China’s increasingly unwelcoming stance toward the U.S. film industry is causing plenty of headaches for Hollywood distributors, but Taiwan’s film industry is approaching the trend as an exciting opportunity.

“Things are getting tighter in China, but interest in Asian content continues to grow,” says Joyce Tang, senior manager of the Content-Lab at the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), a government-backed organization established in June 2019 to help Taiwan’s creative industry’s expand their global reach.

While the barriers to accessing and engaging with China’s massive entertainment sector continue to rise, Taiwan’s industry is capitalizing on the moment by promoting itself as a welcoming and creatively free alternative for international directors, studios and streamers that want to tell Chinese-language stories.

“As long as your film or story is specific to Chinese culture, or Asian culture in general, Taiwan is a really strong choice of location and production partner, because we have very few restrictions and social or political taboos,” Tang adds. “We’re open-minded, which is a big advantage.”

Looking past the pandemic, TAICCA established in 2020 a new program titled “Taiwan’s International Co-funding Program” (TICP), to attract international collaborators to team up with the Taipei creative community once cross-border production was back underway. The program offers film and TV studios a rebate incentive of up to 30 percent of a project’s production budget, or 30 percent of global marketing costs, capped at $300,000, provided they partner with Taiwanese talent or production companies, or include Taiwan elements in the finished story. The new program can also be added to attractive, longstanding incentive schemes provided by the Taipei Film Commission, Kaohsiung City Government and Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture.

Among the first collection of films in development to partner with TAICCA under the program is the next film from Mauritanian-French director Abderrahmane Sissako, whose most recent feature Timbuktu competed at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar in the best international film category in 2015.

Tang says Sissako’s new film — details of which are being kept under wraps — was initially written to be set in mainland China. “But China has so many barriers and restrictions that he could not really release his creativity and work the way he wanted to there,” she explains. “So he eventually chose Taiwan as his partner and shooting location.”

As part of the international push, Taiwan is working to create greater opportunities for its homegrown content and co-productions in overseas markets as well. At AFM this year, TAICCA has launched its largest-ever Taiwan Pavilion, showcasing 57 films from 32 film exhibitors, including recent Busan Film Festival entries like Increasing Echo and Days Before the Millennium, as well as current Tokyo International Film Festival contender American Girl. 

“There is a rise in popularity in Asian TV series globally, showing that stories based on local culture have a unique edge in the international market,” states TAICCA CEO, Izero LEE. “For the highly competitive North American market, TAICCA is showcasing the best of Taiwanese cinema at the AFM.”

“The Taiwanese government is really trying to promote Taiwanese identity as a mixture of different kinds of cultural backgrounds,” Tang adds. “That’s the essence of our international co-production plan — to help Taiwan become know for Taiwanese cultural content, not just our manufacturing, food or other icons.”

She adds: “We are also open to all subject matters — even traditionally ‘controversial’ topics in the region that touch on religion, politics or LGBTQ+.”

One of Taiwan’s hottest titles at AFM, Money Boys, is exemplary of the new industry profile TAICCA is seeking to support for Taiwan. Selected to compete in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, the film is a Taiwan-Austria-France-Belgium co-production and it tells the story of Fei (played Kai Ko), a young gay man who works as a street hustler to support his conservative and unaccepting family. Much like Sissako’s project, Moneyboys was originally set in China, but the filmmakers realized it would be impossible to shoot the project there due to Beijing’s repressive stance on content featuring gay stories. So they relocated the production to Taiwan and blurred the setting to an extent that the story never explicitly makes it clear whether the characters are in Taiwan or China.

Taiwan’s efforts to internationalize also have coincided fruitfully with arguably the biggest transition in entertainment: The rise of global streaming platforms, and their reliance on local-language content power international subscriber growth.

Taiwanese talent and producers have traditionally — and understandably — focused on making inroads to the geographically and culturally proximate mainland Chinese industry and market. But recently, “all eyes are on Netflix and Disney+,” says Tang.

Beijing regulators forbid all foreign streaming services from operating in China, but Netflix and Disney+ have both made clear that they see a strong business opportunity in Chinese-language content even without access to the massive mainland Chinese market itself, since Chinese Diaspora communities around the world constitute a substantial audience in their own right, and key growth regions like Southeast Asia have shown an growing openness consuming Chinese content.

Relative regulatory ease aside, Taiwan’s substantial base of production facilities and crew also make the island an attractive regional productive hub for the streamers. “Our talent are high-quality and eager to help, with really good English and world class technical skills,” Tang says. Netflix has picked up a slew of Taiwanese TV dramas for international territories, and the streamer also chose Taiwan to produced its very fist Mandarin-language original, Nowhere Man (2019), and has followed up with recent projects like Taiwanese horror series Detention. Soon, Disney+ and Warner Media will join the local fray.

“Disney+ will be in Taiwan by the end of the year and they’ve already been contacting a lot of our local producers to work with them,” Tang says. “This is becoming a booming moment for us.”

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