Jennifer Jao came back to Taiwan after graduating from an American film school. Her unconventionally poetic answer to a difficult question in a job interview won her respect as well as a position in the highly selective Central Motion Pictures Corporation (CMPC). She started to work for Hsu Li Kong, the “pushing hands” behind Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-liang.
It was the heyday of CMPC: The Wedding Banquet had just triumphed in the 43rd Berlinale, an encouraging message to the then sluggish Taiwan film industry. Ms. Jao made a decision to dive into the film world: she did interviews and reports, helped to run a film magazine and open an art cinema, plus reading four to seven scripts each week. Her enthusiasm for film did not wane despite the low pay and a lack of sufficient staff. Instead, she occupied herself with various engagements, from film production to distribution and international promotion. “My years in CMPC was a comprehensive career training to a learner as it channeled me an acute sense in different divisions of the film industry.”
Ms. Jao’s four-year involvement with the Asia Pacific Film Festival continued to sharpen her saw in film promotion and distribution to the global arena through assorted film festivals. In 2007, she initiated a small-budget co-production Cape No. 7, which later swept a number of awards in Toronto, Vancouver and Taipei. After that, came by far the most acclaimed co-production tunnel in the Chinese-speaking world: Taipei Film Commission, founded by Taipei City Government and led by Ms. Jao. Since the end of 2007, this commission has aided 166 co-productions; it also offered funding to films like Alvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei, the Taiwan and Sweden co-production Miss Kicki, and Doze Niu’s Monga etc..
Where did the concept of Taipei Film Commission originate from?
Tom Cruise had considered featuring Taipei World Financial Center, nicknamed Taipei 101, in his Mission Impossible 3, but changed his mind to the Oriental Pearl Tower due to a lack of effective coordination in Taipei at the time. That crew stayed in Shanghai for four months and created over two thousand job opportunities. There was a recurrence of similar cases owing to the complicated application procedure, somewhat unwelcoming production environment and an excessive number of filming restrictions.
Lee Yong-ping, the then Commissioner of Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, invited me to establish a one-stop service chain with simplified application, on-going assistance and an extensive database to facilitate TV and film production, especially co-productions: Taipei Film Commission (TFC) thus came into existence.
The annual French-Asian Party that brings filmmakers together. From left to right: Jennifer Jao, director Arvin Chen, director Yee Chin-yen, producer Lee Lieh and TFC long-time collaborator livier-René Veillon, Executive Director of the Île de France Film Commission. PHOTO COURTESY OF TAIPEI FILM COMMISSION
What difficulties did TFC encounter during its initial development?
Quite a few. One time we sealed off one third of a road to shoot a film, but the director got shouted at by a taxi driver that he had no civic mind and that he would be sued. In the beginning, the general public had no such awareness that when a film is shot in Taipei, it would be of great benefits to the city.
I thus wrote a letter to the Mayor of Taipei that to communicate and collaborate with different divisions in Taipei is really not easy. The Mayor asked: So how can I help you? I said: I hope you could write a letter to every government unit and institution in Taipei to cooperate with our work. I told him an example of an earlier New York mayor, John William Lindsay, who said in 1966 that with each film shot in the New York City, we would have more job opportunities, more incomes and economic power; healthy economic environment will lead to a city’s fast and sustainable development.
The Mayor of Taipei was convinced and sent a letter to each governmental section of Taipei informing every civic servant the importance of TFC and from then on, every unit should support the film projects selected by TFC in any aspect. No fee should be charged if the shooting could be done in a week; if it would be more than a week, the fees would be half less than the regular charge. This policy offered immediate convenience and budget cut for anybody who wants to shoot a film in Taipei.
We then found the fast-growing number of films shot in Taipei: more than double. The film crew could now save money on location setting and rent to put more on improving the film’s artistic quality.
After that, another problem of Taiwan cinema popped up: upon the completion of the film, usually there would be no money left for publicity or promotion. TFC, once again, launched a new policy that as long as you shoot a film in Taipei and your film satisfies our rules, for example, at least one third of the film features scenes in Taipei, we would offer you promotional opportunities, free of charge. You could have your posters shown on billboard and neon box down the metro station for free. These are the busiest stations in Taipei, like Chung Shiao E. Road and Ximending. Only if you are making an advertisement, we’d charge you within a week’s shooting.
In short, the first policy TFC helped to inaugurate is to exempt location rental location or equipment utility fee; the second one is free promotion in the metro, on the bus and program brochures. According to our statistics, each film thus saved $120,000 to $150,000 promotional fees.
I then wonder where TFC gets the fund from.
80% of TFC fund comes from Taipei City Government. We are flexible as we are film professionals, and we raise the other 20% on our own from companies like TSMC and UMC. From now on, we will have more self-raised fund and the advantage is that we could be even more independent.
I have a TAIPEI CINEMA LOCATION GUIDE at hand and it seems yet another useful publication created by TFC?
Yes. It was on the final list of Book of the Year. It did not win the award: though there is sufficient information, due to a tight budget, we could not generate a bigger version with more elaborate layout.
There is a film project named Taipei Factory in The Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes 2013. Could you talk about this cooperation?
This is a sort of unprecedented attempt. The film has finished its post-production and a bit different from our general cinematic imagination of Taipei. TFC truly respect and the eight directors’ ideas and this project is about cross-cultural communication. Four directors from Taiwan and four directors from other places of the world: they form four groups. Each group has a Taiwan filmmaker matching one from another culture and shoots a short film. In the end the four short films form a long film. Each short film echoes other ones. You can feel its intertexuality while watching the film.
In the contemporary globalized context, there are more possibilities in co-productions. Different culture nurtures different artistic presentation. Each local filmmaker has already made at least one feature and been to several international film festivals. We also invite directors from Chili, Iran, South Korea and France. Both sides communicated online long before the real shooting and the foreign directors made the best of their ten-day stay in Taipei and finished the film. It is a challenge in terms of the concept, technology and the practice.
So what is the exact role of TFC in this film project?
It all started with a chat between Ms. Dominique Welinski, who used to work for The Directors’ Fortnight, and TFC’s International Development Manager Yalun Wang, who is based in Europe. What they previously had in mind was something like Paris, je t’aime. Yalun came back and talked about the idea. I somehow had a different vision, as after Paris, je t’aime, I heard too many similar film projects, like Beijing, I love you; Singapore, I love you or Tokyo, I love you. You know, as long as it becomes a formula, it needs a breakthrough.
I am happy that despite language barriers and cultural differences, the directors managed to come up with a film within a very short period of time. I myself cannot comment on its quality and will leave that job to the audience.
What are the other grand plans TFC has in the near future?
I hope filmmakers and the general public from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China could join their hand together and collaborate with each other. Five years from now, you’d find that the most actively-involved countries or regions are those with abundant raw materials and natural resources. Taiwan is genetically weak in this aspect. Since 1960s, Taiwan has trained a number of professionals in different areas and that is the prerequisite of Taiwan’s international competitiveness.
A look at The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) suggests in the recent two years, these countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand especially, have achieved tremendous progress. Mainland China enjoys a huge market while Taiwan needs to think big and far to sustain its evolution.
This interview originally appeared on THE CHINESE FILM MARKET, CANNES 2013 issue.