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Bianca Balbuena: Leading ANIMA to new heights

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – Bianca Balbuena recently gave adobo Magazine some of her time to share her perspectives and experiences, and we last left off with an introduction of how she came to be one of the Philippines’ most prolific producers; from her years as a film student at the University of the Philippines Diliman, her tenure at Epicmedia Productions Inc., and everything else that’s kept her busy over the past few years.

She eventually found herself leading ANIMA Studios to accolades and awards as its Head of Studios. Today, we’re taking more time to ask her about how Cinemalaya 2023 was for ANIMA, the value of the film festival for producers, and her perspectives on the value of collaboration — such as working with Thailand-based independent film company 185 Films and ABS-CBN Film Productions, Inc.

Read on to hear more about what’s next for Bianca Balbuena:

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adobo Magazine: How do you decide on which films or projects you want to produce? Do you have a personal criteria that you base your selection process on?

Bianca Balbuena: It’s a combination of my own gut feel and taste; if I feel the project aligns with everyone’s vision; and listening to the voices of my team. It’s always a collaborative decision, and we discussed all of the pitches that had at least one vote. Of course, there are so many factors in every discussion that affect our decision. Personally, I ask questions like, “Is this a prized IP? Is this something we want to see made? Does this align with what ANIMA stands for? Where can this possibly be released — cinema, streaming, festival? What’s the runway for the development of this IP — two, three years, or can this be released in the same year?” These are just a few of the things that go into every final decision, and I can’t overstate how important it’s been to work closely with my team to see things come together.

Under your leadership, ANIMA is poised to step on the world stage with upcoming hits like I Am Not Big Bird, which is set to make international noise. Can you take us through how you’re planning to dominate festivals and screens all over the world? 

Again, Kroma Entertainment’s mission and vision really resonate with me: bringing Filipino talent to the world stage, be it streaming, cinemas, festivals, stage, events, or publishing. I believe I can help build this because of my background. I Am Not Big Bird is a more commercial venture into both the local and international arenas, but we also have films targeting film festival premieres and even partnerships with international companies. Our titles and Globe Film Lab-produced short films are still going on their international festival journeys. We are definitely very excited to represent the Philippines at the Cannes Film Festival as we co-produce Directors Factory Philippines short film anthology with the Cannes Directors Fortnight (Quinzaine Des Realisateurs). We have numerous titles in worldwide streaming services. We’ve started positioning ourselves as a go-to company for foreign film servicing. We’re working hard on building our IP library.

What can you tell us about I Am Not Big Bird?

This project started as a story from my good friend Lilit Reyes, and most of it is based on real-life events and experiences from when he visited Thailand in the ‘90s. We developed it years ago and shelved it when the pandemic happened, but it felt like the right time to bring the material to life again now that traveling is easier and restrictions have been lifted. Joma Labayen helped us out as co-writer. He’s such a joy to work with and his experience as a stand-up comedian helped a lot. Enrique Gil came on board as both an actor and executive producer, and he even helped with our script revisions and dialogue. Acting alongside Enrique are Nikko Natividad, Pepe Herrera, and Red Ollero: equally as collaborative, smart, and funny! The scenes were hilarious and we usually found ourselves holding in our laughter on set while the camera was rolling. And ABS-CBN Film Productions, Inc. (Star Cinema) came on board as our co-producer; they’ve always been a trusted partner.

Since it’s set in Thailand, we’re lucky to have a high-profile company on board as our creative and line production: 185 Films, led by Soros Sukhum (Thongdee Sukhum). They’ve got a reputation as the most important independent producer in Thailand; co-producing Cannes titles Memoria by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Diamond Island by Davy Chou. They also handled Netflix Originals’ highly-viewed Hunger. I’m really excited for the final product and can’t wait for everyone to see it. It’ll definitely be a trip! 

In 2023, ANIMA had involvement with a few Cinemalaya titles. What can you tell us about them?

My background has always been in independent filmmaking, so it always holds a special place in my heart. When I read and heard the scripts of When This Is All Over by former Globe Studios director Kevin Mayuga and Rookie by frequent collaborator Project 8 Projects, I immediately found a way for ANIMA to be part of these titles. It was important to me that we support these projects, and I hope ANIMA can continue to offer an avenue for emerging voices to be discovered, while also acting as a supporting arm for veteran directors to bring their new stories to life. 

How was your experience as the only Filipino in the jury of the 2023 Busan International Film Festival?

It was a big honor. Busan IFF is a festival that holds a special place in my heart as they supported me when I was just starting out. It’s the biggest festival in Asia and I am a fan of the Korean wave. The Korean and Asian short film selections were impressive. They moved me and brought me so many different emotions. Plus, their hospitality is unparalleled. 

I also presented the Face of Asia award at the exclusive Marie Claire Asia Star Awards x Chanel ceremony to the new talents of Asian cinema including 5urprise’s Gong Myung and Youth of May lead actress Go Min-Si, and I felt so honored to be part of the program. Other big celebrities who were there were Lee Byung-Hun, Teo Yoo, Kim Go-Eun, Girls’ Generation’s Choi Soo-Young, and EXO’s Do Kyung-Soo. Magical experience altogether!

When people think of ANIMA, what should they associate ANIMA with?

Familiar stories told through new experiences; amplifying the voices of our story tellers; and youthful fun that elevates the genre.

What’s your advice to young filmmakers? 

Before becoming a good filmmaker, be a good human being first. I believe that humanity and filmmaking should work hand in hand: you are a valuable player in the content you are making and producing, so put value into your work! Try to achieve the right balance of knowing your vision and being open to collaboration. And most importantly, enjoy the ride because it’s almost always worth it. 

Who are the people who shaped your practice? 

First off would be my mom — she’s the perfect example of selflessness and unconditional love.

Women filmmakers I work with: Antoinette Jadaone, Rae Red, Dwein Baltazar, Eve Baswel, and Ara Chawdhury, to name just a few! They’re all burning with passion, and they always inspire me. 

My husband — he’s my voice of reason, and honestly a way better producer than I am. I learn from him every day. I’m also learning from the negotiation skills of my four-year old daughter, Ava. Everything that we ask her to do, she gets us to negotiate for by asking us why she needs to do it. She’s very good at it, maybe even just a little bit too good. 

What can audiences expect next from you as a producer? 

As a producer, I’ll be giving more production workshops both locally and internationally. I really do like giving back and paving the way for emerging producers and filmmakers; I moderated some industry talks at the Busan International Film Festival. In November, I was in Taipei, mentoring at an international producers workshop. And later that month, I was in Tokyo to guide and teach filmmakers from all over Asia during the Tokyo Filmex and Talents Tokyo Lab.

As for ANIMA, you can expect us to expand, diversify, and strengthen our 2024-2025 slate — focusing on strategic partnerships with studios and content creators, big or small. We’ll continue to provide ground-breaking, audience-driven films and series, ensuring an authentic connection with the youth. 

Secret Menu won a Tambuli in 2022 and that’s kept us very happy. We’ll continue to produce beautiful, highly-effective content like attention-grabbing ads, interesting & entertaining series, music videos with art direction kept to heart, and engaging event coverage. I’d like to take a moment to highlight our talented directors: JP Habac, Chyna Lo, Church Cabreira, and Abi Remo.

ANIMA Pods will continue to produce top of the line podcasts from ideation to production. We’re focused on growing our podcast communities and driving engagement, fostering growth and loyalty. You can expect interesting new titles from us, and we’ve already covered a broad spectrum: inspirational interviews, horror stories, pop culture deep dives, comedy, and even liberating discussions on sex. We always make sure there’s an ANIMA Podcast for everyone.

I Am Not Big Bird is showing on February 14 in cinemas nationwide. Learn more about Bianca Balbuena’s work at ANIMA by visiting the websites: anima.ph and kroma.ph.

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