In a week's time the 2016 Edition of the MetroManila Filmfest will open on Christmas Day --- and this early the controversies and heated debates on issue are already raging.
That is quite phenomenal indeed --- as if to really engrave this year coming to an end as Annus Horribilis when everything that can possibly go wrong just went straight ahead. Usually all the fist pounding and complaints come flying right after the Awards Night ... or at the conclusion of the all-Filipino filmfest. But this is one for the books. Even before the announcement of the eight finalists, people were already squirming on their derrieres trying to make rhyme and reason out of what is happening.
But let us keep a positive frame of mind --- and please, please, please --- let's give a chance to the eight films selected to fill this year's menu.
The thing of it is we have been so used to more of the same that the first time something foreign and exotic to our taste buds is presented to us, we simply freak out.
Indeed, who would have imagined a Christmas without Enteng, Vice and Mother Lily? That is tantamount to saying that you want to spread the Yuletide cheer without Santa Claus, Rudolph and Frosty. In short, the mere thought of the year-end Pamaskong Handog without the regulars brings a state of knee jerk panic and even one of cold turkey.
However, there is more to just the reforms implemented in this year's festival. These came as reactions to what transpired last year when everything ranging from a Congressional hearing to the forced retirement of film industry institutions in the Executive Committee were rendered if only to prove that the new dispensation means serious business.
And when the new members of the organizing committee were selected together with those who will screen the submissions, industry insiders started to get nervous. Moreover, this year producers are required to submit completed feature films (which eventually compromised into picture locks) not merely as first draft screenplays unlike years before. The insiders realized that indeed the winds of change were coming. It was more costly to join the festival because they had to invest the full amount of producing a completed feature with no real assurance that they have the Christmas playdate. Afraid!
The moment an submission was eliminated, it had to squirm its way into the bookers' grid to find another suitable playdate that would guarantee a good chance to make money against foreign films released at that time. There were twenty-seven (27) completed films submitted for consideration. Since only eight were selected for the Christmas showing, there are nineteen films that immediately needed dates of release in order for the producers to recoup their investments.
There is no such thing as a perfect set-up. People and film festivals need to evolve. Changes must correspond with the shifts in both time and space, temperament and taste. That was why changes were most welcome when they were demanded and eventually proposed.
In the age of millennials, trends come and go based on socio-political developments not only here in the country but all over the world. In the digital age where everything is fast-tracked and meant to cater to instant gratification, the standards of what makes a good movie or even a box office hit can no longer be diminished to a set of equations. You may have found a formula to concoct a movie that can earn hundreds of millions but there is no guarantee that it will work for all eternity. Walang forever, di ba? You can be this year's hit but by tomorrow afternoon you have become yesterday's sensation.
The most successful producers can strike gold with a winning formula --- but there is an expiration date for such a blueprint to work on. There will always be a tipping point when the audience will stop watching the same-old-same-old and start looking for other alternatives. Change happens when there is a willingness to embrace what is new. It cannot be legislated much less forced down the throats of people. Change successfully happens when it is time to happen.
Change takes place when change is wanted. (It is just like nagging a rather overweight person to go on a diet, exercise or maybe climb Mount Apo to regain his or her right to a waistline. No amount of verbal harassment can yield results unless the person himself /herself looks at the mirror and says, "OK, I am tired of being fat. Now what to do?" ) And in order to institute change, there is a need for a lot of convincing, wooing and yes, even educating without sounding condescending your audience.
You cannot and must never look down on your audience but instead know what is the right approach to slowly wean the them to find alternatives outside their comfort zones.
If change is needed, you cannot just knock down the door and say, "Enough of what you're used to. Now take these because we believe they are good for you!" You cannot assume you are culturally and intellectually superior to them because honestly, they do not give a crock of s--t. Hindi magkaiba ang pera ng taong nakapagtapos ng Ph.D. sa isang taong hindi gumraduate ng elementariya.
You do not woo your audience to dole out P250+ by insulting them --- and calling them plebeians. And if they are plebeians, they couldn't give a flying f--k of what you think of them. They will, only look at you with slight contempt and perceive you as a unemphatic intellectual elitista who has no business pilfering with their lives --- or their choice of entertainment. Or how they will spend their hard-earned money.
Hey, come on. There is nothing wrong with commercial movies. I will repeat that over and over again.
OK, fine: there will be some who cringe and sputter demeaning reactions to the movies of Vic Sotto and Vice Ganda --- but the hundreds of millions these movies reap during their exhibition does not mean that they are disposable, insignificant and intolerable. The myopia of intellectual snobbery only manifests the sheer lack of understanding of the audience. These movies may look and sound inane for the taste of others --- but they address certain needs of the audience that cannot be simply brushed aside. Ignoring these needs leaves both the scholar and the intellectualized artist completely devoid of knowing his audience. And that is bad. That is very, very bad.
But what is most interesting about this year's film festival is that share of good and bad news that came along the way even if the event still opens in a week's time. Between now and then, God knows what other mind boggling developments will send the most vocal and passionate members of the executive committee to go into abandonment in social media. This year's festival is so typical of 2016 --- the year of living dangerously, of walking the tightrope and providing a series of mind-boggling surprises.
So as we move slowly into the opening day of the film festival, here are the good news and some bad news.
GOOD NEWS: This film festival has opened the doors to two completely new genres in filmmaking --- documentary and mixed media films.
This is indeed a pioneering effort. Who would have thought that the Filipino documentary filmmaker will find his/her place in the roster of the MetroManila Film Festival. Baby Ruth Villarama's piece on domestic helpers in Hong Kong is a breakthrough in mainstream entertainment. For the first time, a docu film entitled SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN goes side by side with more commercial and definitely more familiar genres like romantic comedies and horror films. But this legitimizes the genre as an option for future filmmakers to see documentary filmmaking not only as a special feature in a network or news and current affairs magazine show.
Documentary filmmaking is an art all by itself with its own rules and aesthetics. It requires a tremendous degree of patience for the docu filmmaker to wait for the story to tell itself. There is no scripting in a documentary film as the filmmaker becomes observer/creator, making rhyme and reason out of events as they unravel and tell their own story.
Documentary works have been relegated to news and current affairs magazine shows in television. Some of the best works from the major TV stations attest to the professionalism and technical know-how of Filipino documentary filmmakers. But there is more to this than just a segment of a magazine how. It is about time to legitimize the documentary director --- like Baby Ruth Villarama and others who are out there just waiting for a chance to come out with their works (Remember Ramona S. Diaz' Imelda Marcos documentary in 2003 or the controversial work of Miguel Collins and Marty Syjuco entitled Give Up Tomorrow in 2011 which won in the Tribeca Film Festival?). This is the first time that a mainstream festival like the MMFF accommodated a genre that has been long neglected even in the indie celebrations held throughout the year.
Then there is Avid Llongoren"s SAVING SALLY --- which is a feat just by the mere fact that it has been completed. Filipino animation artists have been recognized and feted internationally with companies like Pixar celebrating the genius of our kababayans in this field. Together with Pinoy illustrators and graphic novel artists, the wealth of this field has remained an untapped frontier. So it is only fitting that if we have had animated films done in our country brought to mainstream exhibition, why not something that would bring the talents of our artists to the much larger Pinoy audience.
Mixing animation with live action, SAVING SALLY is groundbreaking on two counts: because it is the first film employing this technology to be used in a full length feature and second because no one ever suspected/expected the MMFF to include something like this when the subject matter is not for children but for the legions of Leonards and Sheldons out there in the real world. It took a lot of courage for the Selection Committee to field an entry that, like the documentary, has been untested to the popular audience.
For these reasons alone, we ought to celebrate --- because we are trying out something new.
But then, here's the other side of the coin.
BAD NEWS: Films like SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN and SAVING SALLY require a lot of marketing and familiarizing. The popular audience knows nothing about these genres save those who are film students and enthusiasts or who are merely curious and who has very minimum expectations about such projects.
Let us bite the bullet here and get real.
Yes, your Ateneo/La Salle/UP college student will find it cool to pay P250+ to watch a documentary.
Yes, your University Belt crowd and the yuppies of Makati, Ortigas and Eastwood may find it cool to watch a mixed media feature film rather than remain fixated on the shows they are watching on Netflix.
But how do you convince the everyday moviegoer who is in a celebratory mood to try out something new with his P250+ on unfamiliar genres? How can you convince Manang Elvie to watch a movie about OFWs when there are absolutely no stars to herald above the title? How can you convince Manong Benjie to watch Rhian Ramos interacting with an animated character without making him think that this is just cartoons na pambata?
Putting together these two films was a feat --- but selling them to the public is the other half of the tedious and hopefully fruitful climb. You cannot select two little gems and just throw them on the table and yell "Smorgasbord!" to the ticket-buying audience. There is a responsibility to sell these films --- as well as bring about an awareness of the public that such films are being made and can be savored with the same vigor and delight as horror, romcoms or action movies. It may be unfair to select these films and leave them to fend for themselves in a market so crowded and noisy and ruled by money, money, money in the final stage of promoting the material.
The MMFF should have a plan of action to help these producers who do not have the expertise, machinery and money of Star Cinema or Regal Films in promoting their entries. Having a distributor is a blessing from the heavens but marketing the film forms a good seventy percent of its success. No critical acclaim can be so cherished if nobody watches these films or they are simply dismissed because they have not been promoted properly.
Note: It is only a week before the festival and, yes, both films have not received the same media space as the others who are more well-oiled to promote films. The MMFF Committee should take note that they should have a more aggressive machinery to sell the festival entries as a collection of eight films rather than relying on the individual producers to shell out more money to push their films.
GOOD NEWS: This year's MetroManila Film has taken the gamble of having very few big name stars to serve as attraction to the audience. Now the game is about the film (with its content and technical excellence) rather than celebrity power to draw in the fans.
In the biggest film festival in the country staged during the most economically lucrative time of the year, there are eight movies with only Nora Aunor and Eugene Domingo as actors whose names have already appeared above the title in mainstream movies.
The Selection Committee has sent a very definite signal. Enough of the franchise movies. If Vic, Vice and Mother Lily intend to join, then their entries must be up to par with the new standards that they have set.
Having been locked out of the festival, the three films --- Special Parental Guidance, Enteng Kabisote 10 and Mano Po 7: Chinoy were immediately shown in playdates weeks before the festival.
This, in turn, became a litmus test to the viability of these franchise films to succeed outside the window of an all-Filipino festival which does not allow foreign movies to be shown within the same slated playdates. Apparently Vice Ganda's box office appeal came across with similar intensity even Special Parental Guidance showed on a November 30 playdate. As this blog is being written, cinemas are still showing Vice Ganda's movie on its third week. Reports from the producer stated that the movie made over P70M on its first day --- but no total gross receipt has yet been published. However, one hopes that despite its regular playdate that the movie came close to what Beauty and the Bestie earned in last year's festival.
Mano Po 7 opened a day earlier than the Philippine release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Regal Films has yet to provide an official announcement about their opening day box office take.
Indeed, the good news is met with a challenge. Can this year's MMFF yield a box office gross that could come close to last year's record of close to P1B? Can a festival that is anchored on the concept and quality of films translate their excellence into popular patronage? In a festival devoid of giants, can Julia Barretto, Irma Adlawan, Joshua Garcia, Roni Alonte, Mercedes Cabral, Rhian Ramos, Joem Bascon, Ricky Davao draw the crowds to watch their excellently crafted and rendered films?
Again, we go back to the same problem as mentioned above: how do you market non-star driven entries? What are the strategies being taken so that the audience will pay to see films they know nothing about aside from the fact that they displaced what they were hoping to see during Christmas. Di ba?
BAD NEWS: Now we are reminded. This is the MetroManila Film Festival. MetroManila covers a certain limited territory. Provincial movie houses are not obliged to show all the eight films. Rather they will select which ones they feel appeal to their markets. Moreover (and here lies the rub) they are not even bound by law to show only Filipino movies. This is not a nationwide festival, Honey. It is the MetroManila Film Festival.
Actually you cannot even call this bad news because it is the law that dictates that the film festival only covers MetroManila.
Anything beyond the appointed boundaries of Bulacan is no longer within the territory. Tracing the history of this all-Pinoy festival would bring us back to the years of Mayor Antonio Villegas who put up this celebration as part of the festivities of Araw ng Maynila on June 24. It was only picked up and expanded by Imelda Marcos when she was the Chairperson of the MetroManila Commission in the 1970s.
This means that theater owners outside MetroManila are not bound by law to show all the eight entries included in the festival. In some provinces, there are not enough cinemas to show all the eight so that the theater owners select which of the entries best suit the needs of their audience. That is, of course, a euphemism for which of the movies will sell best --- or has already exhibited selling power in its Manila run.
If ever MMFF entries are shown outside MetroManila then it is because of the discretion of the theater owner --- and not because the law tells them to do so.
Thus attempts to have a nationwide exposure to all the eight films failed dismally.
Again, this has to be put in the proper context. Going hand in hand with understanding the audience is to also see the reasons behind theater owners being selective of the products they will show at the most lucrative time of the year when people (especially kids) have money to spare and go out their way to celebrate Christmas by watching movies. As businessmen, it is but logical for them to sell what is already selling than invest on something struggling or non-performing.
But wait ... does this also mean that theater owners outside Manila can still show films outside the roster of the festival?
Does this mean that there can be a spillover of foreign or local movies that have a more guaranteed market even during the window of the festival?
Well, yes. No amount of hairpulling, fist pounding or social media hexing can possibly change the minds of theater owners --- because they are here for the business and not for any other lofty purpose which should be relegated to cultural agencies of the government. These are commercial cinemas, attached to malls as there are very few stand-alone movie houses left. Good business practice tells everyone that you do not mess around with the opportunity to make more money by thinking of the "national soul."
You leave such lofty goals to cultural agencies.
Does that make theater owners spawns of Satan? No. And again, I repeat, they are just doing what they are supposed to do. They pay taxes to the government --- and the more they earn, the greater the taxes that they pay ... and end of argument.
And there is still more.
BAD NEWS: The festival starts on Christmas Day and ends on the 3rd of January and not on the 7th as presumed before.
No, the festival was not deliberately cut short by theater owners because of their lack of faith in the box office clout of the entries. Rather, it is in the IRR (Implementing Rules and Regulations) of the MetroManila Film Festival that the event should run through a course of ten screening days.
If ever the festival stretched to two weeks, then it was because theater owners agreed to extend the showings because the blockbuster movies were still raking in money.
Again, there is nothing wrong with that --- because it is expensive to operate cinemas with the cost of electricity, labor, maintenance and other overheard costs. It is not a sin nor an insult to Philippine culture if they want to make money because they are in the business of showing movies. Are they being bluntly commercial in their preferences and priorities? Yes. And there is no reason for them to say sorry. It is their option to extend, eh ngayon ayaw na nila kaya sorry na lang. Look at the IRR and they will tell you ... the festival runs for ten days even if it has been extended to two weeks for the past sixteen years.
But this can also mean limiting the amount of time that the movies remain onscreen for an audience build-up.
This leads us to another ... well, bad news.
BAD NEWS: There was a request that all the eight movies cannot be pulled out of moviehouses despite poor audience attendance. Whereas in the past, theater owners set a minimum amount of ticket sales per day. If a movie refrains from delivering this said amount, then the film's showing is stopped, replaced by a more lucrative movie also screening in the same venue. However, theater owners have agreed not to pull out movies only until December 26.
This means that each film is given an ultimatum: you better deliver by your second day of showing or else you will either slide ( which means limited to two showings with another movie for a day) or be removed from the cinemas completely.
This does not give much chance for movies that do not have the promo machinery of the big studios especially when they finally go into their Juggernaut mode in the final stretch before opening. Two days are not enough to generate word of mouth campaigns ... not unless they have already been fueled prior to the opening date.
Movies like Sunday Beauty Queen, Oro, Kabisera and Saving Sally need to pump up their audiences on Christmas and the following day (which has been declared a holiday) in order to keep showing in movie houses. People have to go out and watch these films by the second day in order for them to stay for a week.
The question is: are the audiences of these two exceptional films the kind of people who go out on Christmas or the day after to spend a day in the mall and watch movies? Aside from film junkies, communication arts students and Senior Citizens with viewing privileges, who would really go out of their way to catch these two movies as if it were a matter of life or death (for the viewer and not the movie)?
As I mentioned before, Die Beautiful (distributed by Regal Films) has the advantage of the buzz created at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Paolo Ballesteros' exposure in Eat Bulaga. Vince and Kath and James is a Star Cinema project --- and there is no need to elaborate. Babae sa Septic Tank 2 has the marquee value of Eugene Domingo plus it is still a relatively fresh franchise skillfully doing their promotions through viral campaigns and limited TV plugs. Then there is Erick Matti's Seklusyon that has the reputation of the director as its selling power.
Will it be fair for the other four films considering that they come from much smaller productions to demand a certain level of output just on its second day? Or is this too tilting the balance so desired and aspired for by the MMFF?
The lessons taught by this year to everybody involved in the MMFF brings us to another turning point.
The MMFF Committees were so preoccupied in towing the line with producers forgetting that it is the theater owners who really determine the fate of any film ... or the directions of filmmaking in this country. Producers respond to what they deem as the market requirements of the audience but it is the theater owners that given an opportunity for such products to be sold. Producers spend millions to make films ... but it is the theater owners who determine what films they will show ... where and when.
And, let this be another learning for the MMFF Execom: you do not fight with theater owners.
You can wag your fingers at producers and they will listen not because they necessarily believe in what you are doing but because their need for you is so strong that they will withhold this strong desire to feed you a fist sandwich.
But theater owners do not owe either local producers ... or say any quasi-governmental institution to dictate what could and could not be shown in their theaters. That is their private property and they can do whatever they want to do with their stars and projects. Besides, one thing the more verbose among us should realize: there is always Hollywood that theater owners can fall back on. If local producers make it difficult for the businessmen to make the most out of their Christmas market, hello American movies. Yes, there may be an executive order of sorts to legitimize the MMFF ... but then again...
Thus there is a need to woo the theater owners with the same gusto as you entice your audience. It is by convincing those who own and operate movie houses of the viability and potential of other genres as alternative entertainment. It may take time but there should be clearly defined programs to prepare audiences to accept that out-of-the-box films can easily become accessible entertainment. Only when you have the demand of the audience that the theater owners will concede to your requests ... not demands.
You do not intimidate theater owners because you can't ... you cannot threaten them with boycotts or the likes ... because they have the options.
Oh here's another disturbing news.
BAD NEWS: A number of the films selected for the film festival warranted an R-13 rating because of the language, content and themes of the films.
Kumpirmado na ang sinabi ni Mother. There may be only one or two films that kids can watch. The family ekskarsiyon on Christmas morning to the malls to watch the opening of the MMFF films complete with the chikitings will be greatly affected.
Perhaps we should realize that excellence in quality and maturity in taste does not necessarily lock out the kids who really want to enjoy the festive atmosphere of the year-end Christmas movie marathons.
As one professor in La Salle complained during a forum held on this year's MMFF, "I have a ten year old son who joins my wife and I for the first day screenings of the movies in a mall. Ano na ang panonoorin namin ngayon?"
Let me end this blog on a positive note.
GOOD NEWS: There will be a 30% discount given to students, senior citizens or those who are PWDs in the purchase of MMFF tickets.
At least that should and could make people happy. No, happier.
But what is important is we go watch as many of the movies as we can. The backlash of the failure of this year's festival will not only hit the organizers right on their faces but can create a setback on viable alternatives to bring new directions to Philippine cinema.
Somebody said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions --- so let us just get this done and over with and enjoy what is there to savor in our attempts at merriment and hopefully cinematic fulfillment.