Dennis Yang, CEO and managing partner of Taipei-based Studio76 Original Productions, talks about finding stories and directors with unique visual styles, experimenting with genres and formats, and Taiwan’s advantages and challenges as a content centre.
Taiwan’s Studio76 Original Productions launched just ahead of the pandemic with an ambitious three-year slate, a high appetite for experimentation, a horror debut targetting audiences that mass market TV broadcasters aren’t accommodating, tapping online communities and fanbases for stories, and trying to expand Taiwan’s footprint overseas. CEO & managing partner, Dennis Yang talks about experimenting with formats, finding stories, and Taiwan’s advantages and challenges as a production centre.
Tell us how a six-month-old company went into this pandemic... “We’re quite lucky actually because the first three titles we produced wrapped production before January 2020. So pretty much when the pandemic hit, we were already in post production. Probably the only impact was our ability to launch the titles on schedule because they had to be supported by on-ground events, particularly basketball story, Fly The Jumper.”
Despite Covid-19, you are on track with your three-year timeline. What other productions are you planning? “When we started the company, the aim was to produce 30 titles in the next three years... and we are on track. So far, we have finished four titles, and are busy with four more by the end of the year, so we have good momentum. There are more and more partners in the region right now. They are working with us in co-production and also in the distribution. We are planning to enter script competitions as well in order to discover more good stories in Taiwan.”
Your first four productions are very different from each other. There’s horror, sports, crime & investigation. What’s the thinking behind the broad span of genres? “We want to try out as many genres as possible. We have very strict budget control on every title that we produce. There is some drama we cannot do, but there are a lot of good stories that we can bring into production and show to people saying, ‘hey, here’s a good original story we’re trying to tell from Taiwan’. In general. we are trying to do as many genres as possible in our first year. So probably in the second and third years, we will be focusing more on selected genres. But now in the first year I want to try as much as possible.”
Where did the first stories come from and why did you decide on these for your debut? “Firstly, we want to show people that Studio76 is trying to do something different. That’s why we selected horror, because this is a genre that normally TV stations will not touch. Mostly they do love stories. There’s a limitation on horror stories on TV. In Taiwan, you can only show horror stories after 10pm. So we thought, ‘okay maybe it is a good genre to start with’. Horror is actually a popular genre, especially for OTT or digital platforms. So we started looking at discussion forums in Taiwan. On PTT, one of the top forums in Taiwan, there’s a series of 36 ghost stories with a large fanbase by one writer. A Taiwan publisher put all 36 stories into three books and published the series in Taiwan and China to a much bigger fanbase. We contacted the writer and publisher, and agreed to adapt four stories, which led to 76 Horror Bookstore – Tin Can of Fear.”
Essentially an adaptation of fan-based fiction? “Exactly”
What about basketball story, Fly the Jumper, which is very different. Where did that come from? “The idea came from our target audience. Before I started Studio76, I was a co-founder of KKTV, a SVOD platform in Taiwan. So we understand that the core audience for digital platforms/OTT services is actually 25- to 35-year old females, especially in Taiwan. Horror Bookstore is right on target for 25-35 year-old females, and we thought, ‘how about bringing that target audience down to 15-25? What kind of formats or what kind of stories might attract them?’ So we thought we should try sports teen drama, which is a popular genre in Taiwan. Also a lot of the production companies in Taiwan… love comedy teen dramas. So we went looking for a good sports teen drama, and we found an original story and developed that into a 100-minute TV movie.”
Your third one is Kill for Love, which again is very different... “This one comes from the idea of a famous scriptwriter in Taiwan. This script was awarded one of the best scripts back two years ago in Taiwan. The story is inspired by a real crime event 20 years ago, which was a very popular case. We thought crime stories were a good direction for us to explore, especially crime stories based on female murderers. This is a good sub genre under crime investigation. We worked with the script writer who also wanted to be the director, and brought the production team together.”
There’s something quite unusual about the series lengths you have chosen – all are four episodes of about 25 minutes per series. Why did you decide on this format? “When we started out, we understood the direction of our productions; we wanted to do as many 100-minute TV movies first. Back in the days in KKTV, I produced three titles, each was 90-100 minutes in total run time. And then we chopped that into eight episodes and we played one episode per day and we saw that our audience was building. So we said, ‘okay this is a nice experiment’... Everyday, when we showed a new title, more people joined. So we started talking to the production companies, and we found that maybe if we extended that to 25 minutes per episode, the story might be more solid and more interesting, so that’s why we turned that concept into 25 minutes per episode. with a hundred minutes total run time, we can have four episodes. So there are several ways to present that for the platforms. Platforms that license this title have two edits to choose from; one edit is 25 minutes per episode and the other is a 100-minute full-length version. As long as the story is interesting there is a market, regardless of Covid-19. Our idea is to produce stories that fit into the formats of digital platforms as well as TV, so we need a total run time of not less than 90 minutes, which can fit back into the TV format. Now we have a lot of demand from the TV stations in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Korea as well. We are preparing to license to Japan as well.”
How do you think demand from streaming platforms has impacted production in Taiwan? “Taiwan is quite lucky because there was no lock down. There were several weeks of working from home and the government asked companies to try to keep social distancing in March and April, but after that everything went back to normal. Of course the demand from OTT platforms and TV stations is increasing, especially from China, so during this period we actually got good demand coming from China asking for our content. We know that they’re not only asking us. They also asking other production companies in Taiwan and also the licensors in Taiwan, because there’s stronger demand coming from China and there is lower supply. The good thing about what we are producing in Taiwan is that it’s all in Mandarin and we can sell it to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, to the Chinese markets.”
Has this increase demand made access to talent and resources in Taiwan more difficult for you? “Not really, because there’s a good supply of talent in Taiwan in script writing, in acting, in production, and also there’s one thing unique to Taiwan; if you look at Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan is probably the only market that has a good supply of directors for music videos. So that’s actually a good place for us to start choosing new directors with unique visual styles. This is what we are trying to cultivate.”
What’s your view on co-productions and partnerships? “We are open at any time to any ideas for co-production partnership... and we are willing to share our experience and to create more and more cross-border, cross-culture, co-production and trying to use the rich talent pool coming up from Taiwan and also from the region.”
What do you see as the biggest creative (or other) challenges for Taiwan’s content industry? “Taiwan used to work very closely with Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Malaysia in Chinese content. Most production companies, most licensors, in Taiwan are not used to selling their content outside of Chinese markets. I think that’s the biggest challenge for us. Yes, we have good production, but we don’t know how to sell it outside the Chinese markets. So this is why we are producing very genre-based stories. That is the way for us to reach further to markets like the U.S. or Europe. We would love to sell our content even to the Middle East... we want to explore as many new markets as possible even though the language we use is Mandarin.”
Taiwan has plenty of talent. There’s plenty of demand and also you have very strong government support for the creative industry. Would you call distribution your biggest challenge? “Yes, I would say that. There’s also some very strong supply of Chinese content coming from China and from Hong Kong... Taiwan's creative industry has strong government support. TAICCA, one of the creative agencies backed by the government, is trying not only to support more production companies and projects, but also trying to match original IP from the publishing industry. Taiwan publishes many books every year that can be adapted into TV dramas and movies. The government is putting a lot of resources and support right now into matching those original ideas and stories and IPs and trying to create much bigger synergies in all these creative industries. I think this is something good for Taiwan.”
Published in ContentAsia's Issue Four 2020, November 2020