film production

Why international co-productions matter to Filipino storytellers

Jason Tan Liwag

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Why international co-productions matter to Filipino storytellers

Graphic by Raffy de Guzman

(1st UPDATE) It is often thought that producers in the Philippines are human ATM machines.... But that is a myth, and being a producer is a gray label in the country.

If recent times have reminded us of anything, it’s that filmmakers need money to execute their vision.

It is often thought that producers in the Philippines are human ATM machines — people with an excessive amount of money to spare who run the production and have the final say in any creative decision. But that is a myth, and being a producer is a gray label in the country. They come in all shapes and forms from executive producers who supervise the financing, to creative producers who turn whatever is on paper to the final product, to a line producer who facilitates daily operations within a production, to so much more. Producers are married to the work, even long after they’ve assisted the director in carrying out their artistic vision, taking care of even the film’s release, distribution, and archiving.

Pre-pandemic, the Philippines was at an advantageous position for its producers compared to many of its Southeast Asian counterparts. Seed-giving opportunities like QCinema International Film Festival or Cinema One Originals Film Festival were granted to budding filmmakers to make their films, allowing the formation of a sub-industry and launching talents throughout the country.

But since the pandemic, these opportunities have been harder to come by. With streaming serving as an untested market, recovering these funds through ticket sales may still be difficult, even as cinemas slowly reopen in the country. These have discouraged filmmakers and their financial backers, limiting the creation to only commercial films and postponing shooting schedules locally and globally to the second half of 2021 and later.

FDCP has created efforts such as CreatePH Films that offers funding for development, production, post-production, and distribution of Filipino films with Filipino production. Under its umbrella, the Film Philippines Office also launched their International Co-Production Fund (ICOF) for foreign films needing Filipino co-production and ones with international co-production, ASEAN Co-Production Fund (ACOF) for Southeast Asian films with Filipino co-producers and Film Location Incentive (FLIP) for foreign productions shooting in the Philippines.

Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Liew are no strangers to these problems. The powerhouse duo co-founded the production company Epicmedia Productions along with director Pepe Diokno and writer Lilit Reyes. As a company, Epicmedia has produced several crowd pleasers-turned-cult classics such as Antoinette Jadaone’s That Thing Called Tadhana and Victor Villanueva’s Patay Na Si Jesus, as well as arthouse films like Dodo Dayao’s Midnight in a Perfect World and Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis and Ang Panahon ng Halimaw.

Apart from these, they have been involved in several international co-productions such as Lorcan Finnegan’s Nocebo, Lav Diaz’s When the Waves are Gone, Truong Minh Quý’s Viet and Nam, and Pham Ngoc Lan’s Cu Li Never Cries. Loosely defined as a joint financial venture between producers of different nations, international co-productions are often financed through state funding and local grants. “I don’t know if a lot of Filipino filmmakers know that the reason why you co-produce is because there is a lot of state and government funding in other countries that can only be applied to by their local producers,” says Bianca.

Filipino storytellers have long benefitted from non-recoupable grants from non-profit funds such as Purin Pictures, the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Cinema Fund, and the Singapore Film Comission’s Talent Progression Programme (TPP): Content Development. The cinematic ecosystem has been enriched by the presence of international co-production markets: the estuary where the economics and the artistry converge, fueling the industry by providing an avenue for filmmakers to pool resources, explore artistic partnerships, or tap into more specific markets.

When asked why filmmakers should participate in a project market, Bianca gets straight to the point: “The obvious answer is that you need financing.” She laughs and continues. “To get financing, you need co-producers who you’ll meet at these markets and getting into these markets is one filter for them,” citing Cinemart at Rotterdam, Berlinale Co-Production Market and Berlinale Talent Project Market, and Cinefondation L’Atelier at Cannes Film Festival Marche Du Film. These project markets have already chosen the best projects for producers to come on board.”

Asian co-production markets such as the Asian TV Forum and Market host not only producers looking to finance their projects, but also filmmakers from other countries looking for co-producers, curators, and programmers that can include their projects in their festivals, and distributors interested in buying and selling films to screen at their respective countries.

However, not every project is suited for a co-production. Though differences in the material, directorial vision, and artistic execution do take precedence on whether or not these films are considered for international co-production, Brad explains that economics must also factor in: “There are certain people that have return and financial stakes in mind. Therefore, some stories are suited for different kinds of distribution.” Co-productions often take a minimum of three years to execute, with certain grants requiring spending in specific countries.

“If I like a project and am thinking of doing an international co-production, I would submit it to film labs and project markets, just to test the waters,” says Bianca. The opportunities are inherently competitive and often require that filmmakers apply when their projects are at their peak form: usually with a clear directorial vision, a workshopped story and/or script, and some financial backing already in place. However, when asked about how they determine whether a production or a story will be locally produced or internationally co-produced, Bianca and Brad have no straightforward answers. 

“The more we discuss, it seems like there are many lines and many rules within those lines are tested by the market,” says Brad. “As much as we try to create a film that goes everywhere and sells everywhere, sometimes you don’t know.” He emphasizes that though there are local films such as Parasite that are critically and financially successful in the international landscape, these are rarities due to unpredictable shifts in the market. “I don’t think the most experienced producer would even know. Otherwise, they’d be churning out a Parasite every year, right?”

The shift to online film festivals and markets have allowed filmmakers to meet virtually from across the globe, allowing producers to meet despite the geographical differences. While encountering inconveniences given three different time zones, Brad narrates how the online format at IFFR Cinemart benefited their co-production Viet and Nam

“Film festivals have a lot of distractions. But this year, every meeting that we took [online] ended up being with very genuine people that did their homework, did their research, watched everything that they could and read everything that they could.” says Brad, expounding on how certain producers were already knowledgeable of where to get LGBT-focused funding for the film. “Everyone was there to immediately learn more about what director Quy wanted to say with the film and they wanted to figure out a way to come into the co-production. It was very focused.”

Still, as producers, Bianca and Brad attempt to package projects into its clearest and most successful form so that it finds not only the right opportunities to help it grow, but so that it also makes its way to its audience in top shape, in the hopes of offering a different kind of cinema. 

“We can’t just make films within the same circles because cinema will not evolve,” says Brad. “If you have three producers from different countries, they’re gonna have three interpretations of the script at a given point in time or the footage of the rough edit…. It’s kind of a sneak peek into how an international audience will respond to the film.”

Producers’ networks developed throughout these markets are valuable because they’re able to provide insight on contracts, share best practices, seek help when they’re in sticky situations, and work on future projects together. As detailed during a panel discussion at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), these safety nets are essential when navigating the landscape of world cinema.

“It really will make you realize that there’s a bigger world out there,” Bianca assures us. “It expands your horizons and makes you realize that you’re also a person who can face a bigger world.” –

Note: This interview with Bradley Liew and Bianca Balbuena was conducted in February 2021. This article is written in partial fulfillment of the Young Critics Programme at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.