Producer Bianca Balbuena on the post-pandemic future of cinema

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Balbuena talks about “The Tapes,” why she always chooses projects that make her heart "jump," and the biggest myths about film producers. Photo and illustration by JL JAVIER

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Ever since the novel coronavirus pandemic broke out and governments implemented strict orders for non-essential workers to stay at home, the film industry has been reeling to stay afloat. The shutdown of cinemas and productions has made filmmakers everywhere face a possible future where both producing and enjoying a film can be considered dangerous. In the seven weeks of enhanced community quarantine in the Philippines, hundreds of crew members have been left jobless, with various community-led initiatives attempting to pick up the pieces and extend a hand in one way or another.

Producer Bianca Balbuena believes that securing funding for films will be even harder than it already is after the pandemic, as private funders must factor in the cost of additional safety measures, while public grants and state funding could suffer in the name of prioritizing health and infrastructure. Distribution, too, will suffer, as attitudes towards cinema-going change.

"Will the theater owners prioritize the big films all the more?" she asks. "Will the people be excited to go back to the theaters, or will they be used to staying home and watching from their screens? The need for content on streaming sites will be one of our advantages, but is it really?"

Balbuena is an award-winning producer, with projects like Antoinette Jadaone's cult classic "That Thing Called Tadhana" and Lav Diaz' Berlinale Silver Bear winner "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" under her belt. She's also the youngest person to receive the Asia Pacific Screen Awards FIAPF Award for her contribution to Asia Pacific cinema.

Balbuena is also the co-founder of Epicmedia, the production company behind Dwein Baltazar's "Oda sa Wala," Victor Villanueva's "Patay na si Hesus," Lav Diaz' "Ang Panahon ng Halimaw," and most recently, Bradley Liew's horror outfit "Motel Acacia."

JC Santos and Agot Isidro star in the horror outfit "Motel Acacia." Photo by JL JAVIER

With seemingly more questions than answers, it's hard to be hopeful. But there seems to be a glimmer of hope in streaming — albeit one to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

"I also think [content] will change greatly," she says. "Writers will be our pillar. Creative development will be done online and from home. I hope people will give it more importance. I also hope this will strengthen our need to collaborate with other countries to tell stories."

In April, Balbuena, along with Liew (who happens to be her husband) and writer Dodo Dayao, released "The Tapes" on iWant. The mystery-thriller features Sam Milby and Yassi Pressman as cops leading a murder investigation in a provincial town haunted by secrets and otherworldly forces. The promising trailer gives a peek into a film unlike anything I've seen released by iWant.

As part of CNN Philippines Life’s series of Q&As with creatives, we spoke to Balbuena about “The Tapes,” why she always chooses projects that make her heart "jump," and the biggest myths about film producers. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

Open to risks and unafraid to trail on unfamiliar paths and bet on uncertain emotions. A lot like love.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

When picking my projects, I always go for something that makes my heart jump. It has to scare me. And then I’ll be on my toes the whole time to make it work. When dealing with people, I always tell my staff to be a good person first and foremost before becoming a good producer. Every person on set is as important.

And how does that relate to your current project?

"The Tapes" was a crazy story thought by Bradley Liew (who also directed it). He approached his writer friend Dodo Dayao to pen it. They really jive well. They agree and disagree, and it makes the project more interesting. When I heard about the idea, I was so intrigued that I wanted them to already tell me how it will unfold — not from the point of view of a producer but as an audience. It did make me jump. I approached Dreamscape and iWant, and without much questions and doubts, they green-lit it. Although they admitted it’s not their usual “core” material, they are also excited to try something new. I’m happy it worked out. It’s streaming on iWant and it deals with the '90s, patriarchy, cops and alcohol, ghost earthquakes in Baguio, time traveling, mysterious video tapes, and a lot more thrill.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Making breakfast excites me. I’ve also learned recently the delight of AeroPress coffee. I wake up at 7 or 8 a.m. to play, feed, and bathe my child. I make her sleep after a few hours and when she does, I watch shows on iWant, Netflix, or Viu, with her beside me. At night, I have a glass of single malt or gin tonic. A few chats with my husband on our projects also make my day interesting!

How important is social media in your work?

A lot of times, I wanted to disappear and deactivate Facebook as it is very taxing, but work is there. Some of my colleagues are from different parts of the world and social media really connects (or disconnects) you to each other. You also learn about the new works of your old friends and emerging artists.

What skills do you wish you had?

Baking, playing a musical instrument or doing musical score in films, painting.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

Raising financing for an arthouse project (from both private and public funding) and doing sales and distribution when the options now have become limited.

You try to overcome them by studying, being open to new things, attending film markets, and meeting people from around the world who you will want to work with in the future. That’s our job.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

Producers are not banks. Producers do not equate to money. We are creative people who raise financing and make sure the film is seen by people and that the film somehow sells.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

Patience — I’ve learned a part of motherhood from producing. Collaboration — that I cannot live alone, both in filmmaking and in my personal life. Risk-taking — some are worth it, some are not, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.

Balbuena with director and husband Bradley Liew on the set of "Motel Acacia." Photo by JL JAVIER