When the BBC approached Caroline Chia (查慧中) in July 2018, and asked her to make arrangements so a documentary-making team could gather footage showing how global warming may be increasing typhoon intensity, she delivered everything that was in her power to provide.
Chia got permission for the BBC crew to shoot inside the Central Emergency Operation Center, film the army’s disaster-relief efforts and follow mayors around as they supervised the cleaning up.
“In total, it was about one week of work for my cousin — who’s my business partner — and I,” recalls Chia, who was born in Taipei but raised in Canada.
Photo: Steven Crook
But that summer, for the first time since 1964, no typhoons made landfall in Taiwan. The BBC team never arrived. In accordance with the contract, Chia’s EastWest Entertainment Group didn’t get paid a dollar.
Despite that setback, and travel restrictions imposed due to COVID-19, Chia expresses optimism about Taiwan’s future as a location for international TV and film productions.
With streaming services like Netflix under pressure to offer original content, she thinks Taiwan’s low costs and other advantages will prompt overseas production companies to follow in the footsteps of Luc Besson (who spent 11 days shooting in Taipei for his 2014 hit movie, Lucy) and Martin Scorsese (who filmed all of 2016’s Silence in Taiwan).
Photo courtesy of Caroline Chia
Chia did various entertainment industry and media jobs in Taipei before launching EastWest in 2007.
“Because I’m bilingual, I chose to focus on bringing shoots into Taiwan. In fact, in the past four years, we’ve not worked on any local productions,” Chia says, adding that she prefers international projects — and not just because the budgets tend to be bigger.
“We work the same way, and communication is easier,” she says.
Photos courtesy of Big Reveal Digital Productions
Chia says that she worked on independent films and projects but found it difficult to get paid.
“I decided to abandon that,” Chia says.
But business began to pick up in 2010, in part because Chia urged friends in the North American entertainment industry to consider Taiwan when scouting for locations.
Photo courtesy of Caroline Chia
“I was selling Taiwan over China,” Chia says. “It’s safer here. The rule of law applies, and we have a lot of culture that doesn’t exist in China. In Taiwan, it’s much easier to get authorization to film than in China,” Chia says.
What’s more, once permission has been given, film and TV production companies can be confident they’ll not meet any last-minute objections.
“It’s not a roll of the dice, like it is in China,” she says, adding: “I worked on two projects in China, and neither was a good experience.”
With notable exceptions like the BBC typhoon documentary, weather seldom interferes with plans to shoot in Taiwan.
“We always have an indoor ‘Plan B’ in case conditions turn bad,” Chia says.
Last year, during the filming of Taiwan That You Love — a six-episode romance that was the first ever Taiwan-Philippines TV co-production — the female lead suffered from laryngitis, so the production team had to rewrite several scenes and scout new locations for the revised storyline.
Overall, the eight-day shoot in Taiwan was “a wonderful experience for the whole team,” says Marivic B Ong, supervising producer for Taiwan That You Love.
“If I have the opportunity, I would love to shoot again in Taipei and hopefully in other parts of Taiwan,” Ong says.
Obtaining permission to film from government agencies and private-property owners, already one of Chia’s most time-consuming duties, became more complex earlier this year when drone-registration rules took effect.
“The no-fly zones are too big,” Chia says.
Drones aren’t allowed at Ximending or Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall because those places are too close to the Presidential Office Building.
“Regulations aren’t evolving with technology,” Chia says.
Some locations are more open to the idea of hosting a shoot than others.
“Getting permission to film in Taipei 101 is very difficult. But tons of locations in Taipei and other cities welcome shoots,” says Chia.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Scouting for locations is another part of her work, she says, giving as examples the episodes of Pechino Express and Asia Express, which were shot in Taiwan in 2017 and last year, respectively.
“To shoot these reality TV shows, we scouted almost 200 locations along the west coast and used about 100 to 120 of them, so it really gave us a chance to showcase Taiwanese culture, scenery and food to an international audience,” she says.
The Italian producers of Pechino Express spent approximately 600,000 euros (just under NT$20 million) in Taiwan over 10 days to make three episodes.
The Romanian team working on Asia Express spent a similar amount during the three weeks they needed to shoot six episodes, but even that was extravagant by Taiwanese standards. According to Chia, a typical budget for Taiwanese TV productions is NT$250,000 per episode.
The money spent by international production teams goes into a lot of pockets. Once Chia seals a deal, she begins hiring local freelancers — up to 80 of them for large projects.
“International productions create well-paid work,” she says.
She singles out two local-government bodies — Taipei Film Commission and Kaohsiung’s Film Development and Production Center — as being “especially helpful.”
The Film Development and Production Center, founded as the Filmmaking Assistance Center in 2009, provides accommodation subsidies for approved production teams arriving from overseas or other parts of Taiwan, says Aimee Yao (姚信伊), a staffer at the center.
“Because crews based elsewhere aren’t familiar with Kaohsiung, we offer an online location database for their reference and a single-window system that assigns one member of staff to help with location-scouting, coordination of settings or equipment, and other miscellaneous problems,” says Yao. “The most requested locations are road scenes. If they want to shoot on a certain road, they’ll need our help to apply for permission and negotiate with different government units.”
Since 2011, the Film Development and Production Center has agreed to invest in more than 30 Taiwanese movie productions.
“Normally, investment is no more than 10 percent of the film’s budget,” Yao says.
Oftentimes, the assistance Yao and her colleagues render is quite mundane.
“For example, for one shoot they needed some [live] chickens and a goat.”
Yao says that every year, the center helps with more than 150 TV and film productions, and each one displays a different side of Kaohsiung
She lists three movies which she thinks were especially successful at showcasing parts of the city.
In Territory of Love, a Franco-Taiwanese production known in French as L’Autre Continent, the audience follows the two protagonists as they visit famous tourist spots such as Kaohsiung Martyrs Shrine (高雄市忠烈祠), Cihou Fort (旗後砲臺) and Shoushan National Nature Park (壽山國家自然公園).
Much of High Flash (引爆點), was filmed around fishing villages in Mituo District (彌陀區),while The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音) showed the Japanese-era houses at Ciaotou Sugar Refinery (橋頭糖廠).
Following the central government’s decision on March 18 to bar almost all non-citizens from entering Taiwan, several projects have been canceled or postponed. If there hadn’t been a pandemic, this month Chia would be working with the producers of Azsia Expressz (the Hungarian version of Asia Express) to plan location-scouting and the actual shoot.
But she isn’t sitting at home with nothing to do. It isn’t unusual for two or even three years to elapse between first contact and a shoot concluding, so Chia is developing ideas in anticipation of travel restrictions being relaxed.
She’s also just finished a report for Taipei Film Commission that lays out the procedures that will have to be followed when foreign production companies are again allowed to shoot in Taiwan.
That coronavirus safety protocols will make a complex business even more involved and more expensive is obvious when Chia summarizes one of the details in her report.
Because of COVID-19, “makeup artists will need a separate set of brushes, sponges, and so on for each actor.”
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