In some ways, it was “same old, same old” for the Philippine movie industry in 2016. Romantic comedies like Imagine You and Me, The Third Party, and Always Be My Maybe ruled the box office, alongside melodramas like The Unmarried Wife and Everything About Her. The latter met all the criteria for a blockbuster: a melodrama punctuated with laughs, one of the most successful actors in Philippine history (Vilma Santos, who parlayed stardom into a political career of mayor, governor, and now congresswoman), a major star (Angel Locsin), a matinee idol (Xian Lim), family crises, and a romantic subplot. No surprises there. Meanwhile, Barcelona: A Love Untold cemented the dominance of yet another young “love-team”, Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla.
Vice Ganda, the formidable trans star who occupies several slots in the Ten Top-Grossing Filipino Movies of All Time, set another record with Super Parental Guardians. It also answered any questions about Ganda’s continued supremacy at the box office following the sudden death of her regular collaborator, the director Wenn Deramas. It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Imagine You and Me, headlined by the loveteam of Maine Mendoza and Alden Richards, all of the movies mentioned above were produced by Star Cinema It’s the biggest and most influential movie production company in the land, owned by the biggest and most influential television network in the land.
On the arthouse side, filmmaker Lav Diaz won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery in January, and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for The Woman Who Left in September. Both movies were enthusiastically received by local and foreign critics, and barely made a dent at the Philippine box office – there were “special screenings”, but no wide theatrical release. Actress Jaclyn Jose won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for playing a drug dealer in Ma Rosa, in a field that included Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Sonia Braga in Aquarius. Ma Rosa was not a commercial success, either.
And then, the much-heralded change happened.
All year, movies had to compete with the more urgent, more immersive and visceral field of politics. Even by the standards of Philippine elections, the 2016 presidential race was extraordinary emotional. The winner, Rodrigo Duterte, ran on a platform of change, centered on a total war against drugs and the extra-judicial killing of criminals.
The change that took place in the movie industry was less bloody, but dramatic. For decades, the most important annual event in the industry has been the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). During its two-week run at the end of the year, only selected Filipino productions are screened in movie theatres. With no Hollywood productions to contend with, local producers can hope for more profitable commercial runs.
Since the late 1980s, the MMFF has been overseen by local governments. Entries were chosen for their “commercial viability” as determined by a committee. This committee made its decision on the basis of scripts submitted by the producers, and the prospective cast lists. Almost every year, the MMFF has been rocked with controversy, and in 2015 the controversy was serious enough to merit a congressional investigation.
In 2016, a new MMFF executive committee was formed, consisting of industry professionals and academics. They made their decision after reviewing all the completed entries, not just their screenplays. As expected, there was a hue and cry from the producers, whose commercial clout had assured them of inclusion in the annual line-up. The latest iterations of Regal Films’ Mano Po and Vic Sotto’s Enteng movies were shut out, as was Vice Ganda’s Super Parental Guardians. This was not a problem for Super Parental Guardians, which simply opened in theatres three weeks early, and became Philippine movies’ all-time box office champion. But the other rejected films earned less than expected, and their producers demanded that the change be… changed.
“Moviegoers came out to support the change that the MMFF embraced, liked what they saw, and talked about it,” says Moira Lang, a member of the new MMFF executive committee. “Word of mouth still works – another indication of a thinking, feeling audience. The MMFF entries with the best exit interviews grew in ticket sales.”
For the first time, the selection included a documentary, Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, about overseas Filipino workers who spend their free time joining beauty pageants. Avid Liongoren’s Saving Sally combined live action with animation to tell the story of an imaginative boy in love with a troubled girl. Alvin Yapan’s Oro delved into the effects of mining and corporate greed, Real Florido’s Kabisera was a family drama that touched on current political issues, and Jun Lana’s Die Beautiful tackled LGBT issues with a potent mixture of comedy and drama.
Of the better-known entries, there was Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank 2, which, like its predecessor, skewers the tastes of Filipino filmmakers and filmgoers; Erik Matti’s Seklusyon, a horror movie centered on religion; and the lone entry from a major studio, Star Cinema’s Vince & Kath & James, whose engaging leads managed to make a rom-com seem fresh.
“Those of us in the new executive committee of the MMFF were bombarded with reminders and admonitions based on misguided assumptions that belittle the audience’s capacity to enjoy good movies,” Lang recalls. “We were accused of being the Grinch that stole Christmas from the children!
We kept getting asked, ‘Where are the children’s films in this MMFF?’ Let’s ask the producers. Why were children’s films not produced?”
The MMFF entries were well-received, but being mostly indies, they lacked the mainstream advertising and marketing support needed to draw large audiences. Some movie theatres reportedly refused to screen the chosen films, and the festival ended earlier than expected.
“Moviegoers are a lot more intelligent than some industry players give them credit for,” Lang notes. “They respond to movies that connect with them, engage them, give them value for money. Movie tickets here are not cheap. Then as well as now, it’s more the rule than the exception that bad movies tank.”
Joji Alonso, whose Quantum Films produced The Woman in the Septic Tank 2, takes a more pragmatic view. “The MMFF revamp balanced the playing field and gave a huge opportunity to small filmmakers. The festival has the most coveted playdates of the year, and almost all the entries were by independent filmmakers.
“But viewers will still go for the reliable formulas. Movies are one of the cheapest forms of entertainment, and people watch films to be entertained more than anything else. Vice Ganda’s movie proves it: Super Parental Guardians wasn’t in the MMFF, but it opened at the end of November, when a good percentage of the workforce received their 13th month [bonus] pay. The masses had more money, and they used it to be entertained.
“Only a small of chunk of the films produced and released locally break even, or make a profit,” Alonso continues. “Our films make waves abroad, but you can count how many films turn out to be successful [at home] on the fingers of one hand. That’s how many people actually go and watch these films when they are shown here.”
Garnering awards abroad can be a help and a hindrance for Filipino productions. “Most of the filmmakers I know, including the ones who win awards abroad, would happily trade in those awards for a bigger local audience,” Lang points out. “By tackling local issues, many of our films have travelled. But the audience we want to connect with the most is the Filipino audience.”
“Foreign awards helped Die Beautiful – they created curiosity about it,” Alonso points out. “Awards gave the film a boost during the MMFF, where most of the films did not have big marketing campaigns. In most cases, however, trophies from foreign film fests do not help a Filipino film at the Philippine box office. The viewers get the impression that the film is too arty and that they will not understand it.”
Lang concurs. “The free publicity surely doesn’t hurt, and helps raise awareness about an award-winning film. But it’s not enough. Only a well thought-out and timely marketing campaign will translate awareness to interest to sales. Also, things could be a lot better if the theatre owners were more supportive of, and responsive to, the growth of our filmmakers and moviegoers.”
On March 7, the MMFF launched the 2017 edition of the annual film festival, and announced the composition of the executive committee. The official statement read: “After the success of the 2016 MMFF, where artistic quality became the main focus, this year’s MMFF would want to move forward with a crop of entries that would combine quality and box-office potential. We will never abandon the artistic gains we had last year, but we need to push forward in this direction.”
Same old, same old?