MMFF execom member on why ‘indie vs. mainstream’ should stop

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Jun Robles Lana's "Die Beautiful" — one of the eight new films competing in this year's newly revamped Metro Manila Film Festival — stars Paolo Ballesteros as a beauty pageant contestant. The film won Ballesteros a Best Actor trophy at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival. Screencap from YOUTUBE/OCTOBER TRAIN FILMS

Editor's note: On March 9, 2017, Moira Lang and Ed Cabagnot were removed as members of the MMFF executive committee. This article, originally published on December 7, 2016, features a one-on-one interview with Moira Lang at a time when changes were introduced to revamp the film festival.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — What do “Karnal,” “Ang Tanging Ina Mo (Last na 'To!),” “Kisapmata,” and “Enteng Kabisote 3: Okay Ka, Fairy Ko: The Legend Goes On and On and On" all have in common?

They are all Best Picture winners of their respective Metro Manila Film Festival editions.

From its first incarnation in 1975 to its current form, the MMFF has been subject to all sorts of controversy, something that all film festivals and awards shows are not immune to. But the declining quality of films since the 2000s — and the emphasis on big box office draws — have turned the once-great festival into a laughingstock. Big headliners are favored over well-written scripts (then the sole basis for judgement for a film’s inclusion) or historical value.

“It doesn't matter what's in the script,” wrote film critic Philbert Dy in his Esquire Philippines article detailing his experience as a selection committee member of the MMFF. “All that matters are the names attached to those scripts. Vice Ganda, Kris Aquino, and Vic Sotto are automatically accepted, regardless of how good or bad the scripts are. Some of the committee might opine, even, that the Kris Aquino script is really terrible. But it has to go in, because Kris Aquino is a known quantity.”

MMFF - Kabisera Real Florido's "Kabisera," starring Nora Aunor is in some way, a continuation of the family film tradition of the Metro Manila Film Festival. Screencap from YOUTUBE  

But just last year, a controversy caused cracks in the structure of the MMFF itself. The disqualification of Erik Matti’s crime drama “Honor Thy Father,” one day before the awards night, launched a congressional inquiry as to the grounds of its exclusion. The film ran against the likes of “My Bebe Love: #Kilig Pa More,” a Vic Sotto vehicle, and the box office hit “Beauty and the Bestie” starring Vice Ganda and Coco Martin.

The hearings proved that the film wasn’t accorded due process and “the board of jurors was duly influenced by, in particular, two execom members who have since left the [committee],” as disclosed by current MMFF executive committee member Moira Lang, the screenwriter behind films such as “Tanging Yaman,” “Milan,” and “Anak” (under her previous credit Raymond Lee) who also produced films such as “Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington and Lav Diaz’s “Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.”

The current execom, headed by acting MMDA chairman Thomas Orbos, was the fruit of an extensive rebuilding of the film festival’s mission and vision. Included in the committee as well are film professor and festival programmer Ed Cabagnot, SM Leisure and Entertainment president Ed Tejero, Senator Sonny Angara, and Congressman Alfred Vargas. Since the term of previous MMDA acting chairman Emerson Carlos, planning workshops were done, and the result is a refreshed festival, as reflected by the announcement of the new lineup of films, which was met with both applause and dismay.

MMFF - Moira 2 Metro Manila Film Festival executive committee member Moira Lang believes that there should be no distinction between 'mainstream' and 'indie' films. "Kasi pag sinabi mo na na ‘indie vs. mainstream,’" she says, "it’s like saying that ‘an indie can never go mainstream.’ So ano na yung term pag naging mainstream na ang indie? So dapat talaga tigilan na ‘yang ‘indie vs. mainstream’ na ‘yan eh.” Photo by JL JAVIER  

“We came up with a new vision statement for the MMFF, which was to ‘be a festival that promotes Filipino artistic excellence, promote audience development, and champions the sustainability of the Filipino movie industry,’” shares Moira. The biggest change was the selection of the films: only finished films will be considered.

The Vice Ganda and Coco Martin film was rejected. Veteran producer Mother Lily of Regal Films cried foul. Vic Sotto asked that the festival “respect the taste of the Filipino viewers.” The newer films were perceived to be “indies” — small budget films from small productions that should, at least if some voices are to be believed — be relegated to independent film festivals.

“[Committee members like] Mr. Tejero, very sound yung mga inputs [during meetings] — realistic and pragmatic,” shares Moira, who just came from another committee meeting — a tense one, she admits. “Pero nakikita naman niya na yung possibility that indies can actually also go mainstream. Kaya ayoko yung ginagamit yung ‘indie vs. mainstream’ kasi it’s as if you already ‘resigned’ indies to the margins forever. Kasi pag sinabi mo na na ‘indie vs. mainstream,’ it’s like saying that an indie can never go mainstream.’ So ano na yung term pag naging mainstream na ang indie? So dapat talaga tigilan na ‘yang ‘indie vs. mainstream’ na ‘yan eh.”

MMFF - Babae sa Septic Tank 2 "Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: Forever is not Enough" is the only sequel included in the new MMFF line-up. Screencap from YOUTUBE/QUANTUM FILMS  

The eight new finalists of the MMFF are selected by a committee with representations from the academe, the film industry, and other sectors. The executive committee was not allowed to participate in the deliberations, so as not to exert any possible influence on the final lineup — of which in some ways represent the tradition of the MMFF films — just in new forms. The Nora Aunor starrer, “Kabisera,” is a family movie in the tradition of “Mano Po” and “Tanging Yaman” — only politically charged; “Vince and Kath and James,” which is under Star Cinema, is a new take on a romantic comedy; Erik Matti’s “Seklusyon” is a horror film; and the only sequel in the festival, “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: Forever is Not Enough” is a comedy.

All things considered, it is an exciting time to watch the festival. It will be interesting to see how the films will depict the current socio-political climate of the country, how new traditions will be established, and how the viewing public will take in this new holiday festivity that goes beyond bold-faced names.

Moira lets CNN Philippines Life in behind the festival’s new vision and how change is expected to come. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

 

Do you think it helps that there are more small production outfits now that can produce big films? Like TBA which produced “Heneral Luna?”

Yes. Let’s face it, itong resurgence or itong pagdami ng independent productions nagsimula or nataon na kasabay noong nagsimula ang Cinemalaya at saka Cinema One Originals noong 2005 and since then nagkaroon ng boom, diba? The problem is steady yung production and madami din high quality productions — baka mas humirap payung distribution for these type of films.

So ang challenge na hinaharap ng small or new producers, the new players in the industry, is sustainability. That includes filmmakers na wala naman silang sariling kumpanya. But how do they make their kind of filmmaking sustainable? Ang ibig kong sabihin kasi is through sustainability hindi ka kailangan sumunod sa uso. Hindi ka kailangan mag-shelve ng dream project mo just because wala siya sa trend ngayon. Parang, “Romcom ang uso. Yun na lang muna gawin natin.” Sa akin kasi pwede maging sustainable ang madaming klaseng pelikula. Hindi naman kailangan lahat maging blockbuster hit. We just need to break even and make a little profit back so we can continue to get financing for these dream projects. Hindi naman lahat ng dream project ay romcom. Well, kung iyon ang dream project mo ‘eh di good, diba? Pero paano kung ang gusto mo pala ay sci-fi? Is there a way to market that? Tingin ko meron pero ang hirap lang kasi ng channels o yung delivery system to your audience....

To let them know that this film exists?

Yeah, correct. They’re not there yet. Yung infrastructure walang support. Walang support masyado from the government or the private sector. But I think things are starting to look up, for example there’s a new head in the Film Development Council of the Philippines, si Liza Diño. All she’s done since she assumed office was to really consult the producers and the filmmakers not just in Metro Manila but she’s been going around the country to hear out yung mga concerns and wishes ng mga filmmakers natin.

 

So how do you think the new line-up reflects the new mission and vision of the MMFF?

I think it’s a natural consequence or extension of the new vision and mission statement of the MMFF. Kasi like I said a while ago, yung china-champion sa new vision and mission are audience development, artistic excellence, and sustainability. So these three things, I think if you look at the line-up, lahat sila have the potential to fulfill these criteria. Kasi all these films, sinasabi kasi ng mga tao, “Bakit hindi commercial?” Pero I’ve seen all the films and lahat sila are quite engaging and they are very audience friendly. Some are even general movies. They will engage regular movie audiences and not just the festival-going audience.

Do you think that some people don't like the line-up is because the films might be too “highbrow?”

Siguro some stakeholders are afraid that they won’t make as much money. The MMFF also exists to benefit [some] organizations. So the taxes na wina-waive ng mga Metro Manila cities, the amusement taxes, this goes to the beneficiaries of the MMFF. So syempre you want as much as possible to raise a good amount for that every year.

Ang habol naman ng mga moviegoers ay hindi independent films, hindi commercial film o hindi studio film — ang habol nila is masulit yung pera nila.

 

But you know what, even the beneficiaries themselves welcome the change. We have Miss Boots Anson Roa-Rodrigo. She’s there on the execom as the representative of Mowelfund, which is the main beneficiary of the festival. Kahit siya, she was part of the crafting of these reforms and when the line-up was announced, she welcomed it. Very supportive siya nung nalaman niyang ito yung line-up. At syempre conspicuously wala yung mga usual na blockbusters. Wala akong nakita sa kanya na she was dismayed or disappointed. She was actually proud na nag-bear fruit yung mga exercises na ginawa namin this year.

The advantage of the last film festival was they already have machinery in place because most of them are from big networks. So how are you guys helping the other productions in terms of marketing?

The only studio film from the line-up is “Vince and Kath and James” of Star Cinema. So ‘yun wala naman kaming worry ‘dun. It’s going to be supported by the machinery of Star Cinema — which is great. For the rest, kanya-kanyang strengths. Well karamihan, wala talagang well-oiled machinery so they really have to be smart on marketing their films.

 

 

I know “Sunday Beauty Queen,” they rely mostly on social media....

They have extensive experience in marketing via social media through “Heneral Luna.” So they’re gonna harness that. But they’re also going to try getting celebrity endorsements.

Ang mahirap talaga kasi these films … what’s going for them is that I’m hoping may halo ‘yung change, na nakita nung public na, “Ah, seryoso pala sila na may change.” I trust na positive yung effect ‘nun to a good number of movie-going public especially those who say they stopped watching local films or [those] who stopped patronizing the MMFF. Pero ngayon nakita nila na it’s worth giving another chance. Maybe this time they’ll watch not just one, but maybe three or four. Masyado na atang wishful thinking na panoorin lahat ng eight films. We’re launching some promos that are targeted to those people who would want to watch more than just two films. Meron kaming ginagawa na promos that would further give them incentive to watch four titles. Kaya lang kasi we still have to get the agreement of the producers themselves and the cinemas.

Pero the idea is we’re going to come up with a “super ticket” where you can watch four titles, parang festival pass. It’s going to be sold at a very big discount but you can avail of it only from the 16th to 24th so you have to make a commitment that you’re really going to buy it. But ang pay off sayo ‘nun is ang laki ng discount, parang almost 40 percent yung discount. So i-a-announce ‘yun once we get the agreement of all the producers and the cinemas.

MMFF - Moira 1 According to MMFF executive commitee member Moira Lang, the new vision of the festival focuses on three factors: audience development, artistic excellence, and sustainability. Photo by JL JAVIER  

You also mentioned that you guys have still to convince the exhibitors that these are films worth showing….

Okay, it’s like this. You know that ang tagal na ng Metro Manila Film Fest. Pinapalabas lahat ng entries sa buong Pilipinas not just in Metro Manila. Kumbaga absolutely walang pinapalabas na foreign productions. Hindi rin pinapalabas ‘yung ibang local productions na hindi kasama sa MMFF. So this year, hindi kasing solid ang support of some sectors.

This year, nag-commit yung cinemas na ipalabas yung eight films sa Metro Manila for sure, pero sa provinces it could be on a case-to-case basis. Meaning, some of the other films — the local films that are playing like the ones that opened the other day, ‘yung ‘kila Vice, and Vic Sotto tapos mag-o-open [a week] from now yung “Mano Po.” Ang sinasabi nila is that they would most likely be playing those movies on Christmas day and hindi nila ma-guarantee if they will play all the eight titles outside Metro Manila.

Is it because they’re worried about the audience turnout?

Yeah … so ‘yun din ‘yung isang downside. You can’t blame them, I guess. They’re being cautious but I hope that ‘pag naging exciting ‘yung turnout sa Manila, sana mag-domino effect. I believe … kasi with “Smaller and Smaller Circles” nagkaroon kami ng tours sa Dumaguete, Cebu, and Davao, and also school tours. I was able to join the Cebu and Davao [tours]. The students there were waiting for all the eight films. Sabi ko “O, there’s a chance na baka hindi niyo mapanood lahat kasi ganito nga ‘yung situation ngayon.” [Tapos] nag-react sila na sana mapanood nila ‘yung eight films.

 

In terms of audience development, how do you think the line-up will affect how Filipinos think of the local film industry?

I think they’ll be really pleasantly surprised, [that] they will get into the stories of these films and to the point of, you know, really laughing as much, and crying as much and falling in love as much, as they have been with the more commercial studio films. Or siguro hindi more commercial, ‘eh baka “seemingly” more commercial studio films.

Actually they wouldn’t care if it’s made by a studio or a small company as long as the quality is good. Baka nga mag-create ito ng demand for better crafted films — that is a real move forward. We’re not asking for the moon. We believe that the Filipino people deserves and actually wants better films.

 

I’m not saying that ‘pag commercial film trash na agad. No, in fact ang favorite film ko last year was “Beauty and the Bestie,” the last film of Wenn Deramas. I thought was really funny and I saw it twice. Madaming gems ang nanggaling sa studios. Sana lang yung mga gems naman na nanggaling sa smaller producers mabigyan din ng stage and ng chance to shine because ang habol naman ng mga moviegoers ay hindi independent films, hindi commercial film o hindi studio film — ang habol nila is masulit yung pera nila. Na ‘pag nanood ka ng sine, nawala ka sa mundong ‘yun for two hours, naka-identify ka sa character ng pinapanood mo. Pwedeng nakita mo yung sarili mo ‘dun. Pwedeng nag-reflect ka sa pinagdadaanan mong problema like [a] love problem or oppression or discrimination — anything that you might be going through.

So lahat ng ‘yun walang monopoly ng kahit sinong filmmaker. Hindi din siya monopoly ng independent filmmakers or art filmmakers. We’re all filmmakers and we’re all capable of creating vital stories so siguro ang ano ko lang is ‘yun na ngana maging basis talaga ng patronage ng public is how good your movie is and how well it engages you and connects with you.

How will you measure the success of the new MMFF?

By how much better, or worse, next year's lineup will be. ‘Yun yung measure sa akin ng success.