Red Sea Film Festival; Taiwan’s Funding & Global Production Hub Status: Part Two
As promised, this edition of Streamlined concludes a two-part deep dive into Taiwan, looking at series production; reasons behind the soft power push; and what Taiwan is wisely not doing as it positions itself as a global production hub. The first part focused on co-production funding for features.
I’ve just returned from Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and will talk more about the festival’s funding activities in the next edition of Streamlined. This week, I’m only going to mention the presence of a large number of Hollywood stars at the festival, which was honestly quite jarring given that the death toll in Palestine and Israel is approaching 20,000.
But it also raised questions (for me anyway) about the future value of Hollywood talent. Coming out of the SAG-AFTRA strike, these actors must be starved of cash and exposure and badly needed the fees and flashbulbs provided by the festival (irony alert). But what surprised me is how packed the masterclasses were for talent including Nicolas Cage, Gwyneth Paltrow, Adrien Brody, Halle Berry and Andrew Garfield, especially as some have not made a film in years.
At the risk of sounding churlish, for somebody based in East Asia, the presence of so much Hollywood bling actually felt oddly old-fashioned. As one self-confessed Gen Z actor said in a session I moderated (a question from the floor), the kids these days are consuming a lot of cross-cultural content on TikTok and are no longer hugely impressed by ageing Hollywood glitterati. For that audience, BTS or Thai star Bright Vachirawit (18m million followers on Insta) would be a bigger draw.
Perhaps this is the case among Gen Z consumers in North America and East Asia, not so much in Saudi, a market that has not previously had a lot of international visitors. But it did make me wonder how long a runway Hollywood talent has in some of these international markets. K-pop is already huge in Saudi.
Now back to Taiwan...
Taiwan’s Support For Series; Overseas Audience For Chinese-Language Shows
I went into detail about the history of Taiwan’s series production in an interview for Deadline with Greener Grass Culture president Phil Tang. As mainland China is off bounds, the streamers piled into Taiwan in 2016, regarding it as the perfect base for their Chinese-language production activities, before retreating when they realised it wasn’t that simple and their corporate overlords started slashing costs.
As with feature films, Taiwan’s government has been supporting local series for many years, but recognising the dangers of relying on global streamers, is increasing funding through the ‘One Plus Four – T-Content Plan’. One of the initiative’s first moves was a call for series that are seeking to enter international markets with per episode budgets of at least NT$10m ($317,000). The idea is to enable producers to self-finance, then sell to platforms while retaining IP, although it remains to be seen if there will be any buyers in a contracting market. As in many other parts of the world, it looks like Taiwan is heading back to the traditional model of selling international rights territory by territory.
Interestingly, TAICCA told me that the global streamers who have produced Chinese-language series in Taiwan are not tapping into government funds as the requirements are too onerous and the sums handed out per series are too small. What drew them to Taiwan was an open and relatively developed Chinese-speaking content industry, not government cash (that’s what they told me). Among the global streamers, HBO and Netflix have had most success with Taiwanese series – HBO with shows such as The World Between Us, Trinity Of Shadows and The Teenage Psychic, and Netflix with The Victims’ Game, Copycat Killer and Wave Makers, the latter show sparking Taiwan’s #MeToo wave.
But the global streamers don’t seem to have figured out what they are doing in Taiwan. It’s an open secret in the local industry that Netflix is looking for someone to head Chinese-language production out of Taipei, but is taking time to identify the right person, meanwhile the other streamers have either given up or are just playing around the edges. One of the issues seems to be that nobody appears hugely confident in the overseas audience for Chinese-language content.
Outside of Taiwan, Chinese-speaking audiences across Southeast Asia, Europe and North America are far from being homogenous. While there are some cultural similarities, they speak different forms of Chinese and have different tastes and attitudes. A culturally specific story set in Taiwan does not necessarily resonate with third generation Chinese kids in Vancouver or people of Chinese ethnicity in Malaysia or Singapore.
You could say the same for the South Asian diaspora, but that is a population that grew up with Bollywood movies and stars. For now at least, Taiwan does not have the star system and pop culture legacy that drives either Gen Z or nostalgia-stricken older audiences. Not that the international audience for Chinese content needs to be Chinese-speaking – Korea has proved that it’s possible to transcend language barriers – but again that global expansion was initially driven by pop culture and stars.
Why Taiwan Is Making This Soft Power Push
Apart from the political imperative – so few countries recognise Taiwan as a separate country in order to appease China – Taiwan is making this push for all the reasons mentioned above. Taiwan has talent, but under the shadow of China during that market’s meteoric rise, it hasn’t developed a global audience. Some Taiwanese stars are known internationally – Chang Chen, Shu Qi and Eddie Peng – but their fortunes initially rose with the China market. Now China has retreated and become more inward-looking, there’s an opportunity for Taiwan to carve out more of a brand identity in the way Korea has.
And there is really a lot of potential if handled the right way. On my second visit to Taiwan last month, I attended the Golden Horse Awards, the most prestigious awards ceremony for Chinese-language cinema, which was famously boycotted by China when an award winner mentioned Taiwan independence during her acceptance speech. Since 2019, the ceremony has taken place without any Chinese stars or movies, but from what I saw that is not necessarily a problem.
The films competing this year were a diverse bunch drawn from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and even a few brave souls who defied China’s ban. Best narrative feature went to Stonewalling, co-directed by Ryuji Otsuka and Huang Ji, which had Japanese nationality but was filmed in China. Lifetime Achievement awards went to iconic Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin and veteran cinematographer Chen Kun-hou. The ceremony was classy and expertly produced, with excerpts screened from previous Golden Horse Awards over the decades, to celebrate the event’s 60th anniversary.
Overall, these awards look set to continue as an effective showcase of Taiwanese and regional stars and talent – and it’s China’s loss if it doesn’t attend.
What Taiwan Is Not Doing
Although Taiwan offers a 30% cash rebate to international productions, the impression I got from talking to TAICCA and local producers is that it doesn’t want to become the next offshore mecca for Marvel movies. And that is very wise. Not just because Taiwan recognises that Thailand has already cornered that market in Asia, but because it has limited scale. Taiwan’s total population is only 23 million and the entire island could fit snugly inside China’s Guangdong province. Taiwan has hosted films such as Silence and Life Of Pi, but attracting too many big international productions would push up local costs and one of Taiwan’s advantages is that it’s still cheaper to shoot there than in China.
Taiwan is also not intending to become a government subsidy market – it is working hard to bring the private sector into the content industry and that is paying off with Taiwanese telcos Chunghwa Telecom, FarEasTone and Taiwan Mobile all starting to invest in local content. Next step could be Taiwan’s software and semiconductor companies. Taiwan is already known for its VR expertise and is building up its VFX and Virtual Production capabilities (Luke Besson’s EuropaCorp recently shot Weekend Escape, starring Luke Evans, on a VP stage in Taipei). There is also scope for content-related developments in blockchain and AI.
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