The annual event started in 1975, with Diligin Mo ng Hamog ang Uhaw na Lupa ("Water the Thirsty Earth with Dew") by Augusto Buenaventura as the inaugural best film award winner.
Another highlight of the festival is the parade of floats that are lavishly decorated after the films they represent, along with film stars from their respective entries present on the floats. On the awards night, a Best Float award is also announced along with the major acting awards.
A spin-off event entitled the Metro Manila Summer Film Festival was established in 2019 to encourage filmmakers to produce more films. As with the regular MMFF being held during Christmas season, the Summer Film Festival is set to start every Easter weekend, and entries will include films which were either rejected from the mainline Festival or did not make it in time. The 2020 summer festival was however postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the regular edition was held digitally due to said pandemic, with entries being made available through video-on-demand instead of a traditional theatrical release.
As with most film festivals, the MMFF is no stranger to controversy either. Over the years the MMFF has been criticised by film scholars and directors alike for favouring mainstream entries which are rushed to sate "masa" families flocking to malls during Christmas and lack artistic merit or meaningful content. To the likes of Vic Sotto and Vice Ganda, it didn't matter to them as long as, to quote Sotto, "it was a record-breaking festival"; this led a film council to come up with the Festival of Filipino Films (Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino) as a Take That! to what was perceived as the MMFF's degeneration to commercialised content and sappy romcoms as opposed to films worthy of taking pride on in the world stage. As director Joel Lamangan lamented during the 2018 edition of the film festival, Sana naman, huwag lang komersyo ang kanilang isipin. Irespeto rin sana ng mga sinehan ang sining at industriya. (I hope they shouldn't just think about the commercial aspect; they should respect artistry and the film industry as well.)