Commentary

Mondo Magic Cebu

No, the popular reality show isn’t coming to Cebu – at least not yet. But the Hollywood producer responsible for field and post-production of the show that has made street magicians Chris Korn and J.B. Benn star brands has been spending up to three months a year in Cebu as a mentor at the International Academy of Film and Television (IAFT) in Mactan.

Roy Eisenstein told me during a break in an acting class he was teaching there recently that he chooses to spend significant periods of time in Cebu for at least three reasons. The first, he says, is personal. When he first began teaching aspiring actors and found that they began getting callbacks following auditions, Eisenstein experienced a level of personal satisfaction that he values and wants to sustain.

Second, he believes that IAFT has “real potential” for becoming an important force in Asian and global television and cinema. IAFT is a subsidiary of Bigfoot Entertainment. Other group firms include Bigfoot Productions and Bigfoot Partners. The group was founded in 2004 by Michael Gleissner, a technology entrepreneur credited with starting Germany’s first online retailer, which was later acquired by Amazon.com.

Gleissner served for a time as a vice president at Amazon, but soon left to start a New York-based hedge fund, where he shorted overvalued technology firms. After the dot-com bubble burst, he reversed course, taking major stakes in then undervalued technology firms and holding them until values rose. Gleissner made what his corporate bio calls exceptional returns on technology in three ways: 1) By founding and then selling his own startup; 2) Then betting that technology shares were overvalued and would collapse; and, 3) Finally, acquiring the devalued debris of the dot-com wreck.

In 2002, Gleissner acquired the Bigfoot.com brand and began establishing businesses in communications, BPO, education, and real estate. The production subsidiary, Bigfoot Productions, is producing five full-length feature films this year, including the Hong Kong thriller, Irreversi, which Gleissner co-wrote and directed. Bigfoot Partners, an investment arm, has invested in a number of properties, including 3 Needles starring Lucy Liu; East Broadway, Shanghai Kiss, and the award-winning Curiosity of Chance.

Other productions are in development, including Deep Gold, a suspense adventure film involving the search for gold bullion lost when a jet transport mysteriously crashes into the sea. The feature is being shot in part in Mactan, on one of two Hollywood-class sound stages. The digital work is being done there as well. Bigfoot Entertainment has also acquired the Singapore and Philippine franchises for Fashion TV, and produces content for the popular cable channel.

When Eisenstein says IAFT has a great deal of potential, he’s a least in part referring to the production facilities where students are educated and often put to work after graduating. In Asia, only Bangkok offers the international-standard production facilities available at Bigfoot. They include two soundstages, a 396-square meter stage with an NC-24 rating, making it the only truly sound-proof stage in the Philippines; and a 1,200-square-meter stage which housed a “hot set” from Deep Gold when I was there.

Other facilities include an 81-seat mixing theater, an automated dialogue replacement suite, and a Foley suite, where sound effects are created. Two housing facilities are available for students, visitors, and directors and technicians working on productions at Bigfoot. The 68-room Casablanca Gardens provides dormitory-like rooms with wireless access for $500 a month while the Hollywood Suites offers rooms for P4,800 a night.

Eisenstein’s third reason for spending a quarter of the last three years in the Philippines is Filipinos themselves. “I’d like to see a Filipino voice in global entertainment,” he told me. The veteran director and producer, like just about everyone else who has come into contact with professional Filipino actors and entertainers, believes Filipinos are not just talented, but both passionate and relentless in the pursuit of their careers.

It was also a high regard for the Philippines and Filipinos that motivated Gleissner to bet on Cebu, it seems to me. He has invested somewhere around $20 million in the Philippines’ only world-class production facility, and IAFT is clearly offering its courses at a substantial subsidy. Many of the short workshops are offered completely free of charge.

Gleissner is a businessman, and the investments in capacity and people are ultimately meant to produce a return – and the successful entrepreneur is used to big returns. Let’s hope his winning streak holds. If it does, it will mean more value-driven investment, well-paying jobs, and increased international prestige for the Philippines as a global center for quality entertainment content.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com.).