Abolish the MMFF? or, What To Do With the Artistic Film?

There's a nip in the air today, and a drizzle. It's been drizzling all day, in fact, somewhat unusual this time of year. But I'm still going to the mall, pay a utility bill, get some dog food, and maybe catch a Metro Manila Film Festival entry.

This year's festival has the following films in its line-up:
  • Aurora by Yam Laranas (Horror, Thriller, Suspense)
  • Fantastica by Barry Gonzales (Fantasy, Comedy)
  • The Girl in the Orange Dress by Jay Abello (Romance, Comedy)
  • Jack Em Popoy: The Puliscredibles by Mike Tuviera (Action, Thriller, Comedy)
  • Mary, Marry Me  by RC delos Reyes (Romance, Comedy)
  • One Great Love by Eric Quizon (Romance, Drama)
  • Otlum by Joven Tan (Horror, Comedy)
  • Rainbow's Sunset by Joel Lamangan (Family Drama)
Note that five of them are comedies and three of them are classified under romance. I won't say yet what I'm going to watch.

For many years, the attacks aimed at the MMFF have been consistently vitriolic, particularly from those who'd demand "quality" films, or films that have a good level of artistic merit. For the purposes of this blog post, I would use the word "artistic" to characterize these films. I won't use the word "quality," because a commercial film can be a quality film, too.

In 2016, many rejoiced over the majority of praiseworthy films in the MMFF line-up, such as Die Beautiful, Saving Sally, and Sunday Beauty Queen. However, the box office gross of that year was reportedly only Php373.3-million, down from the previous year's Php1.02-billion. It was even lower than the previous record of Ph437.6-million, way back in 2009.

The argument goes that the Christmas season is the most lucrative, and therefore the artistic films should have an easier chance of making more money. That's true, especially since movie theaters can only feature MMFF entries during the festival run. Compare that to another local film festival, the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, which runs in August and does not have the festival-only privilege enjoyed of the MMFF. The PPP earned Php170-million during debut run in 2017. The 2018 edition didn't fare any better, with only Php122-million in sales.

Should the MMFF be abolished? I don't think that's the right question to ask, because the festival is making money from the more commercial films which, from a capitalist perspective, is all that matters. The selection criteria lists "commercial appeal" carrying a forty percent weight. And never mind if the more meritorious films get pulled out earlier from the theaters. These theaters are businesses, not charities.

Another question people raise is, how do we convince more Filipinos to watch artistic films? Again, not a right question to ask. Across the board in many countries, artistic films don't play well with most people. Those that make money have the advantage of international distribution. Just like any product, if audiences don't find value in a film, then they won't spend money on it no matter how much we lobby or beg. For most moviegoers, an artistic film is an unknown quantity--they're not sure what they're going to get.

We can't convince more Filipinos to watch artistic films, at least during the MMFF. It boils down to taste, and why we watch movies in the first place. As some pointed out, the MMFF is best for light-hearted family films because of the schedule. Those of us who'd rather watch movies with friends or by our lonesome pale in number compared to the droves of families who want a fun holiday time at the malls. Going to the movies is a family affair, so they'd rather watch a film that's good for everyone.

What, then, should we do about the artistic films?

Now I'm not an expert, but I believe that when there's a will, there's a way. For me, while there is a lot of value in having a film shown in a movie theater, it doesn't have to start there.

I've talked about video-on-demand before, particularly Vimeo, a video streaming platform that's been around for over a decade. Through its Pro account, a filmmaker can upload 20GB-worth of video every week and charge a customer for either a download or a rental. The Pro account costs US$240 a year. The filmmaker chooses the price, and Vimeo takes only 10% after transaction costs.

Now what if a group of filmmakers (or producers) decided to create their own month-long festival and host it on Vimeo? They set up an account, post their films, set up a price (like USD3.00 to rent each film) and do some kind of marketing blitz to promote the online filmfest. When the one-month festival period is over, they can just take down their films.

Since there are a lot of people who demand well-crafted films, what if these filmmakers invited these people into an email list to prep the audience about the festival? Since there are no geographical limitations, the audience can come from anywhere as long as they can make online transactions. This audience would most likely be comfortable watching full-length features online, because Netflix.

And, since the audience really likes well-crafted films, what if the filmmakers solicit constructive feedback and ratings about the films. Any good feedback can then be used by the filmmakers to help sell the film to movie theaters.

Does all this sound hare-brained?

What's the difference here? Well, there's the story. Not the story of the films themselves, but the story revolving around the film market.

When marketed well, an online film festival can work because anyone in the country can watch (as long as internet service is good). According to Statista, there are over 296,000 Netflix subscribers in the Philippines. Competitor iflix claims to have around 800,000 actve Philippine-based subscribers. This means that hundreds of thousands of Filipinos are already used to paying for and consuming video content online. No need to go through traffic, or buy popcorn, or have dinner out after. Audience members can even save money by holding viewing parties.

To sweeten the deal, a film can be placed on rental for a price that's lower than a movie ticket, say USD3.00. It's a higher price barrier compared to a subscription service, but it's a good test to see who how many people really want to watch well-crafted Pinoy films, and prove it by paying.

Assuming that the pre-sales period for this online film festival manages to build an email list of 50,000, and assuming that the filmmakers earn USD1.00 from Vimeo after transaction fees, then each film can stand to earn at least Php2.5-million. Whether or not the filmmakers can amass a 50,000-strong email list is another thing altogether. They would have to adhere to the "demand for quality films" sentiment and make it their battlecry. For context, Aquaman made over Php230-million on its first weekend in the Philippines. That's between 800,000 and one million tickets sold.

And, as I've said, if a film gets lots of views and enthusiastic comments, then those can be used to sell the film to theaters and to the theater-going public as proof of value.

(What about piracy? Well, piracy is there whether we like it or not, and pirates usually target the more popular stuff.)


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