Ruel Bayani, ABS-CBN


Production lines

Philippines’ broadcaster ABS-CBN is likely to spend upwards of US$220 million on production this year, including shows such as long-running drama series Brothers and the local versions of talent/ reality formats. Home-grown titles are travelling widely across Asia, with increasing presence in Africa, Latin America and Europe. Last year, international syndication revenue was up 38%. On YouTube, ABS-CBN’s entertainment channel has 11.5 million followers. Against this backdrop, Ruel Bayani, ABS-CBN’s business unit head of production and veteran film/TV director, writer and producer, talks about production trends and challenges, inspiration and influences.

ABS-CBN is making a major shift in opening up production from a 100% in-house model to once that incorporates third-party alliances and co- production. What does this mean for you? “It’s only recently that we have allowed independent line producers to be making content for us. Previously, we’ve been doing it all ourselves and it has been very difficult especially in the ever changing landscape of entertainment. We believe that opening up to other creatives and producers and creating a more diverse portfolio of content is the better way to move forward.”

What does your in-house production ecosystem look like? “We have hundreds of creative producers working on more than 20 soap operas for the year. Some are long running, some short term. Brothers, which is our most successful show, is in its third year. It creates around 40-45% ratings in the Philippines and it is a major driver of our income.”

What drives your production choices? “First and foremost what our audiences will relate to. Mostly the Filipino story is the story of resilience. And this has been the recurring theme, people struggling with their identity, with cultural identity, desire for independence, love and sacrifice for family. In the end, every story is a story of hope and it affirms the very nature, the very virtues and values of the Filipinos. And that is why most of our content resonates.”

What’s the genre breakdown between in-house and outside commissions? “Most of the premium [prime-time] content – drama, news, variety and comedy – is kept in-house. We commission out mostly smaller films. On TV, we’re just starting to allow a few reality/lifestyle programmes.”

ABS-CBN opening up production to outsiders is one significant trend. What other content trends are you seeing in the Philippines? “The taste and preference of the Philippine audience has also shifted. We consume a lot of OTT content. We consume a lot of Korean content because we love Korean dramas. We’ve also launched our own OTT platform and have produced a lot of content for our millennial audience. I think the trend will be towards a younger, more dynamic, more agile market and we’ll be seeing more horror and suspense and action. For the most part, ABS-CBN content has always been about drama, the core drama that the Filipinos love. But now that we’re reaching out to the younger demographic we’ll have to be addressing those needs as well.”

You’ve worked with ABS-CBN for 27 years and before that GMA. In that time, you’ve been involved in more love triangles than anyone we know. Do you think the love triangle will remain a staple in the Philippines? “When I was younger, [love triangles] somehow disappeared, they didn’t figure prominently. And then back in 2013, my movie No Other Woman, about this mistress who is really a good person, became the trendsetter and was the first Filipino drama/movie to earn Ps300 million/US$5.7 million. Since then, that whole triangle about modern relationships has come back into fashion.”

You’ve broken new ground in North America. How has that changed the way you approach filmmaking? “My last movie, Kasal (The Wedding), was the first Filipino film to enter the top 20 box office films in North America/Canada. It’s of course not Kung Fu Panda, but it’s such a big deal for us in the Philippines... we are now more encouraged to continue to produce content for the global market. We have proven that Filipino films can be enjoyed by movie-goers from all over the world.”

You foresee the end of “poverty porn” in Asian films... “...As proven by the success of Kasal, a genre movie. It wasn’t art house. Or poverty porn, which is the usual for films that go around the world.”

Will Crazy Rich Asians really make a difference to Asian filmmaking? “To me it’s a significant film, a cultural marker. We will remember 2018 for it. Two Filipinos appear in the movie: Diego Santos, the Filipino comedian, and Kris Aquino, who plays a princess... I believe it should only encourage us to stay proud and defiant, that we should only promote the best of our culture, the best of our country, the best of Asia. We should not try to change it so much, to appear too Westernised.”

As an Asian filmmaker, are you personally encouraged by the success of Crazy Rich Asians? “Now more than ever.”

Are you seeing a greater acceptance outside of the Philippines for content in Tagalog, ie. non-English-language programming? “Streaming platforms like Netflix want local dialects. We should promote, both for mainstream and digital, movies that truly reflect our culture.”

ABS-CBN has had amazing success with international formats such as Your Face Sounds Familiar, The Voice Teens, Little Big Shots and you’re bringing back Big Brother. What do you see as the outlook for international formats and are you balancing these with your own originals? “Historically Filipinos have responded well... Big Brother is now in its 13th year in the Philippines and it has produced a significant number of movie stars for the network though housemates turning into big time celebrities. We have enjoyed The Voice, it’s one of our biggest raters. The Voice Kids was particularly successful... But we’re moving towards creating our own titles. Tastes have been refined... now Filipinos are also reacting well to original Filipino concepts.”

ABS-CBN has more than 13 million subscribers on YouTube, so clearly the platform is enormously successful for you. What digital-first or digital-only content are you making? “We’ve done a lot of work producing digital content. In the beginning it was a struggle because everyone was so used to the drama format. Younger audiences are beginning to like our shorter content, and the same way that they enjoyclips from our TV shows they are starting to like the shorter form as well.”

You say you wouldn’t mind seeing three or four big networks in the Philippines instead of the current two? Why? “Because it will provide more employment to our people and it will challenge us to be better. It will create greater competition creatively. The biggest problem is to be complacent, to believe that your content is already the best. It might be the best in the Philippines, but it’s not the best in the world.”

Published in Issue Seven of ContentAsia's in-print + online 2018 (December 2018)