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Pinoy Box-Office Rewind: Lessons from the post-pandemic era

By ERIC CABAHUG Published Jan 07, 2024 1:31 pm Updated Jan 09, 2024 7:42 pm

The good news: The 2023 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has earned P1 billion at the box office. That’s twice the total gross of the previous edition of the annual filmfest, and it’s a result nobody expected, perhaps including the organizers themselves.

The surprise stems from the fact that moviegoers have pretty much stayed away from the Pinoy movies the entire year, except for a few weeks in September and October when enough people saw Kathryn Bernardo’s A Very Good Girl to make it a P110 million blockbuster and Alden Richards’ Five Breakups and a Romance a P80 million hit.

But even these results are somewhat of a disappointment considering that Kathryn and Alden’s previous movie, Hello, Love, Goodbye, raked in over P880 million in 2019 and still stands as the highest-grossing Filipino movie of all time.

Dolly de Leon and Kathryn Bernardo in 'A Very Good Girl'

It was pretty much the same in 2022. Outside the MMFF, only one movie, the political drama Maid in Malacañang, made a considerable mark at the box-office, grossing over P600 million. No one was really surprised at the movie’s success, though,  considering the resurgent popularity of the Marcos family as reflected in the results of the 2022 elections. But it proved to be a one-hit wonder: the follow-up flick in what’s said to be a planned trilogy, Martyr Or Murderer, struggled to even breach the P75 million mark during its run in February 2023.

The story of Pinoy films at the box-office in the post-pandemic era is one of surprise hits and surprise misses. Clearly, a lot changed during the two-year pandemic period between 2020 and 2021: clearly, the pandemic changed a lot. Moviegoing is no longer what it used to be pre-2020 when you can pretty much count on formulae to keep the cash counters ringing.

That’s a good thing. 

What lessons can we learn from this? Here are some.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

The P300 million+ success (as of presstime) of 2023 MMFF’s top-grosser Rewind, Star Cinema’s time-traveling drama, alone is clear evidence of moviegoers’ big appetite for family-oriented tearjerkers.

Marian Rivera and Dingdong Dantes in 'Rewind'

Add the mother-son tale Firefly, the festival’s Best Picture and fourth placer at the tills, and Family Matters, the 2nd Best Picture and also one of the top 4 grossers in the 2022 MMFF—both with no big-name stars, and it’s obvious that the shutdown of ABS-CBN in 2020 has left a gaping hole for onscreen weepfests that top rating drama shows like Maalala-ala Mo Kaya used to fill every week. Before any of these movies, one would have to go back to 2017 when a family drama, Seven Sundays, made a killing at the box-office, grossing over P270 million.

Happy and gay is no longer always, well, happy and gay

Not as it used to be, anyway. For years Vice Ganda ruled the MMFF box-office without anyone making a real threat to the crown. But in 2022, Nadine Lustre ascended to the throne with a decisive victory: the P240 million that her  Best Picture-winning Deleter made trumped Vice Ganda’s P168 million haul for Partners in Crime.

Even LGBTQ+-themed films in the mold of 2016’s MMFF award-winning P98 million top-grosser Die Beautiful have failed to cast a rainbow at the tills, whether in or outside of the festival: 2023’s I Love You, Beksman, Becky & Badette, Broken Hearts Trip, and the Here Comes the Bride redux Here Comes The Groom, to name just the more high-profile titles.

It remains to be seen whether Vice’s “defeat” as well as Beautiful’s win were really just flukes or the wide popularity of gay-themed online content as well as the surge of drag culture in real life has really diminished moviegoers’ appetite for big screen outings of the sort. Why pay for and exert extra effort when you can get your dose of LOLs for free and very conveniently any time you want from your phone? This leads us to this next lesson.

Eugene Domingo and Pokwang in 'Becky & Badette'

Doing the same things will not always produce the same results

Horror has been a favorite genre among Pinoy moviegoers (as it is in many other countries around the world) and a staple in the MMFF but these past two years showed that when given options, viewers will choose the one offering something new.

Deleter marketed itself as a new kind of horror film, a “techno horror,” and it worked; in 2023, Mallari made a killing at the box-office with its heady mix of Philippine history, folklore, and time travel and multiple timelines, the likes of which local audiences haven’t seen before in a local horror film.

Piolo Pascual in 'Mallari'

On the other hand, the MMFF entry Kampon failed to get many people to adopt its already familiar tale of an evil adopted child and the nth incarnation of Shake, Rattle, and Roll did not get crowds rolling into the cinemas despite a good-enough playdate outside the MMFF (but admittedly not as good as the MMFF).

With Hollywood constantly offering fright fests with new twists and fresh ingredients, local producers should be on their toes and constantly think of ways to level up if they want to stay and win in the horror game. But this applies to non-horror films too as it can be argued that A Very Good Girl also benefited from its showcase of Kathryn in her first offbeat role that’s quite a departure from her usual romantic parts. Speaking of romance…

Love is not sweeter the nth time around

Except for Five Breakups and a Romance, romance movies got the cold shoulder from audiences the past two years. This is a far cry from the pre-pandemic era when romance-dramas and romance-comedies consistently made good love at the box-office.

You know there’s been a falling out when viewers choose to stay away from movies starring a queen of the genre like Bela Padilla (2023’s Wish You Were The One and The Ultimate Oppa) and superstar Coco Martin together with teleserye queen Jodi Sta. Maria (2022 MMFF entry Labyu With an Accent). Even Five Breakups, as mentioned earlier in this article, can be seen as a disappointment in view of lead star Alden’s P880 million-grossing previous romance movie Hello, Love, Goodbye.

Julia Montes and Alden Richards in 'Five Breakups and A Romance'

Today’s kids are not yesterday’s children

Viva Films tried to resurrect the long-moribund Pinoy children’s fantasy adventure movie genre with the revival of classic Filipino comic superhero character Pedro Penduko but failed to bring it back to its former glory as a box-office giant.

It was a valiant effort, for sure, just as the 2020 MMFF entry Magikland was, itself inspired by the classic Pinoy film Magic Kingdom from 1997. But apparently what’s old doesn’t work anymore, no matter their hallowed place in local movie history, among adult and young viewers alike.

The kids are the key audience here and clearly today’s youngsters already get more than their fill of fantasy from Hollywood superhero and adventure movies and small screen series. And it’s not just about quantity but also quality. Today’s standards for these films are just not the same anymore even from a decade ago. 

All told, the biggest cause for all the changes in the big screen viewing of Filipino movies coming out from the pandemic may be tied to economics: with inflation continuing to rear its ugly head, Filipino viewers simply don’t have enough money to watch as much as they used to or want to throughout the year.

Now, perhaps more than ever, they want more bang for their limited buck. With the wide array of entertainment they can get instantly for free—with little to no effort at that—who can blame them for being very choosy with their big screen outings. Producers should take note of the lessons from the box-office of 2022-2023 if they want to have dragon-size business in this year of the dragon and beyond.