Max’s Chicken, Brillante Mendoza, and the Commercial

Independent cinema auteurs have been making headlines in 2016. News outlets celebrated the reception of Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016) in Berlin, where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize for exploring the boundaries of cinema.  Another auteur, Brillante “Dante” Mendoza, has also made news for  directing President Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address. Like Diaz, Mendoza’s films, including this year’s Ma’ Rosa, are better known for international prizes than for local box-office success. The length of Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis has made alternative mediums of distribution necessary. Mendoza tweeted about  Ma’ Rosa‘s box-office fate when it was pulled from multiple cinemas for drawing insufficient crowds.

Lav Diaz’  films interrogate the evolution of Philippine national identities by drawing on history and literature simultaneously. His is film’s are extremely long.  Hele runs for over eight hours. Norte, the End of History (2013) is four-hours long and Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) is over nine hours long.  Despite the participation of popular actors, Diaz’ films  are not designed for box-office success. The eight-hour Hele‘s brief cinematic release was targeted to students, but the price of admission was about twice as high as a regular movie ticket and as prohibitive as its run-time.

Prestige can be leveraged into gigs–such as directing a State of the Nation Address–that convey the director’s political and cultural relevance. The prestige of such award-winning niche projects also leads to  collaboration with well-regarded popular actors, ambitious producers, and the occasional  financier. But international film festival awards rarely translate into popular reception. Potential audiences enjoy news about Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, but that doesn’t mean they will pay to watch it.

Si Dante at Si Max

Unlike Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza has found alternative avenues for expanding his popular audience through a partnership with one of the country’s best-known fried chicken chains. Despite Filipino celebrations’ association with pork, the Philippines is chicken-country. Local lechon manok ( rotisserie chicken) purveyors range from mom-and-pop shacks  to corporate mom-and-pop-style  chains such as Andok’s Lechon Manok and Chooks-to-Go. Jollibee has made ChickenJoy (battered fried chicken) its signature product. Mang Inasal, the fastest growing fast food chain in the country, specializes in Bacolod-style marinated, barbecued chicken. Korean fried chicken chain Bon Chon now has more branches in the Philippines than it does in South Korea.

Mendoza has partnered with one of the country’s ubiquitous fried chicken chains,  Max’s Restaurant.The name Max’s is often followed by the chain’s tagline: “The House that Fried Chicken Built.” Founded in 1945, Max’s–now part of a larger restaurant conglomerate–markets itself as a heritage brand. Many of its locations are decorated with enlarged versions of the chain’s earliest menus. Its fried chicken–though initially served to American GIs–appears more “Filipino,” unlike the clearly American-style fried chicken offered by Jollibee or the Korean-style fried chicken of Bon Chon.

A partnership between a filmmaker whose films explore the repercussions of meth-trafficking ( Ma’Rosa, 2016) and the dissolution of a marriage between an aging, childless tribal couple (Thy Womb, 2012 ) and a restaurant brand based on sales of fried chicken seems unusual. But, the director’s newsworthy prestige provides Max’s with a rare kind of publicity.  Mendoza’s commercials for Max have been marketed and reported like the release of a well-regarded director’s film. Rappler, for example, describes the digital release of the commercial Debut by announcing a new, Brillante Mendoza tearjerker (with no crass mention of fried chicken).  Max’s Restaurant enhances its association with local culture and heritage through its sponsorship of Mendoza’s endeavors and also gets four impressive (potentially viral) commercials .

The partnership is called Si Dante at Si Max (“Dante and Max”), a title that strategically makes the high-brow director more approachable through the familiar “Dante” rather than the intimidating “Brillante.” For Max’s, Mendoza crafted four “short films” (KasalDebutTagpuan, Rider), all of which link major Filipino life milestones with the institution of Max’s Restaurant (“The House that Fried Chicken Built”). Through this partnership with Max’s, Brilliante Mendoza’s films can potentially reach much larger audiences than Ma’ Rosa or Thy Womb (or both combined). Even better, his commercial films are available to everyone for free.  The cost of distribution is subsidized by a major corporation willing to pay newspapers to advertise the release of each film on every single social media platform.He transforms himself from niche arthouse auteur into “director of the people” by crafting sentimental narratives that draw on the life stories of the very people who make Max’s chicken.

Si Dante and si Max is an innovative partnership that signals a new direction in the culture of advertising. Other major chicken-sellers have not borrowed prestige from acclaimed directors. Most corporate chicken sellers rely on  partnerships with celebrities, generally known as “endorsers.”  Alden Richards and Maine Mendoza (#Aldub) endorse McDonald’s–in the Philippines, also major purveyors of fried chicken products. In 2015, Mang Inasal was endorsed by actress Angel Locsin, and, in 2016, by actor Coco Martin. Jollibee’s ChickenJoy ads feature entertainers Nadine Lustre and James Reid (#Jadine).  Brillante Mendoza has directed multiple commercials for Max’s Restaurants starring the actor Coco Martin, briefly a Max’s server and current endorser for Mang Inasal. The initial series of Mendoza-helmed Max’s commercials cashed in on Coco Martin’s popularity, but the new “commercial films” borrow prestige from their director. Press copy for the commercial film Debut, for example, used Mendoza’s name often, but rarely made mention of the award-winning actor, Julio Diaz, who stars in it.

Although there should be apprehension regarding new relationships between cultural production and corporate interests, Si Dante at Si Max represents an innovation in local advertising culture. The relationship between Mendoza and Max’s is  more productive than the usual endorser-brand partnership. Dante, like Max’s, crafts a product to delight his audience (which is not necessarily the primary intention of his own independent cinema).  Mendoza, in turn, romanticizes the image of the people who make and serve Max’s products,since Mendoza identifies primarily with Max’s employees rather than with Max’s customers (for whom celebrity endorsers usually act as a stand-in). Mendoza’s celebrations of the corporate chain’s employees signal a cultural shift. Si Dante at si Max celebrates the people who make things (fried chicken, films) rather than the taste of consumers. The partnership between Dante and Max makes the link between cultural productivity and other forms of labor explicit.

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