Taiwan's filmmakers are reclaiming the multiplex

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Pirates part of the learning curve for Catchplay

Boosted by the domestic audience's renewed interest in local content, Taiwanese cinema is showing an increasing emphasis on commercially driven films that exemplify market diversity.

Within the past three years, Taiwanese cinema has shown it is back on its own two feet, and they have names: "Cape No. 7" and "Monga." The homegrown mega-hits -- which grossed $16.7 million in 2008 and $9.5 million this year, respectively -- are proof that the revival is not a fluke.

" 'Monga' is a product of the many years of waiting and diligence of the Taiwanese film industry," says Doze Niu, director of the blockbuster, which revolves around the struggles of a group of delinquent teens and their violent brush with gang culture. "It shows that Taiwanese films still have the ability to move audiences. It means we can make films that tell our own stories, and that successful Taiwanese films aren't flashes in the pan."

Directors like Niu believe the emergence of commercial Taiwanese films, which feature strong local flavor that appeals to the domestic audience, is a result of the slow but steady revitalization of the Taiwan film industry, something that can't be chalked up to simply one or two blockbusters.

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"The success of 'Cape No. 7' might have looked like a miracle at the time, but it firmly proved that boxoffice triumphs are not only limited to Hollywood blockbusters," Niu says. "People nowadays tend to use 'Cape' to convince others that the Taiwan film industry is reviving. That's wrong! It's only because the Taiwan film industry has been recovering that we saw such a film. It didn't come out of a vacuum. The revival has been in progress; it must be step by step. Thus the success of 'Cape' gave me the opportunity to make 'Monga'; likewise, if 'Monga' did well, then it would create opportunities for other directors."

Veteran film producer and scholar Peggy Chiao, who for 30 years has been one of the driving forces behind the new Taiwanese cinema, agrees. "The Taiwanese audience is starving for local films that they can identity with," she says. "What the recent successes show us is that when audiences feel they can deeply associate with the stories, they will support the films."

Chiao produced two of the top 10 grossing domestic films in Taiwan last year, "Hear Me" and "Empire of Silver." "Taiwanese films are regaining the public's affection," she says.


"Hear Me"
 
That hasn't always been the case. For the past two decades, even as Taiwanese films were garnering awards and attention on the festival circuit, domestic audiences shied away.

"During that time, films might not be made for the Taiwanese audience, who found them hard to relate to or understand," says Liu Weijan, GM of distribution outfit Atom Cinema. "There had been a similar case in Korea, where the films that drew international attention might not necessarily do well domestically. For the last couple of years, there had been films made to suit the taste of the Taiwanese audience. So now we have both type.s"

Atom Cinema expanded into production in late 2008, and saw its love story "Au Revoir Taipei" -- which debuted in Berlin and won the best Asian film award -- open to $228,000 during its first weekend and gross more than $633,000 in the first month -- respectable numbers for 22 screens.

Liu said that her previous experience working with directors on the distribution of such films as "Spider Lilies," "Winds of September" and "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" made her realize she could put her own experience into helping shape Taiwan cinema.

"We got to know a lot of the difficulties directors had to face in their production needs and distribution potential when I was working with them on distribution," Liu says. "Since we know quite well the market possibilities of Taiwanese films, we can communicate those possibilities to filmmakers before the film is made."

Indeed, marketing and distribution play an ever more important part in the survival and success of Taiwanese films. Local filmmakers have long agonized about the hold Hollywood majors have on the island's exhibition and distribution networks; market share of local films plummeted to an all-time low of 0.3% in 2003. Though the drop was attributed to a decline in local output, the abolition of quotas for Hollywood imports was the other major factor. Tellingly, the better-performing local films of recent years mostly have been distributed by the Hollywood majors. The Buena Vista-distributed "Cape No. 7" benefited from good word-of-mouth, but it was the distributor's call to expand the theatrical release from 40 cinemas to 65 when houses sold out day after day.

The strong performance of "Monga," meanwhile, was built by an all-encompassing, Hollywood style marketing campaign that Warner Bros. began weeks before its Chinese New Year release. The film's record-breaking (for a domestic film) opening week of $1.9 million was a testament to the effectiveness of that strategy. The film secured a Chinese New Year release date through Warner Bros. before a single frame was shot, so the director was able to accommodate the length of the shoot and budget. More importantly, the distribution support and locked-in release date allowed filmmakers to roll out a successful marketing strategy. It became an example of what Niu calls the re-engineering of the Taiwan film business.

That re-engineering has seen marketing move to the fore in the imagination of filmmakers who still feel the frustration of seeing their films forced to take a back seat to imported blockbusters. Visibility is one of the advantages of working with the Taipei Film Commission. Established in 2008 and a co-producer on 34 features, the government organization provides indoor and outdoor spaces for a film's posters and other publicity opportunities. Apart from providing subsidies and production support to selected films shooting in Taipei, the organization also commissioned such productions as Atom's new release, "Taipei Exchanges," by director Hsiao Ya-chuan, now selling in Cannes, and last year's "Hear Me," a tie-in production with the Summer Deaflympics held in Taipei.

Visibility is not limited to physical space. More than ever, Taiwanese filmmakers are focusing their attention on the power of new media and social networking sites to generate buzz.

"The Taiwan film industry is now in a completely new environment," producer Chiao says. "The young audience in Taiwan doesn't believe in hype, reviews or advertising. In the age of the Internet, the success of the local films is built by good word-of-mouth, accumulating week by week. That was the case for both 'Cape No. 7' and 'Hear Me.' That's why the first thing we have to do to market a film nowadays is to create Web sites, accounts on Facebook, Twitter and so on."


"Clown-Fish"
 
Toward that end, Chiao has strengthened online marketing for the films she has coming out this summer in Taiwan through her companies Arc Light Films and Trigram Films. Smaller films such as the 3D live-action feature "Clown-Fish," the first for Taiwan, also built up buzz via the Internet.

However, as the boxoffice numbers of "Monga" showed, collaboration between local filmmakers and the U.S. distributors that control the Taiwan marketplace might be a necessity for the industry here to move forward. The demand for locally relevant content has been reviving, but domestic products need the support of distribution networks. "The majors can actively engage in the local Taiwan film industry and benefit from its growth; not by co-productions but distribution," says Chiao, who also notes that the improving performances of local films have produced more local entrepreneurs interested in investing in films. "Finding money has been relatively easier," she says.

Since July 2008, the film industry has been named one of the prioritized sectors of creative industries by the Taiwanese government, which will inject $47 million from 2010-14 into key sectors under a plan to push creative industries.

"The film industry is now seen as the engine that drives the Taiwan creative industries," says Frank J.K. Chen, director of the Taiwan Government Information Office (GIO) Motion Picture Affairs Dept.

The GIO has issued grants to filmmakers since 1989; many of the recent hits were in fact subsidized, but the grants only count as a small percentage of the budget for more ambitious commercial films. To encourage commercially successful filmmakers, directors whose films obtained more than $633,000 at the domestic office will receive a subsidy for their next film that accounts for 20% of the film's grosses.

In 2009, "Cape No. 7" director Wei Te-sheng received $3.3 million for his upcoming feature, "Seediq Bale"; although the maximum reward has been set at $1.58 million, "Monga" helmer Niu will receive the amount as funding for his next film.

"To develop the industry, the key lies in funding and education," Chen says. "When I went to France in 2008 with a Taiwan delegation to learn from their digital screening development, I was struck by how comprehensive the French government supports the country's film industry. Film education in France begins in primary schools; the education department subsidizes half of the cinema admissions for students. These are policies for Taiwan to emulate."

Education could serve to inspire a new generation of filmmakers, but the industry also must rebuild its infrastructure and adapt to the commercial-driven market place. Says Niu: "We have to produce products that satisfy the needs of the local audience in order to sustain the industry."
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