please, please let us hope not.
Secondly, kids may not yet have the money that they will receive on Christmas day as their aguinaldos but what movies will they choose to watch when the festival opens? The two comedy entries are high concept comedies armed with the popularity of award-winning Ballesteros and the all-too-familiar Domingo. There is, of course, the romcom from Star Cinema which would hopefully generate a new love team but the best bet would still be the Rhian Ramos starrer Saving Sally.
From the trailer alone, this fusion of animation with live-action is not merely a novelty act but a possibility of opening doors for other forms of filmmaking. There is a quiet buzz going around about the film but this needs to be pushed much further to be an option for the common moviegoer to see this not only as a Rhian Ramos movie but an attempt to do something new --- and appealing to the young.
Initial feedback shows that Saving Sally has its own buzz from the netizens as well as the hipster crowd that loves a good experiment that shows new cool in filmmaking. Now that is good news --- because, together with Die Beautiful, the Rhian Ramos movie is the most anticipated by the Makati, Greenhills, Alabang and Taguig crowds.
But wait. There lies the same problem again: marketing. Unless kids are convinced that a movie like Saving Sally is a choice, then chances are that money that used to be spend watching movies on Christmas Day will end up as an entrance ticket to Enchanted Kingdom or Star City. There must be a visible effort to promote this film --- no, all the films to the madlang people.
Lastly, what we seem to forget is that the whole movie game is not only played by the producers, directors, actors and audiences alone. There are quiet yet very powerful gods who are in the background ... and determine the fate of movies on the screen. These are the theater owners.
In fairness to the major theater owners, they have allowed the change to be executed hoping that they can still come close to the box office numbers harvested from last year. Yet there is another inevitable fact that should not, could not and would never be forgotten: "This is the movie industry. It is a business." Not only are the producers concerned about recouping their investments or making a profit --- so do the theater owners.
If producers can dazzle you with spread sheets enumerating cost of production, then theater owners will discuss profitability based on overhead expenses (including the price of electricity with the air conditioner turned on and only two people inside the moviehouse). Are the theater owners nervous about this year's festival? Perhaps. And, unfortunately, you cannot argue with them using the value of art and cultural significance when it comes to the most profitable time of the year for their business.
No, they are not being mean or heartless or philistines: they are just taking care of their business. If film producers make film, theater owners exhibit them not to earn points from God but also to make profit.
As early as now there are fears that some of this year's entries will be scratched out of screenings because of poor box office performance. We really hope not as we also pray that the MMFF people also made some kind of safety net to assure the Magic 8 that no one will be a victim of the first day/last day syndrome. Some films really need the push created by word of mouth in order for a momentum to be created ... to gather its audience. We all remember that it took Heneral Luna about two weeks before people started coming to watch the film. Now the MMFF does not have that luxury --- so they better focus on promoting the entries in the most creative ways possible.
If there is anything so sad about what has transpired, then it is not even the absence of a number of big name stars in this year's Christmas fiesta. Rather, it is the further disparity ... the bad blood that has created a much wider gap between the indie people and the commercial producers. It is this tedious word war wherein the film gourmets accuse mainstream productions as purveyors of ignorance and mediocrity --- and the mainstream influencers calling indie people as intellectual snobs. The dysfunctional relationship will never bring anything good to the collective progress of filmmaking in this country ... over and above the so many days of the MMFF.
And let us not forget that there ARE excellent commercial movies shown in the MMFF --- downright commercial films that drew crowds and applause from critics because of their aesthetic as well as popular significance. There was Marilou Diaz Abaya's Jose Rizal from GMA Films and Laurice Guillen's Tanging Yaman from Star Cinema. And if one traces the history of the 42 year old filmfest, you will exactly know at what point in time the "mediocritization" took place because of the priorities given to judging and selection of entries as well as who won Best Picture.
But still we will continuously hope for the best. This festival must be successful in order to maintain the momentum of change and to further explore the possibilities of new voices in Filipino cinema over and above only two weeks a year. Now is the time to see the vital need for film education --- and to never underestimate the Filipino moviegoer in his choice of entertainment and discrimination in taste.
As it has been said before and will be said again and again --- there is no such thing as an indie movie or a commercial movie in the country. They are all part of Philippine Cinema that ... like all cultural products ... evolve through time as defined by the changes in history and society.
Only by accepting this can we add even more significance to the efforts done by the few in reshaping the most popular piyesta ng Pelikulang Pilipino.
PS: Wala raw parada this year. That will be such a disappointment to so many. Again. And let us not call them mababaw for possibly feeling bad. It is so easy to make the madlang people happy.