Remembering Cirio Santiago, a Filipino Pioneer and a generous mentor

The year was 1989. I was about to be transferred back to the United States at the conclusion of my tour of duty with the US Embassy in Manila, and I had to make a decision — to continue my career with the government or follow my heart and take the plunge into film production by setting up a company in the Philippines to attact US producers to shoot on location in the Philippines. As I was wrestling with this decision, one name kept coming up again and again — Cirio Santiago.

Cirio, as it was explained to me, was already doing what I proposed to do, and doing so with flair and success. He was producing American movies in partnership with legendary independent producer Roger Corman under a model in which Corman would provide the US elements including actors and a few key production personnel and Cirio would provide the crew, the locations, and the actual management of the production. A “Hollywood” film would be produced in the Philippines at substantial savings in comparison to what the same film would cost to produce in the US. The content would need to be something that could be produced using Philippine locations — but there was a pretty wide variety of possibilities ranging from war movies, international thrillers, horror, or — a Santiago and Corman favorite– prison movies, especially women in prison. There was nothing highbrow about what Santiago and Corman were doing — as Santiago would tell me, “I’m making commerce here.” The movies ranged from war movies that maximized “bang and burn” like Eye of the Eagle to the drive-in cult classic Vampire Hookers (with its hiliariously campy theme song that ends with the hook line: “They’re vampire hookers, and blood is not all they suck.” Check it out here.)

My theory was that if it was a viable model for Corman and Santiago, then it could and should be a viable model for other US producers who just needed a reliable Philippine based partner to supply the local production capability. I figured that reliable Philippine partner could be Pacwood Films, the company that I was trying to put together. We would be selling the Philippines as a location and our company as the the production company. Like Santiago’s Premiere Productions, Pacwood would not be the source of financing for the movies — it would be the company that provided the production services, earning a fee for those services and, hopefully, a percentage of profits. I also had in mind that we would be a slightly more “upscale” version of what Cirio was doing–not quite so “B Movie” in our orientation, although to be honest, at that early stage I would have taken any project that would come our way.

It was against that background that, in the fall of 1989 while I was still at the Embassy, I set up a meeting with Cirio to pay my respects and establish what I hoped would be a positive realtionship since I didn’t feel I would be in direct competition with him since he was already paired with Roger Corman, and our orientaton would be slightly different. That first meeting, at Cirio’s suggestion, was a breakfast meeting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Makati, which I gathered was his hangout. I still recall going there, not quite sure what to expect, but excited to meet the legendary Filipino who by that time had already produced more than 30 movies, about half of them international.

I was struck immediately by his size — I’m 6’5″ and he was almost as tall me. He was 53; I was a full generation behind him, age-wise, and he started calling me “kid” from the first conversation. I was struck by his utter confidence and knowledgability, and a certain worldly savoir-faire. He had seen it all, done it all, and was, after all, on a first name basis with “Roger” — who to me was the legendary Roger Corman whom any aspiring film-maker would die to work for.

Cirio was relaxed, generous with his advice. ‘You know I’m the film commissioner”, he reminded me. “So when I’m wearing that hat it’s my job to help you.” And he seemed willing to do so. “But are you sure you want to do this? I can’t see as how it would be a better life than what you have now as an Embassy officer.” I explained that I was a writer; that I had been a writer before joining the government; that I had gone to NYU graduate film school; and that this was a return to my original path in life–that the government service period was a detour. Right then, at that first meeting, he made an observation that he would repeat a number of times over the years: “You know, kid, the difference between us is that you’re a film-maker who has to learn to be a businessman, and I’m a businessman who had to learn to be a film-maker.”

He talked to me about the job; the pitfalls, the smart way to go about it and the stupid things to avoid — he offered to let me use his team if they weren’t shooting a film with him at the time I had a project. “It’s hard, you know, to take care of all of them. There aren’t enough projects. If you can provide work for the boys, that’s great.” He also gave me a great piece of advice about how to find projects. “Go to AFM (the American Film Market — annual trade show in Santa Monica) and register as a buyer for the Philippines, then just walk into all the exhibitors’ offices and let them pitch you their films that they want released in the Philippines. You don’t have to buy anything. Just listen. Then at the end say you’ll think about it, and by the way, do they ever do co-productions. A certain percentage will say yes. Then give them your card and start a dialogue.” It was simple but the key to the advice–and something I wouldn’t have pieced together on my own — was that if I showed up on the doorstep of an exhibitor at AFM asking about co-productions, they would have shown me the door, because they are there to sell. But by getting through the door as a buyer, I would gain access and establish a relationship. I eventually really did become a buyer , but the seed for that was Cirio’s suggestion that I use it as a technique for gaining access to potential partner producers.

Our friendly, congenial collaboration laste throughout the period I was making movies in the Philippines — the entire decade of the 90’s. I would go on to first provide production services for a few films; then co-produce a few; and eventually enter into the collaboration with ABS-CBN that would lead to Gooodbye America, Legacy, and Doomsdayer. He would continue his partnership with Roger Corman, and eventually, when the market for B-movies got tougher and Roger began to cut back on his production in the Philippines, Cirio began setting up some project with other US producer, something that put us into more or less direct competition although by then the collegial relationship was so well established that it didn’t seem like competition. We were both, after all, trying to promote the Philippines as a place to shoot international films. But there was never any doubt — he was the master, and I was the pupil.

I last saw him in 2004 at the American Film Market. Things had gotten tough for all of us by that point, but he still looked the same, sounded the same–still called me “kid” though by that time I was a bit of a grizzled veteran. He died in 2008 at the age of 72.

Before he died, in 2007, he did a lengthy interview which appeared online at. More interviews can be found at:  Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys — Cirio Santiago Interview.

It’s good reading — and Cirio is a person who deserves to be remembered.

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