An influx of global and regional streamers looking to create content for Chinese-language audiences at a lower price point, and without the creative restrictions at play in censorious China, have led to a sort of renaissance for production in Taiwan.
The appetite of platforms, such as Netflix, HBO and Disney-Fox, for local content to attract local users has thrown a lifeline to the creative industries in the self-
governed island, whose content has faced increasing difficulties getting into China — the biggest, most obvious market for Mandarin-language productions — at a time when cross-strait ties are at a nadir.
“Right now, China is comparatively not free and difficult to enter — that’s Taiwan’s opportunity,” says Homme Tsai, chairman of Taiwan’s New Media Entertainment Assn. “The whole world struggles to get into China, but there are still millions of overseas Chinese in North America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere that still need Chinese-language content.”
For international firms, a big benefit to working with Taiwan is the issue of content rights. Partnering directly with a Chinese firm for production can often mean that a company will lose the right to license that content into China themselves. By working in Taiwan, it’s easier to hold onto the global rights.
It can also be cheaper to shoot in Taiwan than on the mainland or Hong Kong, particularly at a time when Taiwan’s government has prioritized the culture industries.
Its ministry of culture recently launched the Taiwan Creative Content Agency, a government-affiliated body modeled after the Korea Creative Content Agency, that now runs two five-year projects with a budget of $333 million each: one to promote the development of Taiwan’s film, TV and music industries, and the other to spark private investment into its cultural sector.
The Taipei city government has a pool of $840,000 in subsidies to offer to local production, while other local governments have funds of their own.
Netflix is banned from operating as a streaming platform in China, but last summer, it joined Taiwan’s NMEA, signaling intentions for further cooperation there. It recently released a batch of Chinese-language originals, all made in Taiwan. They include last October’s crime thriller “Nowhere Man,” about a man on death row who escapes prison to save his family amid shifting timelines; December’s comedy “Triad Princess,” about a mafioso’s daughter, who takes a job as an undercover bodyguard; and period piece “The Ghost Bride,” set in 1890s Malacca.
Meanwhile, it has picked up the rights to both Chinese and Taiwanese fare. From Taiwan, it’s plucked projects such as the dark family comedy “Dear Ex,” a puppet-based series called “Pili Fantasy: War of Dragons” and the “Black Mirror”-esque show about unhealthy parenting “On Children.”
Fox Networks Group Asia shot the miniseries “Memory Eclipse” in Taiwan, which is inspired by the music of Taiwanese pop superstar Teresa Teng. Fox Networks also shot hit feature film “More Than Blue” in Taiwan, and earned a hugely successful mainland China release with it.
Jessica Kam, senior vice president of HBO Asia Original Prods., has been bringing projects to Taiwan for three years, and calls it “one of her favorite places to do production” due to comparatively reasonable costs, a supportive government environment, a strong talent pool, creative freedoms and relatively stable talent salaries — particularly compared to mainland China, where a single hit show can send a star’s price tag soaring tenfold.
“China is not our only market; we think about outside of China as well,” she says. “If something can go into China, we’re happy to invest more, but if it can’t, we just do it at a smaller scale.”
Such considerations led to 2017’s “Teenage Psychic,” HBO Asia’s first non-English language project, and its sequel “Teenage Psychic 2,” which, given its supernatural subject matter, never had a chance of passing Chinese censorship.
Last year, HBO Asia also put out “The World Between Us,” developed by Taiwan’s Public Television Service, across its 23 territories. It has finished shooting “Adventure of the Ring,” an eight-part romantic comedy series set to release later this year about a man who loses his engagement ring on the metro and all the couples who come into contact with it.
Another big production, an upcoming eight-episode sci-fi show called “Dream Raider,” has been a cross-strait collaboration shot in “more flexible” Taiwan, where the cop and crime themes didn’t pose a censorship problem, but with post done in China, where a bigger pool of VFX talent has more experience.
Working with Taiwan fits into her larger strategy for a region she describes as “quite fragmented and not used to doing bigger productions” — that of “moving towards more cross-pollination among different Asian countries.”
Given the unpredictability of China’s political whims, it’s a strategy that also allows the firm to keep from putting too many eggs in the same basket. “Sometimes China has tension with Taiwan, or U.S., or Korea .… You just can’t predict that much, so we just do what we’re supposed to do,” she explains.
Although its population of 24 million is roughly equivalent to that of Australia, Taiwan is admittedly small, says Jennifer Jao, head of the Taipei Film Commission. “If we want to survive, we must internationalize. But I’m optimistic because we now have players like Netflix — this is our opportunity,” she says.
Genres or topics banned by China, such as horror, time travel and LGBTQ issues, are welcome in democratic Taiwan, which has de facto independence yet is recognized as a state by only 15 other countries.
“As China is essentially closing its doors on foreign IP creators, I think some of those horror or sci-fi or LGBT projects will find their way to Taiwan,” says Jay Lin, CEO of Taipei-based Portico Media, which runs GagaOOLala, Asia’s first OTT streamer for LGBTQ content. “Maybe some of those projects are too big to be palatable to Taiwanese production companies or our market, which is 40 times smaller than China’s, but it’ll be a process of finding the right size and fit where Taiwan can actually maximize its existing and developing relationship with places like Japan, the EU, southeast Asia or the U.S.”
Although shut out of China, his platform has ambitions to expand into Southeast Asia and beyond. “It’s all about picking up very small crumbs and turning them into something that’s edible,” Lin says. “If the big opportunity with China is kind of difficult right now, we just start picking up the smaller crumbs and allies and amassing a network of interesting arrangements, whether it’s with creators, writers, streaming platforms or broadcasters.”
For local creators, the demand from both global and regional platforms like these suddenly means that “we can dream bigger,” says Nancy Chen, who scripted and co-directed Netflix’s first Taiwanese original, “A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities.”
“We’re thinking of a global audience now, not just the localized Taiwanese market or even just the Chinese-language market,” Chen says. “You set higher standards for yourself, trying to make deeper characters with deeper emotions, because you’re trying to create something that will resonate even in Brazil.”