The uncertainties that loom over the media in mainland China could soon spark a renaissance of Taiwan’s film and television industries, with an increasing number of international and regional players planning to produce Mandarin-language content on the island that would target Chinese audiences worldwide.
Taiwan’s free environment, lower production costs and abundance of Mandarin-speaking talent all contribute to this movement.
Mainland China, on the other hand, is becoming less desirable as a production base because of the continuously tightened censorship and surging production and talent costs. The local industry is still recovering from the Fan Bingbing tax evasion scandal.
Although China’s tax authorities recovered more than 11.7 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) of back taxes from stars and entertainment companies at the end of 2018, this only concluded the first stage of the crackdown. Government actions will continue this year and certain productions are expected to be put on hold.
Fox Networks Group Asia has already begun the shooting of “Memory Eclipse,” a high-end miniseries inspired by the music of late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, in Taiwan. The anthology series, co-produced by Hong Kong producer John Chong (“Infernal Affairs”) and in collaboration with Taiwan’s Winday Culture, is expected to be released in late summer.
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Last summer, the network conducted the first edition of Fox Creative Lab and two out of five directors taking part in the lab are expected to announce their new projects soon.
Cora Yim, senior VP and head of Chinese entertainment at FNGA, says Taiwan has no shortage of talent, “but they need better producers to lead them and a system that gets them off the ground.”
Streaming giant Netflix, though not available in mainland China, is investing in Mandarin Chinese- language content through productions and acquisitions. Crime thriller “Nowhere Man” and romantic comedy series “Triad Princess” are among the first Mandarin original productions from the global platform, both shot in Taiwan. It has also acquired rights to Taiwanese dark comedy “Dear Ex.”
HBO Asia, on the other hand, is working on the second season of “The Teenage Psychic,” following its initial success in 2017. The network is also shooting sci-fi series “Dream Raiders” in Taiwan. “We will be creating more Taiwan-based Chinese productions in the near future,” says Jessica Kam, HBO Asia senior VP, original production.
Kam says Taiwan has a long lineage of film and television production and being a Mandarin-speaking region “allows their artists to be marketable to the whole Chinese-speaking world, including China, Hong Kong and some parts of Southeast Asia.” She adds the landscape of Taiwan offers a wide variety of locations and production costs there are competitive.
Taiwan has been self-governed since China’s Kuomintang fled the communists in 1949. While a military regime held sway in the early years, it has held direct democratic elections for president since 1996, and the island’s political environment now allows creative freedom to blossom.
“Certain genres will naturally be easier to produce in Taiwan, such as supernatural, crime, puppy love stories, politically sensitive and sexually explicit topics as they face fewer challenges with censorship than in the mainland,” says Kam.
Yim notes that before the rise of China, the Chinese diaspora had long been the main market for Chinese-language productions. Taiwan, with a population of 23.5 million, has its own market, but it can’t support productions with huge budgets. Incoming players can fill the gap and produce Mandarin-language content that can serve not only the mainland Chinese audience but also the Chinese diaspora across Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.
“Given the uncertainties in mainland China, this is an alternative,” Yim says.
Hong Kong, a Cantonese-speaking city of 7.4 million, no longer fits that bill. Plus, much of Hong Kong’s local industry has been integrated into that of mainland China.
Taiwan also offers incentives to attract foreign investments. Last year, the Taipei Film Commission launched the Intl. Audiovisual Production Investment scheme offering subsidies to film and TV projects co-produced or co-financed by Taiwanese and foreign companies.
While Taiwan serves as an alternative, foreign players do not rule out the possibilities of shooting in mainland China. Kam says China has expertise in high-budget productions, production sets and sound stages that are favorable for bigger projects.