ANIMA Head of Studios Bianca Balbuena aims to catapult Filipino creativity to international screens

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — In the cinematic tapestry of the Philippines, Bianca Balbuena emerges as a luminous thread — binding stories, cultures, and visions. From her early days steering Epicmedia to her current role at the helm of ANIMA Studios, she has crafted a legacy that gleams both locally and on the international stage. With films that have dazzled audiences from Berlinale to Cannes, and from Sundance to Locarno, her penchant for pushing Filipino and Southeast Asian stories into the global limelight remains evident. This devotion is more than just business; it’s a heartfelt mission to bolster collaborations in the Philippines and illuminate the talents of its directors on the world stage.

Photographer: MJ Suayan, Hair & Makeup: Cats Del Rosario

Back home, titles like That Thing Called Tadhana and Walang Forever have become household names, thanks to her deft touch. While these crowd-pleasers win hearts, her work with cinema maestro Lav Diaz underscores her commitment to artistic depth and integrity.

Recognition for Bianca’s cinematic contributions spans continents. Not only was she the youngest awardee of the prestigious Asia Pacific Screen Awards FIAPF Producer of the Year, but she also stands as the Asian Ambassador of the European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE). Beyond accolades, she’s lent her discerning eye to juries at grand film festivals and molded budding filmmakers at platforms like Berlinale Talents, Locarno Open Doors, and Talents Tokyo.


Her repertoire boasts an enviable breadth: from a casting director credit for Cannes Palme D’Or Triangle of Sadness to collaborations with Hollywood heavyweights like Eva Green and Mark Strong in UK-Irish-Filipino co-production Nocebo. When an icon like Meryl Streep lauds your work, as she did for the epic Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery) starring John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual, it’s a testament to your impact on the cinematic landscape. Streep, as head of jury, awarded the eight-hour long black and white film the Silver Bear in Berlinale.

Yet, for all her cinematic achievements, Bianca is also a beacon in the academic world. As a former professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, she has long fostered the next generation of filmmakers. Today, she imparts wisdom on Film Production and Financing at Accel Institute.

But Bianca’s narrative is still unfolding. Her recent foray as Head of ANIMA Studios (for long form films and series), ANIMA Pods (podcasts), and Secret Menu (for short form B2B or business to business) showcases her visionary leadership. With her at the reins, these ventures have flourished — weaving visually striking, genre-defying tales that captivate and resonate.

In the world of cinema, Bianca Balbuena is not just a producer; she is a storyteller, a mentor, and a force shaping the future of Philippine and global filmmaking.

adobo Magazine recently had the chance to sit down with Bianca to ask her about her journey so far and what we can all look forward to.

adobo Magazine: You’ve earned multiple international awards and recognition for your work, and will likely continue to do so in years to come. But how did your journey to producing films begin? 

Bianca Balbuena: I started as a film student at UP Diliman; wide-eyed and eager. My family is from Cebu, so I spent my university years away from them, wanting to be a cinematographer and training under some of the greats. Without a known surname or monetary support, I needed to stop my apprenticeships and find a job that would pay. So I did everything — Production Assistant, Post Production Coordinator, Stage Manager, Production and Location Manager, Line Producer, and then Assistant Director, before finally deciding to put up my own company with my good friend Pepe Diokno to produce our own content.

Tokyo IFF Red Carpet with Pepe Diokno

We founded Epicmedia Productions Inc., with no capital investment, and we started out doing arthouse films. It was a stroke of luck, really: our first venture with Pepe won Lion of the Future at the Venice Film Festival. The prize money jump-started everything; going to festivals, appreciating the role of producers and hearing them talk about creative development, and raising financing during Q&As.

This was probably when my eyes opened up to the possibilities. Back then (and maybe even until now!) “producing” just makes people think you’re the one who’s got money and gives it, especially in the Philippines. I was inspired to share what I learned to Filipino filmmakers about producing while considering creative development, financing, pitching, closing contracts, supervising pre-production, production, and post-production. Then, of course release, distribution, cost and sales reports — all in the hopes of playing a part in welcoming a new breed of producers.

You co-founded Epicmedia and are now the head of ANIMA. Is there a difference between how you led Epicmedia and how you want to usher ANIMA to its own success?

Epicmedia’s always had a bit of a no-fear, rule-breaking energy, a smaller player in the commercial world. The aforementioned lack of capital and financial backing meant we remained autonomous, which allowed us to keep making films that studios wouldn’t fund. All those years of being stubborn paid off, and to date we’ve had local and international studios approach us for collaborations. The last thing I worked on before leaving Epicmedia was In My Mother’s Skin, which premiered at Sundance as the only foreign language film in the Midnight selection.

Thanks to that film’s Sundance inclusion, we were fortunate enough to have casual and business meetings with companies we look up to, like A24 and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw. Eventually we sold it to Amazon Studios’ Originals bracket and director Kenneth Dagatan is now working on his next two films. Alternative content was really what we loved doing, mixing public grants with private equity to be able to give residuals to our filmmakers. I’ve always valued discovering new voices and giving them the jumpstart they needed, and that feeling was shared by everyone at Epicmedia.

It was a difficult decision to make, but I felt I was a little bit too deep in my comfort zone and I wanted to do something drastic for my growth. Quark Henares, who is a good friend and the former managing director of Studios, called me right when I needed it: “Can you take care of my baby? Isn’t a good challenge what you want?” I’d never tried running a studio nor been in a corporate job, and the jump was extreme. I was a little lost in the acronyms, daily meetings, and weekly reports, but everyone was really helpful and welcomed me with open arms. After more than a year, I can say they all feel like family.

ANIMA is a whole new world that’s constantly teaching me. It’s now a business unit, so there are revenue targets, P&Ls, and reporting to corporate, but I appreciate the autonomy and independence to do what I want while needing to bear the consequences of my choices. Ian Monsod is such a generous and empathetic CEO. It can be challenging meeting certain targets (which we call “outlook”), and a little stressful too, but I’m honestly quite competitive so I got used to it. I do love the challenge and feeling like I’m on the edge of my seat.

How do you think ANIMA has grown since you’ve been at the helm? What personal goals or leadership improvements do you want to achieve at ANIMA? 

We’re doing good this year: meeting targets and growing our slate. Cinemas aren’t a viable option unless it’s a big event with big-name stars, so we’ve focused on streaming deals and started the year with a film in Slamdance and LA Asian Film Festival — that one’s called Marupok AF, and we’re taking it on the festival circuit. We also released Missed Connections last June, a Netflix Originals film.

Third World Romance got a lot of talk and great reviews, so we tried that in cinemas and it’ll be on a streaming platform before the end of this year. Our two Cinemalaya titles, When This Is All Over and Rookie, took home some awards: the former won the technical awards and the latter bagged Best Actress and Audience Choice. We’re launching two titles (a series and a film) on Amazon Prime this October, and we just wrapped up on an Enrique Gil comeback feature that we shot in Thailand called I Am Not Big Bird; a reunion with director Victor Villanueva after Patay na si Hesus. I’m also really excited to produce some new films for Marius Talampas and Antoinette Jadaone before the year closes.

Photographer: MJ Suayan, Hair & Makeup: Cats Del Rosario

Personally, I’d like to create a healthy atmosphere that values creativity and equal representation of all the voices on my team. It’s important that they prioritize their well-being to foster a positive work environment, and I want my team to feel like ANIMA is theirs as much as it is mine.

In the long-term, I would like to start giving residuals to filmmakers after recoupment of investment. We did this in my previous company and I really want to see how this fits in a corporate structure. Creators really do have the most power in this ecosystem, and we should value their work. Even if you’re the one with the money, you wouldn’t have any product without the creators to begin with.

ANIMA recently celebrated its anniversary a few months ago. What were some of the most memorable milestones you’ve achieved at ANIMA so far? What other milestones and plans do you have for ANIMA in the future? 

August was crazy! We opened and closed Cinemalaya with Marupok AF and Third World Romance while we were in the middle of shooting I Am Not Big Bird. We’ve been winning local and international awards: Luna, Famas, PMPC, Vienna Shorts, and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. We also sold three original titles to streaming giants.

Really, just so many milestones and a lot to look forward to. We held an open pitching session and invited production companies, directors, and writers to pitch. 137 pitches in two months, can you imagine? That was record-breaking for us. We’re looking forward to our 2024 slate, which we’ve carefully discussed and curated: strategic partnerships with eight to 10 studios and production companies, working with wonderful creators and big-name stars. We’re also exploring producing a documentary and short film anthology.

On the flipside, we’re also strengthening our development phase. Aside from building our IP library, we’re also creating original content with streamers and that’s got us looking forward to starting production next year, after months of development. I’d say that’s the biggest perspective adjustment I had to make when I moved to ANIMA — content that’s more audience-driven, more familiar, but still distinct and with social commentary; always thinking of ways to subvert genre.

Learn more about Bianca Balbuena’s work at ANIMA by visiting the website: anima.ph/

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