Albee Benitez Bets "Hundreds of Millions" on Piolo, Korina, Others on Blocktime Shows on TV5
Albee Benitez is used to rubbing elbows with celebrities. He hangs out with Albert Martinez, goes deep sea fishing with Gabby Concepcion, and plays badminton with Piolo Pascual. But he’s probably never been closer to the actual “business of show” than he’s been these last couple of months.
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As chairman and CEO of Brightlight Productions, Benitez is orchestrating a near-impossible feat: getting six entertainment programs featuring top-tier celebrities on the air in just a few weeks. The fledgling production company, which has been in existence for a few years but has only dabbled in feature films and not on television, signed a blocktime agreement with Manny Pangilinan-owned and controlled TV5. The deal was consummated soon after Congress denied ABS-CBN’s application for an extension of its broadcasting franchise, spurring what until then was number three-network TV5 to up its entertainment offerings to finally take a stab at a ratings win now that the Lopez-owned network has been sidelined.
Benitez with Ian Veneracion and Dimples Romana on the set of Oh My Dad
Benitez—who is himself a former congressman—views the deal with TV5 as an opportunity to provide employment to numerous entertainment personnel who were laid off following the shutdown of ABS-CBN. Of course, he is also a businessman—he chairs the listed gaming firm Leisure and Resorts World Corp. (LRWC)—and Brightlight Productions is yet another avenue to expand his entertainment offerings.
Accidental TV producer
“We weren’t looking at producing any TV shows,” Benitez tells Esquire Philippines at the company’s temporary headquarters above a car detailing shop along Timog Avenue in Quezon City. “We were just in films. But when the franchise of ABS-CBN wasn’t renewed, there was a tremendous supply of talent. ABS-CBN was letting go of people who were really talented and had so much experience in TV production.
“And so we said, maybe we can help these people," he adds. “We can give them jobs and showcase their talent. So that's how we kind of evolved. It wasn’t as if we were targeting TV production. We were just put in that position because of the sudden supply of all of this talent."
And when Benitez says talent, he means it. The list of big-name artists he’s bringing back to people’s small screens through the programs Brightlight is producing for TV5 is a mix of local showbiz’s brightest stars and newcomers oozing with potential. There’s the noontime show called Lunch Out Loud produced by entertainment veteran Johnny Manahan, which features Billy Crawford, Alex Gonzaga, K Brosas and Wacky Kiray; magazine show Rated Korina, hosted by seasoned broadcast journalist Korina Sanchez; sitcom Oh My Dad starring Ian Veneracion, Dimples Romana, Sue Ramirez, Ariel Urieta and Gloria Diaz, directed by Jeffrey Jeturian; comedy sketch show Sunday ‘Kada (which already premiered last October 18); romantic drama series I Got You starring Beauty Gonzales, RK Bagatsing and Yen Santos, directed by Dan Villegas; and variety program Sunday Noontime Live! With Piolo Pascual, Maja Salvador, Catriona Gray, Donny Pangilinan and Jake Ejercito.
And it’s not just on-cam talents. “From office staff, to sales people, creative and production people, we hired (everybody),” Benitez says. “It took us about two months to mount all six shows.”
Sounds like a tough job, but it’s not like Brightlight’s chairman isn’t used to challenges.
Who is Albee Benitez
Alfredo Abelardo Bantug Benitez comes from a long line of statesmen and political personalities. His great grandfather was Conrado Benitez, who founded the College of Business Administration of the University of the Philippines and was one of the founding trustees of the Philippine Women’s University. Conrado Benitez’s daughter, Helena Benitez (Albee’s grandmother), was a senator.
His father, Dr. Jose Conrado Benitez was a former deputy minister for the Ministry of Human Settlements during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos. He was also a former president of the Philippines Women’s University and a TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) Awardee for Public Administration. His mother, meanwhile, was a former executive director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
As a close associate of former President Marcos, Dr. Benitez was with Marcos in the last plane out of the Philippines, when the former president began his exile in Hawaii.
Benitez with his son Javi, who is now an actor and is president of Brightlight Productions
Benitez suffered the consequences of the close relationship between his family and the Marcoses. After graduating with a BS Mathematics degree from the College of Williams & Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the United States, he returned to his home country that, at the time, was still harboring strong anti-Marcos sentiment.
“Para kang may leprosy,” he says. “People kind of stayed away from you, won't do business with you. And definitely will not hire you.” With limited options, Benitez decided to go back to his home province of Negros Occidental, to work in the family farms as a sugar trader.
A year and half later, itching to do something on his own, Benitez flew back to Manila to try his luck in business. It was the 1990s and he caught the beginning of the rise of the gigantic shopping malls. He got the idea of renting baby strollers to parents who didn’t want to carry their kids around while walking around the huge space.
Benitez knew that most entrepreneurs’ target market were those in the late teens to early 40s. “Ayoko makipagsiksikan sa market na yan (I didn’t want to compete in that segment),” he says, which is why he chose to offer something for toddlers and babies. “Conversely, I thought, who was catering to the seniors?”
A leisure and entertainment empire
That led him to create the concept of the professional Bingo parlors, which originally targeted senior citizens.
“But I didn't realize that it appealed to a bigger market,” he grins.
It was an instant hit. What started as weekend bingo games soon grew into a multi-million peso enterprise. According to the company history, the Bingo parlors “have become community and entertainment centers, a source of revenue for the government, and a sponsor for fundraising activities relating to social and educational programs.” From six employees, some of whom were Benitez’s own relatives, the Bingo business now employs close to 6,000 in multiple locations all over the country.
But it was only the beginning for Benitez and his company, which soon morphed into Leisure & Resorts World Corporation. It became a publicly traded corporation through a back door listing when it acquired Atlas Fertilizer Corporation in 1996. Today LRWC owns a number of subsidiaries, including AB Leisure Exponent Inc (ABLE), which operates the Bingo Bonanza business; Total Gamezon Extreme Inc, which is the operator and licensee PAGCOR eGames stations; and several other companies, including Blue Chip Gaming and Leisure Corporation; First Cagayan Leisure & Resort Corporation; LR Data Center Solutions Inc.; AB Leisure Global, Inc.; LR Land Developers, Inc.; Bingo Bonanza (HK) Limited; Prime Investment Korea, Inc.; and Hotel Enterprises of the Philippines, Inc.
These days, of course, because of the coronavirus pandemic, business has been severely affected. Benitez acknowledges the challenges of operating a leisure and gaming business with tough restrictions on the movement of people, but says he and his partners are looking for ways to cope with the situation.
“You just have to adapt,” he says “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Going into politics
In 2010, Benitez ran for Congress as Representative of the Third District of Negros Occidental and won. Perhaps it was the blood running in his veins, but he says the foray into politics was a way for him “to give back” after his successes in business.
“I guess, at a certain point, I told myself I think I have more than enough,” he says. “Maybe it was time to give back a little bit. Although we had a lot of programs that gave back to people, parang iba talaga if you’re there.”
His grandmother, the former senator, didn’t like the idea and urged him to reconsider. “‘Stay away from politics,’” she said. “There's nothing good there daw. And people were saying, ‘Politicians are dirty and corrupt.’ I would always answer, at least mabawasan man lang (that’s one less corrupt official). There would be a new breed coming in.”
Benitez did three terms as congressman and stepped down in 2019, after which he convinced his brother Francisco to run. The latter won.
“What’s fulfilling was, every time you go around, people thank you and send you warm messages, because you're able to help them out,” he says. “I like that part.”
As for seeking higher office, he says the businessman in him trumps the politician.
“It's kind of hard to let go of the business, because sometimes you need it to help. Kulang e. Sometimes, whatever you have as a politician, it's not enough to help the all those people who are in need. So it was kind of hard for me to really focus on politics. Besides, I look at politics as very temporary. Maybe, you know, my responsibility to society has already been satisfied, more than enough during those nine years. So rather than run I went back to business.”
There’s no business like showbusiness
Besides his friendships with people in the entertainment industry, Benitez’s ties to showbiz started when he dabbled in film production, co-producing a movie with Viva Films starring Cristine Reyes. Then followed a couple of other co-productions until he finally decided to strike out on his own. Hollywood is still the gold standard in filmmaking, but he says that, based on his own observations, the talent and technology needed to produce a truly groundbreaking film in the country has vastly improved.
With Korina Sanchez, who will host a new magazine format show called Rated:Korina on TV5
“I think we can really compete with the likes of Hollywood, in terms of producing quality films,” he says. “Which is why I ventured into an animation film. Well, not purely animation, but heavy on computer graphics.”
That film, called Magikland, which is the last completed film project of director Peque Gallaga, is set to premiere at this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival.
“(Film production) is like a blank canvas where you can create things,” Benitez says. “And I'm the type of person who likes to create things. I think it’s manifested in most of the things that I’ve done. Having the creativity to innovate things is really what drives me, probably.”
That streak of creativity now includes the slate of TV shows Brightlight is producing for TV5. Benitez brought in his 24-year-old son son Javi, who is also an actor, to help run things as president of Brightlight Productions. As chairman, Benitez himself says he’s involved in the shows’ creative process.
“Yes, I’m involved a little bit,” he says. “But you have to give some leeway to the creative director, and their vision. If I have an idea I throw it to them and they process it. If it passes their scrutiny then okay.
“But I don't insist,” he adds. "So it's really consensus and teamwork.”
Asked how much he’s investing in Brightlight, Benitez can only say “hundreds of millions of pesos.” It’s a huge gamble for a yet untested arena for the businessman, but if there’s anybody who’s up to the task, it’s the guy who started with a bingo game and eventually built a leisure and entertainment empire, which now has a market capitalization of P3.4 billion.
“That's the reason why sales is a very important component of Brightlight,” he says. “They have to ensure the longevity of the corporation, that the company can be sustainable. Hindi naman pwede that you don’t earn.
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“It won't happen overnight,” he adds. “It will probably take a couple of months before things start coming in and we start getting viewership, but that's how all businesses work. At this point, we're really just trying to break ground and just produce quality content that people will like.”