How do you solve a problem like the MMFF?

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The documentary "Sunday Beauty Queen" won Best Picture at the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) Come Christmastime, a long-standing tradition for most Filipino families is to make their way to the cinemas to see and experience the entries to the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). The holidays pave the way for local films to be shown all over the country with no direct competition for foreign box-office draws. Theaters, except specialty screens like IMAX and 4DX cinemas, are mandated by law to only exhibit films that are a part of the festival lineup.

Before the MMFF moved to its holiday time slot, it was first conceived by then-mayor of Manila Antonio Villegas as Manila Film Festival, a 12-day event from June 12 (Independence Day) to June 24 (Manila Day) reserved only for Filipino films. Back then, Decembers were reserved for big Hollywood movies and bigger budgeted Filipino fare from Sampaguita Pictures, Lea Productions, and FPJ Pictures. The first incarnation of the MMFF was halted in 1973, the year after martial law was declared. In 1975, it was revived as the first Metro Manila Film Festival.

Ed Cabagnot, a film professor and former member of the MMFF Executive Committee pointed out the two main objectives of the MMFF when it first started: as a means to give local cinema a needed shot in the arm and to encourage the creation of excellent Filipino films. These days, not counting the 2016 incarnation of the festival, the MMFF is known for big-budgeted commercial fare that tries to attract the biggest box-office draw possible.

How did the Metro Manila Film Festival go from an exhibition of Filipino history and culture to a commercial bonanza that it is now? CNN Philippines Life surveys a few film professionals working in the business today to identify the problems and issues that plague the MMFF today and how the industry can move toward achieving a fair and balanced film festival in the future.

Those who agreed to answer the survey are the following:

  • Ed Cabagnot, professor at the UP Film Institute and former member of the MMFF executive committee
  • Tristan Zinampan, editor-in-chief of Film Police Reviews and contributing writer for ScreenAnarchy.com
  • Wanggo Gallaga, scriptwriter and teacher at College of St. Benilde
  • Jane Torres, producer for Star Cinema and independent film productions
  • Chuck Gutierrez and Babyruth Villarama-Gutierrez, editor, producer and director of MMFF 2016 Best Picture winner “Sunday Beauty Queen”

We reached out to other filmmakers, producers, and film distributors but they declined to comment on the matter.

Below are responses of those who are part of the survey.

What are the problems with the current Metro Manila Film Festival?

Cabagnot: The first three decades of MMFF saw the likes of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Eddie Romero, Celso Ad. Castillo, Peque Gallaga, Mario O'Hara, Marilou Diaz Abaya, Laurice Guillen, Lupita Concio Kashiwara, and other acknowledged Pinoy auteurs lending their vision to some of these decades' finest cinematic efforts — backed up, of course, by both mainstream/indie producers who weren't just out to make big bucks but were on the hunt for prestige projects to line their vaults.

But sometime in the early years of this century, the MMFF tenor shifted. Some production companies went all out for the box office kill, but  without any loftier intentions.

The "some" became the rule by the early 2010s. Titles featuring top box-office drawers, with some modicum of "production value" (think sloppy, “puwede na” special effects, etc.), and lesser narrative crafting (think assembly-line, "bumenta ‘to noon, bebenta muli ngayon" tropes).

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 12.42.57 PM.jpg In 1996, the fantasy-adventure film “Magic Temple” won Best Film at the Metro Manila Film Festival. Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

But this didn't mean all of the MMFF entries in the past decade were craven reboots. There were really earnest titles that were borne out of artistic and creative tender love and care that were pitted against the behemoths.

The effect being, as we witness today, one or two titles lapping off the box office takings; the rest left with marrow bone leavings. This phenomenon would not have prospered if not for the influence of certain players — namely the theatre owners. Somewhere along the line, it became "good business sense" to add more screens to top earners and drop the rest altogether.

There goes the notion of "festival”— ideally a space where different putahes can be served on the table for the pickings of a diverse society of film viewers, moviegoers, fans, and cineastes.

The worst part is, the rationale for this lock out is, “Bakit kami magpapalabas ng pelikula kung walang nanood?” Which begs the response: “Paano naman mapapanood ang isang pelikula kung pinull-out niyo na ito?

Zinampan: What’s problematic here is how vested interests hide behind the banner of family-friendly entertainment, commerce trumping art to enable behind-the-scenes corruption and cartel-like behavior.

This is problematic on two ends. First, because of the premium put on commercial viability, the ruling class bends the selection criteria to devalue artistic merit — an action which is quite [a] disservice when compared to [the] fest’s original purpose. Second, it hinders the development of the Philippine film industry in general because the films from smaller studios that could greatly benefit from the MMFF’s devoted screens nationwide either get pulled out after the first or second day of screening or aren’t shown at all in favor of the bigger commercial films.

“What is this festival really about? Is it about making money, producing films that people want to see, or producing a festival of films that would champion and showcase the best of Filipino movies?” — Wanggo Gallaga

How can an industry proliferate when studios that are brave enough to experiment are given such a hard time to just break even?

Gutierrez: The main problem of the MMFF is exactly the same problem of local cinema: film distribution. Once we fix this MMFF problem, we will have a better environment for Filipino films to be shown in theaters the whole year round. The film distribution here is unequal, to say the least.

In 2016, only theaters in Metro Manila were raffled to the eight entries. This gave the cinemas in the provinces their own preference which films to show (most of them picked non-MMFF entries: “Super Parental Guardians,” “Enteng Kabisote 10 and the Abangers” and “Mano Po 7”). I’m not sure if this is also the case this year but looking at the theater distribution for the “finished film” selection, they had the same fate as [“Sunday Beauty Queen”].

Torres: Cinemas don’t have fair treatment for smaller productions houses. They usually pull out the movies even when there are still audiences that are willing to see the films. They sometimes give bad screening times for these films.

MMFF - Die Beautiful.png Jun Robles Lana's "Die Beautiful" was one of the eight new films that competed in 2016's "revamped" Metro Manila Film Festival. Screencap from YOUTUBE/OCTOBER TRAIN FILMS

Gallaga: It is the theater owners that decide what films are shown and, for cinemas that only have limited theaters (two to four), they always pick the ones that would “make money.” The choice falls unto the theater owners, not the festival directors or the people.

For a festival that is meant to promote the Philippine film industry and provide a wide range of choices, it is not being practiced. Films like “Ang Larawan” were pushed to the more expensive cinema because it was deemed “high brow” if they get selected to be screened at all.

The weaker films are taken out earlier in exchange for stronger playing films. I don't know if that's fair. I think it's a problem of programming and theater commitment.

At the same time, the selection committee's rationale seems suspect because, based on the articles I've read regarding the decisions on what films get in, a majority had mentioned that “box office draw” of a film is a consideration. While films are a commercial product, when you put a film's “box office draw” as a criterion, it reduces a movie's value to something monetary rather than its cultural value.

The four films that were selected based on script appears to have been chosen mainly because of its “box office draw” and I find that it was a reductive move, and might not have been the choice of a screening committee that truly believes in the power of cinema to transform people's lives.

Of the first four films that were announced by the MMFF committee, three of them were films I personally did not want to see. I did not feel represented by these choices. Whereas, three of the films that were announced after were films I wanted to see.

I think that puts the selection/screening process in suspect with regards to the aim of the festival.

“By labelling films as ‘indie’ and ‘mainstream,’ the playing field is made uneven as ‘indies’ are automatically seen as esoteric and too hifalutin and ‘mainstream’ as blockbuster fare.” — Tristan Zinampan

What issues should be addressed when talking about the MMFF?

Torres: Selection, of course. I believe the Filipinos deserve better films to watch, specially during Christmas time. They should be able to get what they pay for. With better and more credible selection committee, we will be able to have more decent films.

Zinampan: Focus on commercial appeal should not be a priority to the MMFF.

This 2017’s selection split on the eight selected in-competition films — four from submitted scripts, four from completed films — makes no sense on the festival level and, at large, is a regression for the maturing audience reception. This split was enacted to create “balance,” so the Executive Committee say. First, on the festival-level, this makes no sense because the selection isn’t able to compare films apples to apples.

In a festival that should be an exhibition of quality, why do they need to select four based on scripts and four on their final form? The MMFF isn’t even a grant giving body to screen scripts in the first place. If this is to appease the “indie” and “mainstream” dichotomy, that just leads to my second point, this move regresses maturing audience reception of films.

By labelling films as “indie” and “mainstream,” the playing field is made uneven as “indies” are automatically seen as esoteric and too hifalutin and “mainstream” as blockbuster fare. Quality is not confined by labels; recent years have been letting audiences understand this through “indie” films that have achieved mass audience appeal. And isn’t there just a plain disconnect in saying “balance is achieved in selecting four from the best scripts, and four from the best finished films”? How exactly is there balance? Selecting via quality in a split category and selecting based on a “mainstream” vs “indie” are mutually exclusive.

Gutierrez: The main issue that we first need to address is who’s running MMFF? Is it the government or the cinema chains?

Cabagnot: The MMFF is a promise gone sour. What's worse is [that] the current state of the MMFF [has] raised some dubious notions, like [you] can't have a commercial hit that's also artistically excellent. Genre films are best left formulaic — don't spit on a winning horse. [Or that] nobody wants to think during the holiday season. Pinoy audiences only seek escape, never enlightenment.

The tragic theme being: “Entertainment should be mindless. This is purely business — who cares about nourishing/developing one's client base. As long as we make money, nothing else matters.”

The main issue for me is how to wrestle the power away from today's MMFF mover/shakers. That is, the mafia of theatre owners with myopic business sense, the small coterie of assembly-line (big) production companies they cater to, and some of their politico enablers.

MMFF2017_CNNPH.jpg The 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival lineup.  

Gallaga: What is this festival really about? Is it about making money, producing films that people want to see, or producing a festival of films that would champion and showcase the best of Filipino movies of all kinds — commercial and independent, mainstream or avant-garde. What really is the thrust? If that was made clearer and fully committed to during the screening process, then I think there would be less irritation/frustration from the filmmaking community.

The second major issue is the screening of the films. It should really be even and fair throughout. If the film makes it to the MMFF, it should be shown in equal amount with all the other films in the festival. How much a film makes shouldn't be a measure of whether it stays in the cinema or not. It's in the festival, it was chosen, it should run even if only one person came to see it. That person who wanted to see should be able to see it because isn't that what the festival is about? Isn't that what it should be about?

How can we move forward with the MMFF?

Torres: Pak! Ang hirap nito.

Zinampan: I think the most ideal measure to create a clean and fair MMFF is to remove the organization of the fest from a group known for having long-reaching roots on vested interests. Start fresh with untarnished organizers. Give the festival to the FDCP [Film Development Council of the Philippines]. They organized the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (a different festival with different goals, mind you). They can handle it.

The government should enact regulations like film quotas and screens devoted to Filipino films per cinema. Put this into law, if needed. SM’s Cine Lokal initiative is too flexible (last November they waived it to screen “Justice League”).

The last and most important for me is audience development. Audience tastes are used as the most convenient reason why the old guard continues to push for commercial films to occupy the majority of screens during the MMFF. I could not discount the political economy and the escapism these types of films provide audiences but I could only hope that the more exposure quality films get, the larger the clamor for them grows. I think the problem here is accessibility, quality films should be available to more Filipinos’ native environment.

Current practice sees them relegated to niche audiences, seeking them out via select screenings and micro-cinemas, part of the fandom. Make quality films available on network T.V., schools, free provincial screenings. The more people are exposed, the more tastes are developed. Change the demand and the supply will change. I know, easier said than done.

“The main problem of the MMFF is exactly the same problem of local cinema: film distribution.” — Chuck Gutierrez

Gallaga: Moving forward, the MMFF should have some level of say to insist on giving an equal playing field to all the films in the festival. The MMFF should ensure that the theater owners are committed partners to the idea of championing Filipino film — all of the entries.

The MMFF has shown us how much the Filipino wants to go to the theater to watch a Filipino-made film, we have to move forward and go beyond the MMFF and create a partnership with theater owners to give Filipino movies a chance to find its audience in the theaters by letting them finish their two-week run, regardless of how well it does on its first week. And if the government can provide tax breaks and subsidies for the film industry so that they can continue creating cinematic works for the Filipino throughout the year, outside of a festival.

Villarama-Gutierrez: Alternate schedule programming — daytime for families, evenings for date and art films, and a rotation for each location. MMDA and cinemas to give marketing support para maramdaman naman sa Manila, at least, na may film festival. I drive along EDSA and around cities and I would love to see banners along EDSA man lang and screen billboards that can inspire paying folks to go to the malls and cinemas. Studio films with huge marketing machineries will always have the advantage.

Announcement of ticket pre-booking to anticipate audience traffic. A booklet for giveaways of a fixed schedule and info about the films and some more info where to go in the city. I’m sure [the organizers] can easily get sponsors for its printing. The booklet can also have articles from media partners about the films and the festival. MMDA ExeCom, through cinema and media partnership, can release daily film reviews and news to be distributed in cinemas for audience guidance. There are also organic online reviews that MMFF marketing could use to engage their online audience.

Further audience engagement via film forums; MMDA ExeCom partnership with DepEd, CHED, NCCA, FDCP, or League of Mayors office to host Q&As with the cast and crew on premiere nights. We have to move past na just doing mall tours and parades.  

Hopefully maging nationwide na talaga all local film festivals (not just MMFF but other local film fests as well — Cinemalaya, QCinema — whoever is ready) kahit paisa-isang sinehan lang but with stakeholders’ marketing support. I’ve been suggesting that this is where an Executive Order could come to good use in close consultation with the cinemas and partners.

Cabagnot: It'll take a concerted effort from both the private sector (both business folks and creatives), the government (dapat fair and may ngipin”), and the academe (raising armies of more enlightened moviegoers and potential filmmakers).

Sounds impossible? Just two words: MMFF 2016.