ABS-CBN continues to eye global audiences with recently announced international production Cattleya Killer and co-productions Concepcion and Sellblock.

In an exclusive interview, Ruel S. Bayani, ABS-CBN head for international production and co-production, discussed more about these projects they’ve been working on during the last two to three years. They’ve started with dramas in light of what happened to the film business. “We’re still waiting for it to, at least, normalize a little. Maybe next year is a better time. But for now,  lahat ng projects na ina-announce namin ay TV series,” Bayani said.

Thriller series Cattleya Killer is topbilled by 2020 Asian Academy Creative Awards Best Actor Arjo Atayde and joined by a stellar ensemble that includes Christopher de Leon, Jake Cuenca, Ricky Davao, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Nonie Buencamino, among others.

Sharon Cuneta plays a ‘very big role’ in Concepcion, a Filipino- American crime drama from Reggie Lee, Yellow Rose co-producer Jeremiah Abraham and ABS-CBN.

“One of our strategies is to use an existing intellectual property (IP) and it so happened that Sa Aking Mga Kamay, the 1996 movie that starred Aga Muhlach, Christopher, Chin-Chin Gutierrez, and directed by Rory Quintos, was one of those movies that probably hindi mas na-appreciate that time, pero mas ma-appreciate sa time ngayon. So, we decided to turn it into a limited series. We’re hoping we could do a season or two or more,” Bayani said.

The choice for the main character wasn’t obvious at first, Bayani recalled, as they were looking for a “darker and edgier Aga.” But Arjo’s big win at the Asian Academy Creative Awards for his title role in Bagman became a “lightbulb moment.” “Sabi ko, who else should that be? Si Arjo na yun. We pitched it to Arjo and now we’ve started shooting, and I can’t just wait to see him transform.”

The series is set for an international release within the year with the help of a foreign distribution outfit.

ABS-CBN is also collaborating with Filipino-American actor Reggie Lee and Filipino-American film producer Jeremiah Abraham for the series Concepcion. US entertainment media Deadline described it as a crime drama that “follows the lives of an Asian-American kingpin and his extended crime family that lords over Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles.”

Ruel with Cattleya Killer director Dan Villegas and lead star Arjo Atayde (center).

Concepcion will be partly shot in the country as it’s an epic story that spans eras and scenes from Tondo, Makati to L.A., according to Bayani.

Sharon Cuneta herself revealed on social media that she’s part of the cast. Bayani told The STAR that Reggie grew up idolizing Sharon. He further teased about the megastar’s “very big role”: “I was telling Sharon, you’re born to play this part. This is the kind of role that will define her at this point in her life, to really showcase her gifts.”

Meanwhile, at the European Film Market of Berlinale last month, it was announced that ABS-CBN has come onboard the prison drama Sellblock. As per Variety, it’s part of an Asian genre slate developed and produced by Pedring Lopez’s BlackOps Studios Asia (Philippines), Story Arch Pictures (US) and Agog Film Productions (Hong Kong), for streaming all over the world.

The partnership for Sellblock has been three years in the making and has overcome such delays as the network franchise denial and pandemic.

“It’s a prison drama about how drugs are smuggled in and out, and manufactured inside prisons, and this has been happening simula nung araw, and the story, tumatawid siya from the ‘70s to the ‘80s, ang ganda! I hate to use this as a reference, exciting siya na-imagine mo na Narcos, na Breaking Bad, na Prison Break. But it’s really Filipino. It’s a Filipino story about yung mga excesses ng mga personalities inside the jail,” Bayani shared.

“It’s really exciting and also because it will be headlined by a Kapamilya actor. We’re very happy with the choice and we will be able to cast a lot of talented Filipino actors.”

Full cast is expected to be unveiled at the Hong Kong International Film and TV Market this month.

Also in the offing is a Philippine-Malaysian co-production to be released this 2022. “We also have projects with Taiwan and some others,” Bayani added.

With these projects, he said they intend to champion artists from ABS-CBN’s talent management arm Star Magic, creatives and catalog of OPM music via Star Music, as well as “our character actors, our theater actors. Ang daming mahuhusay, we have proven that in Almost Paradise. Lead status sila Nonie Buencamino, Art Acuña.”

Learnings from Almost Paradise

These international projects came on the heels of Almost Paradise, the first US TV series shot entirely in the Philippines, which the network co-produced with Hollywood’s Electric Entertainment.

While they’re drawing experience and confidence from Almost Paradise for their next big productions, Bayani described the series as a “baptism of fire.” They underwent the birth pains of embracing a different system of doing things.

On what the Almost Paradise experience taught him as producer, he noted: “Talent is just not enough. There’s so many talented people. But one thing we learned dun sa experience sa Almost Paradise, these people succeed in what they do because they’re very professional, very strict with their time.

“For me, we should have a paradigm shift, na-oo magaling ka but if you’re not working as fast, as efficiently and as professionally as your counterparts — actors from the region or from the US — talent will only get you so far.

“Learning yun because with Almost Paradise, it appeared na parang hindi kami nahirapan, but no. We have to learn and unlearn so many things, to be able to work side by side with our Hollywood counterparts.”

Working with Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Producers Guild of America (PGA) members also presented unique challenges that were “overwhelming at the start, but lahat naman natutunan.”

Looking back, the TV executive is “most grateful” for all the learnings from collaborating with Electric Entertainment and its Fil-Am founder-producer Dean Devlin. “We appreciate their patience. We appreciate them sharing their system, knowledge and skill sets to everybody,” he added.

Almost Paradise’s Filipino team is now the same people behind Cattleya Killer, such as director Dan Villegas and director of photography Pao Orendain. People who have worked on the Cebu set are also part of the upcoming show.

“Obviously, the continuity, the transfer of knowledge, and the way we will also share with other people we will work with, that’s the goal. To eventually and consistently cascade this to every single team in all the productions we will do,” Bayani said.

More interest in Asian storytelling

One of Bayani’s realizations from leading ABS-CBN’s foray into international productions and partnerships is that there’s a growing interest in Asian narratives.

“All over the world, merong interest sa Asian storytelling. There’s an interest to know more of stories na hindi pa nila nakikita, and honestly, the Filipino narrative, hindi pa yan, we’re just scratching the surface. (For example,) you have Jo Koy’s movie Easter Sunday, which will come out in August. That’s the first studio-produced film featuring a Filipino lead, a Filipino story. That’s a big deal,” he said.

Bayani further cited that “we have a lot of Asian — Fil-Am filmmakers — championing that, and we have a lot of wonderful Fil-Am writers and directors that we also hope to work with in the future.

“We’re working with several right now, but I cannot reveal them yet. But (it’s) very interesting to listen to their pitches and how they plan to tell their unique stories.”

Bayani is looking forward to seeing where this will all lead them to.

“This 2022, sobrang exciting because all of these projects are going to happen. Maybe not as soon because iba-iba ang pacing nila, but we’re excited kung saan kami dadalhin ng journey na ito because I can imagine after two or three more projects, ang dami namin ulit matutunan and ma-she-share sa ibang tao. I think that’s the most important part.”

Being at the forefront of ABS-CBN’s current “global” efforts, Bayani — who first joined the Kapamilya network in 1991 as a writer and then became a box-office director — reflected: “This is not a competition. It’s not about who has more or bigger projects, we are all contributing to a collective effort. It’s for the industry, for the country, for the people, we’re all doing our share. And everytime somebody succeeds, whether small or big effort, sobra akong happy, I’m rooting for everybody. I’m excited that there are many possibilities now for Filipino talent to shine.”

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