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Taiwan Helmers Lost on the Big Screen

International players’ ambitions to turn Taiwan into a center for Mandarin-language productions might have given new hope to the island’s struggling filmmakers, but local observers say there is still a long way to go to reinvigorate its film industry.

Industry practitioners and critics say that although networks such as Fox, HBO and Netflix will give Taiwanese talents more international exposure and raise the standards of production, it is more likely to benefit genre filmmakers only. Arthouse filmmakers will have to look elsewhere.

In the decade since the wild success of “Cape No.7” in 2008, Taiwanese films have yet to find a way to sustain the box office miracle set by the acclaimed romantic drama. There have been occasional hits, such as “You Are the Apple of My Eye” (2011), “Our Times” (2015) and 2018’s box office winner “More Than Blues,” which was among the four Taiwanese films showcased at the recent Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, but Taiwan’s box office is dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. This makes things difficult for local filmmakers and distributors trying to sell local films.

“If there is no box office, you can’t find the money. Investment becomes very risky. Distribution is also very difficult,” says June Wu of Ablaze Image. Wu was at the Udine festival to present “The Scoundrels.”

The Ministry of Culture hands out various types of government grants to filmmakers for dramatic, animated and documentary features and also short films. But Wu says these government grants only open some doors. “Afterwards there are still miles to run,” she adds.

According to the statistics the Ministry of Culture released at the end of 2018, the gross output value of the Taiwan film industry in 2017 was $713.8 million, 6.7% higher than the previous year. Box office totaled $311 million, with $23.5 million from Taiwanese films, accounting for 6.9% of the total box office.

With high hurdles set for international players to get into the China market, the Chinese government’s tightening grip on content, plus increasing production costs, global giants like Netflix, HBO and Fox have opted for Taiwan as an alternative. This could open new doors to filmmakers, despite the fact that they would be creating content for online streaming and the small screen.

The success of HBO Asia’s “The Teenage Psychic” in 2017 kicked off the trend. It will continue to produce Mandarin-language content in Taiwan, including a sequel to “The Teenage Psychic.”

Fox Networks Group Asia is currently producing high-end miniseries “Memory Eclipse,” an anthology series inspired by the music of the late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. The series is co-produced by Hong Kong producer John Chong (“Infernal Affairs”) in collaboration with Taiwan’s Winday Culture. Fox is also cultivating new talents through Fox Creative Lab, and two out of five directors taking part in the lab will soon announce new projects with the network.

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-language original productions from the global platform, both shot in Taiwan. It has also acquired rights to Taiwanese dark comedy “Dear Ex” and romantic feature “Us and Them.”

Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, told Variety earlier this year that language is a major factor for the network’s decision to produce shows in Taiwan. And Taiwan also has fewer restrictions on content. He said that “The Teenage Psychic” was produced in Taiwan rather than China because China has restrictions on supernatural shows. And the content also travels. “Producing shows in Taiwan that have worked in the Philippines and Malaysia […] has been very gratifying,” he said.

These global players might have brought hope, but local filmmakers need to prepare themselves to tell local stories with a global vision to fit the networks’ needs, says Ting Chi-fang, associate professor at the motion picture department of the National Taiwan University of Arts. .

For filmmakers like Lin Chien-ping, the road to the screen in Taiwan is full of challenges. Currently an assistant professor at Chang Jung Christian University, Lin won a Silver Lion for best short film at the Venice Film Festival in 2005 with “Small Station,” the same year Ang Lee won the Golden Lion with “Brokeback Mountain.” But he has yet to succeed in securing funding for his feature film directorial debut.

Lin says Taiwan’s industry is not self-reliant because even commercial projects have problems raising funds in the industry unless there’s big investment from mainland China or elsewhere, and hence they also need backing from the government.

Because of that, he notes, arthouse projects certainly do not attract funding, and despite having a Silver Lion under his belt, he struggles to find funding for a feature film. He says has been trying to write commercial films but producers think they are not commercial enough. “The decision is made based on the box office success,” he adds.

Lin believes that the arrival of global players might have a positive impact. “After all they are very demanding on the quality of production,” he says. “However, local filmmakers are still not familiar with these networks. We certainly hope to make films for the big screen, but if there is a chance to make good films and tell a good story on these platforms, it is still a beautiful thing for us.”

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