As we reach the final day of the MMFF 2006, the critical backlash of bestowing the dubious "Best Picture" award to Enteng Kabisote 3 has reached fever-pitch (see the full list of winners here). Lots of writers (mostly offline, in newspaper editorials) have stated that EK3 has no artistic merit whatsoever and have declared the MMFF an utter travesty.
What’s interesting to me is that it’s taken them this long to realize that. (In truth, this is simply a rerun of last year’s hubbub; amazingly, even our movie-related controversies are unoriginal.)
Most of the essays I’ve seen allude to an adjustment in the "Best Picture" judging criteria, which now includes a 40% chunk for "commerical success." The rules change made EK3 a clear frontrunner with PhP59.5 million in earnings after only its fourth day in theaters ("Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo" was a distant second with only PhP42 million). The popular notion is that reducing or removing that 40% chunk would result in a more appropriate Best Picture choice. These writers mostly miss the point; the issue isn’t in the rules, it’s in the game.
Having actually seen EK3 (along with Shake, Rattle and ROFL 8, Matakot Ka Sa Karma, and several other MMFF entries over the past 4 or 5 years), I think I have a pretty good idea of the general level of quality that the Film Festival has to offer, and it’s hard to say that any of those films are "appropriate" Best Picture selections. One wonders how that can be, considering that these movies are entries into the year’s most important movie awards? Again, the nature of the game dictates the sort of people who play it.
Since the MMFF was inaugurated, the notion of barring foreign films from theaters for a period of two weeks at the end of each year has been its defining feature. The idea was to encourage the growth of the local film industry by not giving moviegoers a choice: either they watch a filmfest movie, or they don’t watch a movie at all. The filmfest movies get more exposure, producers make more money, filmmakers get paid more, the overall quality of the landscape improves. A simple, well-intentioned solution to a convoluted problem.
The weakness in the solution becomes evident when you think about what it’s actually doing. The filmfest creates an artificial environment where local movies can dominate, i.e., a place where films like Titanic and Lord of the Rings cannot compete … indeed, are not even allowed entry. To make a suitable movie analogy, a jedi apprentice cannot hone his abilities to the level of the masters by only sparring with other apprentices. Likewise, there is no motivation to improve our filmfest movies (in terms of artistic merit) when there are only a handful of other movies — all of them local — to compete against.
This artificial environment has one other, possibly more damaging, side effect: it’s a huge cash cow. As our local film producers have discovered, the film fest is a great opportunity to milk the public for every centavo in their film-viewing budget. The end result is that it makes more economic sense to release crowd-pleasing, turn-your-brain-off fare like EK3 than more artistically-inclined, niche features. You can’t argue with PhP59.5-million pesos or more in year-end profit, after all.
So where does this leave us, inundated as we are with a festival that encourages entries that are steadily more ludicrous with each coming year? The MMFF cannot continue without taking a serious look at its various repercussions.
One good first step would be to scrap the "film festival" nomenclature, as the very idea of a festival that celebrates mediocrity subservient to marketing is oxymoronic (with a passionate emphasis on "moronic"). Call it "Support the Local Film Industry" month or something. Then recant the foreign-film lockout but require each mall or cineplex to devote at least half of their theaters to the "SLFI" movies. Then do a 2-in-1 deal where PhP250 gets you a ticket to one foreign film and one local film of your choosing. (Hey, if it works for value meals and music CDs, it should work for movies.)
The idea should be to passively encourage moviegoers to see a local movie without forcing it down their throats the way the current MMFF does. This forces the local filmmakers to step up, as their movies will be actively compared with their international siblings. I’m not talking about comparing movie budgets of course, as that would be pretty naive, but about producing movies that the international filmmakers cannot. Think about it: our single biggest advantage over foreigners is that the movies we produce are uniquely targeted to the Filipino audience, something which a Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese movie could never hope to achieve. So use that advantage, and make movies that are Filipino movies, not cheap knockoffs of Star Wars and Crouching Tiger the way EK3 is. Bollywood pulls this off all the time; it’s not impossible.
Otherwise, the mediocrity will never end, and each new film festival will have ever sillier entries to brandish and market. I mean, come on, I’ve been choking this stuff down for the past 4 years. A guy can only take so much.