movie industry

Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?

Isagani de Castro Jr.

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Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?

QUEUE. Movie-goers line up to buy tickets to the Metro Manila Film Festival 2023 for its supposed last weekend, on January 6, 2023, at the Trinoma Cinemas in Quezon City.

MMFF spokesman Noel Ferrer/IG

The MMFF used to be the holiday film festival for the masses, with films starring Vice Ganda, Vic Sotto, and Coco Martin often topping the box office. The Filipino movie-going market, however, is changing, as shown in MMFF 2022 and 2023 ticket sales.

MANILA, Philippines – Despite higher cinema ticket prices in 2023, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 49th edition is on track to set a new record high, indicating a more discerning audience for Philippine movies. 

The MMFF announced on January 7, Sunday, that the annual holiday film festival grossed P1 billion in ticket sales, and with the one-week extension for the festival, it will likely set a new box office record. 

A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals that despite the higher ticket sales, the actual number of movie-goers in the MMFF has actually declined. 

When the MMFF set a record high of P1.06 billion in 2018, ticket prices were around P250 each, which means that roughly 4.24 million watched the MMFF for that edition. 

With ticket prices now at around P350 each in 2023 and ticket sales of P1 billion, that means 2.85 million watched the latest iteration of the MMFF, or a decline of 1.39 million viewers. 

Film director Jose Javier Reyes said in a blog post last December 23 that ticket prices are now beyond the reach of the Filipino masses.

“Consider the mathematics. The Filipino minimum wage earner takes home P570/day for his hard work – without subtracting the cost of transportation and food. The average cost of a movie ticket nowadays is between P350 to P400. It is quite clear that Aleng Tacing and Mang Juaning together with their offsprings Letlet and Junjun can no longer afford to watch movies,” Reyes, also a juror in the MMFF 2023, said.

The new record that will be set in MMFF 2023 is thus an indication that this new MMFF audience is a more discerning one compared to cinema-goers in pre-pandemic years, or over five years ago.

One clear sign of this is that in MMFF 2023, the celebrities who attracted the biggest number of patrons before – comedians Vice Ganda and Vic Sotto, and action star Coco Matin – have no entries. Their movies, often described as “escapist,” catered to the masses who preferred to watch commercial films as an “escape” from their life situations. These films, however, often got flak from critics. 

Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?

In 2018, when the record high of P1.06 billion was set, Vice Ganda had Fantastica: The Princess, The Prince and The Perya, produced by Star Cinema and Viva Films. Veteran comedian Vic Sotto and action star Coco Martin had Popoy En Jack: The Pulisincredibles.

Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?

In the 2022 MMFF, Vice Ganda had an entry – Partners in Crime –  but for the first time, his movie was not the box office winner. It was Deleter, the psychologial thriller of acclaimed young director, Mikhail Red, and produced by Viva Films, which topped the box office

Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?

Reyes said this “already indicated a major change in the preference of the market.” 

“The market who spend money for the festival was no longer the masa (masses) who loved a good old traditional comedy but opted for a horror film about technology and the dark web, about call center agents who turn nights into days and the lurking dangers in the computer screen. In other words, this is a completely different audience from what used to be considered as the familiar moviegoer of the past… especially those who feasted on the annual MMFF,” Reyes said. 

For MMFF 2023, the 10 participating films have been described by MMFF chairman Romando Artes to be better in quality and well-marketed than in previous editions. The festival’s best picture is Firefly by GMA Pictures and GMA Public Affairs, a not-your-usual fantasy film since it tackles marital abuse.

Is there a new Filipino cinema audience?

There’s also historical film, GomBurZa, which has gotten good reviews from critics. It’s also the most awarded movie among the 10 films in the MMFF. As of Sunday, people were still lining up to see the film.

Noel Ferrer, spokesman for the MMFF, said the P1 billion in ticket sales is a clear sign that Filipinos will go to watch good movies in theaters.

“Naabot natin ang [P]1B mark kanina; partida – wala pa riyan ang mga suking Vice Ganda, Vic Sotto at Coco Martin ha. Paano pa kaya kung makakagawa sila ng magagandang obrang may lasting impact sa mga kababayan nating humahanga sa kanila? Ang ganda sana!!!” he said in a post on Sunday. 

(We reached the P1 billion mark earlier, and that’s without our regulars Vice Ganda, Vic Sotto, and Coco Martin. What if they can make good films with a lasting impact on their fans? That would be great!) 

“Kaya pala nating lumabas at suportahan ang magagandang pelikulang likhang Pinoy … sana magtuluy-tuloy na ito MMFF man o hindi,” he said. “Basta, ang ating panalangin: maging normal na ang pagbabalik sinehan nating mga Pilipino.” 

(This shows we can go out and support our quality films made by Pinoys…I hope this continues even after the MMFF. That is my hope: that Filipinos’ cinema-going goes back to normal.) 

The Philippine film industry had been battered for a long time by film piracy, followed by the rise of streaming platforms. The local film situation looks even bleaker when compared to what South Korea has done with its Hallyu wave. 

Another indication of the higher quality films this year is the fact that for the first time, all 10 entries will be presented in an international Manila film festival that will be held in California, USA from January 29 to February 2.

Although there are clear signs of change, Amor Aljibe, an independent film producer who teaches special courses on K-drama, told Rappler on Monday that a deeper look into the cinema audience should be done. She said it’s possible that the masses still went to watch the MMFF 2023 but probably saved up for it. 

“Puwedeng nagtipid ang mga nanood kaya savings nila ang ginastos for the cinema ticket. Family event ang MMFF-watching kaya madami naghahanda talaga,” she said. 

(It’s possible they used their savings to pay for the cinema ticket. The MMFF is a family event so many really prepare to watch.)

Behavioral change

In a television interview on Monday, Ferrer said that December 25 used to be the biggest day for the MMFF. For its latest edition, however, he said there were still long lines on January 7, Sunday, an indication that movie-goers first waited for reviews to see which film to watch. 

“Ang maganda, napatunayan natin na lalabas at lalabas ‘yung tao kung meron kang magandang content na hinahain sa kanila. It’s noteworthy to see that usually, Christmas Day ‘yung pinakamalaki ‘yung gross sales na araw na para sa mga pelikula, pero ‘yung mga tao, nag-iba ‘yung mga behavior,” Ferrer told One Balita PH

(What’s nice is that we’ve proven that people will watch in theaters if the content you offer is good. Usually, Christmas Day is the highest gross receipts day for films, but the behavior has changed.) 

January 2 [ticket sales] was even more than December 25, meaning puwede na maghintay ‘yung mga tao, hindi bulagsak sa pera kung ano lang ‘yung existing diyan na panoorin. Naghinintay sila ng reviews, ng word of mouth, ng magandang recommendation ng mga tao kasi nga parang hinihintay nila na worth it ‘yung papanoorin nila,” Ferrer said.

(January 2 was even more than December 25, meaning people are willing to wait and not spend their money on just what’s out there. They wait for reviews, word of mouth of good recommendations, so they wait for what’s worth watching.)

In a speech in 2021, then-Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) chairperson Liza Diño-Seguerra estimated that the local film industry contributed at least P11 billion to the economy. She estimated that cinema admissions in 2017 were only at 51.5 million, which she said, was a “very low number” for a national population of over 105 million. 

The fifties and sixties are considered the “golden years” of Philippine cinema, with the local industry producing around 200 films a year and big theaters often getting filled up by patrons. Piracy brought down the industry starting in the eighties, and the number of films produced yearly declined to less than 100. In recent years, even with the downsizing of theaters, local films have not been able to attract patrons, and only a few local producers make money.

Stakeholders in the industry, as well as representatives in Congress, have been trying to come up with solutions to boost the local movie industry, similar to what South Korea has achieved. – 

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Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.