Awards nights are not complete without questioning the decisions of the jury, and the awards night of the 2023 edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) on Dec. 27 was no exception.
Eyebrows were raised when “Firefly” was declared best picture over “GomBurZa,” which came in second. “GomBurZa,” after all, won more technical awards—best production design by Ericson Navarro and best cinematography by Carlo Canlas Mendoza. Pepe Diokno was named best director, and Cedrick Juan, who played Padre Burgos, best actor.
On the other hand, “Firefly” won the best screenplay award for Angeli Atienza and the best child performer award for Euwenn Mikael.
But it’s a matter of process, said film director Jose Javier Reyes, who was one of the jury members. Reyes said they deliberated from 10 a.m. to a little short of 4 p.m. They discussed who should be nominated for each of the categories. Then, voting was via secret balloting.
Some of the jurors were reportedly surprised when some of the winners were announced. Some of those who received the awards were not these jurors’ personal choices.
According to Reyes, no one knew the outcome of the voting except for a representative of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), and director Chito Roño and actress Lorna Tolentino, who served as head and deputy, respectively, of the MMFF board of judges. Reyes laughingly added that there was no way any form of bribery occurred: “Sige nga, subukan n’yong lagyan si Chito. Mabibili n’yo ba si Lorna T?”
The other members of the board of judges were producer and director Mike Sandejas, award-winning cinematographer Lee Briones, award-winning editor Tara Illenberger, and actor Raymond Francisco. Those who represented the government were lawyer Maria Luwalhati Dorotan who is undersecretary for finance, MMDA Undersecretary Frisco San Juan, and Dr. Jaime Ang of the MLQ School of Undergraduate Studies. Veteran entertainment writer Jerry Olea represented the movie press.
But more than the awards, Reyes said, the Filipino audience is back in the movie theaters, as shown by the box-office returns.
MMFF 2023 is said to be the most successful in recent years, both in terms of box-office returns and critical acclaim. It grossed P1.069 billion as of Jan 7, and is expected to earn more as its run has been extended to Jan. 14. The gross take has surpassed the P1.061 billion of MMFF 2018, and represents the biggest earnings since the festival started 49 years ago.
Media reports said moviegoers began to flock to the cinemas in droves after the awards night
Reyes said moviegoers had become “more critical,” with the high cost of admission prompting them to think twice about their choices. He said they wanted to make sure that the viewing experience would be worth their money.
“GomBurZa” and “Firefly” were the beneficiaries of this new attitude. Both films were trailing in ticket sales but jumped to the top five after the awards night. Reyes said it was “Firefly” that made the biggest jump sales-wise.
Cinematographer Carlo Canlas Mendoza expressed surprise at the performance of “GomBurZa” at the box office. ‘I thought we would be [No.] 8 or 9,” he said during a talkback after its screening at Cinema 76 in Quezon City.
“GomBurZa” finally landed third at the box office, following the Dingdong Dantes-Marian Rivera starrer “Rewind” and “Mallari” top-billed by Piolo Pascual. “Firefly” was fourth.
Written by Rody Vera, “GomBurZa” does not focus on the profiles of the three martyred priests but, rather, on how the secularization movement ignited the patriotism that eventually led to Jose Rizal’s martyrdom and the formation of the revolutionary movement Katipunan. The Philippine Revolution in 1896-98 is believed to be the first democratic revolt in Southeast Asia.
In filming Vera’s screenplay, director Diokno said, he made sure to show the connection between the priests’ martyrdom and the revolution. “It was intentional—giving important shots to the servants and ordinary people serving the frailes and showing them again as part of the revolutionary movement,” Diokno said. “Everything was intentional.”
Observers believe that the dominance of Netflix and other streaming platforms has contributed to changes in the Filipino audience’s preferences. The Covid-19 pandemic also saw the emergence of independent Filipino films that offered different contents, concepts and film styles.
According to MMFF spokesman Noel Ferrer, entertainment is important. But the audience’s definition of what is entertaining in films has changed.
“Let us hope that producers make more films that offer better concepts and storytelling techniques,” Reyes said. He said he remains hopeful that the Philippine movie industry is alive and far from dead.