When Did the MMFF Become a Venue for Cash-Cow Franchises?
The first documentary to get selected in the MMFF and the first documentary to win Best Picture, Babyruth Villarama’s earnest, lovely Sunday Beauty Queen was quite the game-changer in what has turned out to be a game-changing first year for the New Metro Manila Film Festival, poised as it is to rehabilitate what the festival has become, mostly by reverting it back to a semblance of its glory days, perhaps even taking it up a few notches down the line. That’s the vision, anyway.
After all, the MMFF only became everybody’s favorite horse to flog after it went from a legitimate platform for studios to showcase their prestige films into a protectionist comfort zone for their cash-cow franchises. The way it seals off the last two weeks of every year, and declares an embargo on foreign films, does seem designed to optimize the conditions for riskier domestic films to have not only an audience they wouldn’t normally have any other time of the year but a legitimate stab at significant revenue. In many ways, sure, it was a protectionist gambit, too, albeit with a slightly nobler bent.
Looking back at the curation of each year’s slate, though, and you notice how a balance was always being struck between art films and crowd-pleasers. We single out films like Burlesk Queen, Kisapmata, Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, Insiang, Bona, Misteryo Sa Tuwa , May Minamahal, Deathrow, Jose Rizal, and Himala, among others, as signifiers of the quality the Old MMFF aegis used to produce, but it’s crucial to remember that these films shared their respective slates with Barok, Pik Pak Boom, Arinkingking: Ang Bodyguard Kong Sexy, Atsay Killer: Buti Nga Sa Yo, Tengteng De Sarapen, Tembong, Ang Panday, Tropang Bulilit, and Last Two Minutes. This was a viable mix for decades. The crowd-pleasers raking it in. The art films not being burdened with the same expectations, finding their audiences on their own terms and who, for the most part, showed up.
When and why the balance began to get struck less and less can be a little tricky to trace and figure. You can pin it on the confluence of many things. The industry collapsing and production for the rest of the year dwindling for starters. The franchises pulling in record numbers and box office becoming a criteria for judging, indie and mainstream becoming an active schism, even. Invisible territorial lines were drawn when indie film festivals began to run rampant, with the studios claiming MMFF as their party for others to gatecrash.
Taken in this context, and depending which side of the fence you’re on, the New MMFF slate feels either like a takeover or a reclamation. Of all the eight films, only the millennial rom-com Vince & Kath & James is studio-produced. Sure, Sunday Beauty Queen notwithstanding, the year’s slate has a rom-com, a horror film, a sequel, an LGBT dramedy, two social realist dramas, and one longform animation, not exactly genres under-represented in the festival’s history. But it’s difficult to ignore how radical the shift in the tenor and thrust of the programming feels like. It’s not exactly a safe slate. Even Vince & Kath & James doesn’t quite hew to formula.
Before seeing any of the films, though, I got the sense that the system was genuinely being gamed not so much from the films that made the cut, but rather from the films that didn’t. The 10th Enteng Kabisote, the seventh Mano Po, and this year’s Vice Ganda vehicle were all denied what had previously been sacrosanct shoo-ins. The vacuum they left in the festival was a black hole a lot of people gleefully relished, myself included. Not everyone was as enthused, though. As expected, hissy-fits ensued. The franchise overlords bemoaned how this year’s slate deprives “poor people” of what has become a holiday tradition, as if their films were epic acts of seasonal altruism, as if they weren’t making a goldmine off them.
Of course, domestic showbiz’s pretend-charity pandering to the masses and their almost messianic fixation with celebrities, has for decades been the Kool-Aid they force down their throats. But when one franchise overlord decried this year’s slate for how it ignores the true taste of the Filipino movie-goer, you do have to wonder how off the mark that statement is, because who’s to say the propaganda didn’t work, and that all movie-goers want for Christmas is Enteng Kabisote And The Abangers. The three franchises cut out from the slate were released a few weeks before the MMFF began. Theoretically, if these films do represent the true taste of the Filipino movie-goer, any time of the year would be a jackpot. Nobody’s brandishing tallies and last I looked, at least two of these franchises were muscling in on the schedules of the official MMFF films. Territorial pissing or missed targets? We’ll probably never know. We call out such pronouncements for its hubris, sure. But any counter-claim that it’s off the mark arguably has its own degree of hubris, too.
Theaters were still pulling out underperforming films. Filmmakers were still taking to social media to beg them not to. This has become the disgusting New Normal of domestic independent films, it seems. Haters have called out the meager box office compared to previous years. One studio director lashed out at indies for over-stepping their boundaries. Chances are a campaign to bring back the Old MMFF will be set in motion soon. But the wholesale social media fervor over the New MMFF is terribly inspiring. And the diversity of the curation does feel like we’re back in pre-franchise MMFF, the balance between art films and crowd-pleasers delicately struck. Bodes well for the future, if there is a future. I hope so. And I hope, too, that the New MMFF stands by the maxim it seems to be upholding again after decades of seemingly forgetting. The New MMFF doesn’t have to, and perhaps shouldn’t have to, represent the true taste of all Filipino movie-goers. Just some. And that’s fine. Films don’t have to be for everyone. And the best films aren’t.