Can Cross-Strait Media Productions Retain Their “Taiwan-ness”?
Taiwan’s national anthem, flag, or any mention of democratic freedoms may be absent in future Taiwanese film productions.
By Li Chia-ying and Chang Chia-hao
The Chinese film industry is booming, and Beijing is rolling out more than two dozen policies to attract the Taiwanese film industry across the strait.
Although Taiwan’s powerhouse filmmakers have long sailed their way into Western film festivals, the less competitive have struggled to float in overseas film markets. But profit margins from the Chinese market have become an attractive pull factor. Overall, the Taiwanese film industry has yet to develop its own distinct cultural recognizability, a push factor for talent to leave Taiwan.
In 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) first revealed the concept of the “Chinese Dream.” That same year, China’s total box office of $81 billion NTD ($2.6 billion USD) surpassed Japan to become the second largest film market in the world.
Just three years later, China’s box office tripled in value to reach a total market revenue of $225.8 billion NTD ($7.3 billion USD), a figure 26 times the size of the Taiwanese film industry. Also in 2015, China ranked second globally for the export value of its film industry, exceeding $14 billion NTD ($455 million USD). These are all indicators that China’s very own “DreamWorks” has taken off.
To view Taiwanese A-Listers, please tune in to channels from across the Strait
“I can be enthusiastic, but I can’t be enthusiastic for very long.” These are the real feelings of many of Taiwan’s film and television industry professionals. Taiwanese film productions are low in quantity, smaller in scale, and tight in resource allocation.
As a result, performing artists have no option but to look westward and southbound for alternatives. The rise of the Chinese film industry has naturally made it an obvious alternative, especially given its shared language and similar culture.
At last year’s CCTV Chinese New Year Spring Festival Gala, one could see Asian idols and actors like Jay Chou (周杰倫) and Jerry Yan (言承旭). Meanwhile, Taiwanese girl group S.H.E. performed at Zhejiang TV’s Chinese New Year Gala and New Year’s Eve Countdown Gala. On top of that, Taiwanese actors were cast in the Zhejiang TV drama series “The Bittersweet Taiwan.” The show was well-received when it aired, a rare occurrence of Taiwanese celebrities quarterbacking a seasonal drama on a top-tier Chinese channel.
It’s no longer news that popular Taiwanese singers and actors fly to China to perform. It often seems like the only way to see A-List Taiwanese celebrities on TV is to keep one eye on Chinese TV stations or online videos.
Although Taiwanese individuals are subject to a personnel quota per team when working in Chinese media productions, many Taiwanese performing artists have already gained a spot on the Chinese stage, a platform with an audience of 1.3 billion people.
According to China’s State Administration of Radio and Television (SART), overseas personnel —including but not limited to members of the main cast, directors, producers and cameramen—cannot exceed one-third of the total crew in any cross-strait media production. The number of nationals from Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau cannot exceed five people per production team, and each individual cannot be involved in the filming of more than two shows. In other words, the rules are exceptionally strict.
Under China’s recently unveiled “31 Preferential Policies for Taiwan,” eight of the 31 policies relate to Taiwan’s cultural and entertainment industries. Two of the policies allow for more open mobility of human resources across the Taiwan Strait, including more lenient quotas for cross-strait movie and television series production teams, though the new proportion of crew members has not been announced. What’s more, the quota restricting five Taiwanese nationals per production team has been revoked.
According to Lee Cheng-liang (李政亮), assistant professor at Chengchi University’s School of Communication, China’s purpose in publicizing the 31 Preferential Policies is to side-step the China-Taiwan Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). ECFA requires bilateral negotiation between the two parties. Lee argues that China intends to directly win over Taiwanese entertainment talent, rather than go through ECFA.
The profit margins of the Chinese market have become an attractive pull factor. In comparison, the Taiwanese film industry has yet to develop its own distinct cultural recognizability, a push factor also contributing to outbound talent leaving the island.
Lee says that the market for commercialized movies in Taiwan is not mature enough, while artistic film productions carry a connotation of insulation and distance in the public mind. In contrast, commercialized movies in the Chinese market are slowly taking shape, notably films with detective or youth-based themes.
Within the Taiwanese entertainment market, there are indeed people who intend to ride the wave of the recently-announced open policies, and learn from the Chinese film industry.
No to Taiwanese themes, yes to “Cross-Strait family” themes
While the government of Taiwan is is keeping an encouraging attitude towards the westward migration of artists and media personnel, it also values whether the artists’ freedom of expression is respected.
In an interview with The Journalist, Taiwan’s Minister of Culture Cheng Li-Chiun (鄭麗君) stated that over the past two years, the Chinese government has continued to deepen the role of its media approval institutions.
From content screening to investigating the personal ideological backgrounds of performing artists, the Chinese approval process has put commercial cooperation at risk. If media productions do not pass political screenings, it’s possible that China will discontinue them entirely.
In 2013, China released a regulation titled the “Current Policy Regarding Enhanced Cross-Strait Cinematic Cooperation Management”, which states that cross-strait media productions must address cross-strait relations in its thematic content.
In March 2017, China began enforcing the Film Industry Promotion Law, which states that anyone working in the entertainment industry cannot engage in media production that will damage China’s national dignity, pride, or interests. The productions also cannot threaten social stability, offend the nation in its partnerships with overseas organizations, or hire individuals who have previously committed aforementioned acts.
In September of the same year, China consequently released the “Notice Regarding Numerous Policies Supporting the Prosperous Development of Television Series”, a document explicitly stating the government’s intention to review the thoughts and values promoted by drama series and programs. In response to these policies, Minister Cheng questions whether China would accept cross-strait films with a Taiwan-oriented theme?
Lee Cheng-liang also points out that cross-strait productions can produce high-quality work, although they are also more susceptible to the framework of “people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait belonging to one family.”
1949 was a significant historical watershed, a dividing line for both sides of the Strait that shapes different historical perspectives. At the moment, cross-strait productions often tell narratives of elderly veterans or their descendants returning to their Chinese hometown, depicting the warm atmosphere of one’s return to the “ancestral nation.”
However, for Taiwan, this depiction neglects the diverse outlook of history. Lee believes that the 31 Preferential Policies are beneficial in the short-term, but loss-inducing in the long-term for the Taiwanese film industry, specifically citing issues of over-dependence on the Chinese market and disjuncture with local audiences in Taiwan.
Preferential policies won’t dismantle Taiwan independence.
Since the signing of ECFA, Chinese imports of Taiwanese films are no longer subject to quotas. But the centralized import process managed under the branch offices of the China Film Group Corporation means that in practice, only five Taiwanese productions are imported on an annual basis.
The review process on television shows is even stricter, limiting overseas drama series to under 25 percent and overseas television shows to under 15 percent. China also bans Taiwan productions to ear during prime time.
But many still predict that with the relaxing of personnel restrictions, the number of Cross-Strait productions will increase. For instance, cross-strait productions now enjoy the same benefits as Chinese-produced television series, and can now be aired during prime time.
Cross-strait film producers can also match the privileges of Chinese film producers, and enjoy a profit share of nearly 40 percent of the film’s total box office.
Even so, industry insiders note that the projected success of cross-strait productions can sometimes be stunted by the struggle to settle a screening schedule at Chinese cinemas. Such delays result in no choice but to sacrifice opportunities that may entail releasing the film in other overseas markets.
Prepared to benefit those with “potential”
Minister Cheng worries that after the quota is opened, the Taiwanese film and television industry will internalize the unspoken rules of the Chinese government’s approval criteria in order to sell its work to China. “The national anthem and flag will disappear from future Taiwanese works, and film scripts will not be able to refer to democratic freedoms,” said Cheng.
Members of the film and television industries also point out that even if Taiwanese productions succeed in conquering the Chinese market, they remain easily susceptible to scrutiny and punishment by the Chinese government.
In the past, Taiwanese actors like Leon Dai (戴立忍) and Ruby Lin (林心如) were accused of supporting Taiwanese independence on Chinese social media. Many fear that if Taiwanese productions, directors or actors are perceived to be supportive of independence, their work will never be publicly screened in China.
“No matter how strong China’s preferential policies are towards Taiwan, the belief in independence is an indestructible wall,” said one industry insider. “The new preferential policies won’t influence the big or the small fish in the industry. The things to watch for are the individuals who are willing to be scouted or discovered by the Chinese film industry.”
Film critic Mai Jo-yu (麥若愚) has long observed films from both sides of the strait; she notes that despite China’s loosened restrictions on joint film productions, market competitiveness still remains key. Chinese cinemas screen 4-10 movies every week, and if box office returns are disappointing, film screenings may be reduced or no longer shown.
Mai points to “The Village of No Return”—directed by Taiwanese director Chen Yu-hsun (陳玉勳)—as an example. The film did not touch on Taiwanese independence, but the film’s poor box office performance means it was quickly removed from cinemas. Another film, “Hanson and the Beast,” produced by Taiwanese director Chen Kuo-fu (陳國富), was well received by critics. But slow word-of-mouth about the film meant poor returns, dooming the film.
These cases illustrate the importance of competitiveness for Taiwanese films in the Chinese market. While Taiwanese film powerhouses have made their way into western markets, the less competitive struggle to enter or stay in overseas industries.
In response, Minister Cheng says the Ministry of Culture (MOC) has already begun to build a local ecosystem for Taiwan’s film and television industries. To preserve local talent, the MOC has given out subsidies, driven private sector investment, and mapped out a future for the industry.
A person familiar with the MOC’s game plan affirmed the MOC’s current policy direction, but also threw water on some of the ideas. “Aside from throwing money at the problem, it is even more important to amend the rules to the game. Otherwise, these efforts will be reduced to an arms race, and it’s impossible to win against China.”
For instance, if a director seeks assistance from a production company, some production companies will help out with additional fundraising to keep the entire government subsidy package. Rarely do production companies provide sufficient funds to raise benefits or improve working conditions of employees in the field. “This already nullifies the original purpose of subsidies,” he adds.
Willing to stay if treatment is better
“Production staff use their passion to develop films, and they would be willing to stay if their treatment was slightly better,” said an insider in the film industry. In the past, the insider added, there was criticism that subsidies were unfairly allocated to big-name directors and production companies. The MOC should conduct more detailed research about the industry, and deliver resources more accurately to address gaps that may be simple to address, said the insider.
With this line of thinking, quality productions will organically emerge, and investments will pour in. Minister Cheng envisions the Taiwanese film business developing its own industry ecology. Overall, the majority of Taiwanese filmmakers hope that China will deliver on its policy promises, and formulate ways to put them in place. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese government hopes for a reciprocal and mutually beneficial process, and wants a more open system for media approval within Chinese institutions.
But whether the 31 Preferential Policies will be more beneficial for Taiwanese or Chinese interests, whether loosening regulations in the film industry will bring about tangible change, and whether the extent of this “opening up” will be noteworthy — these are all questions yet to be answered.