Taiwan's Studio76 launched just ahead of the pandemic with an ambitious three-year slate, 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. 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 that we produced wrapped production before January. So pretty much when the pandemic was hitting the market, we were already in post production period and probably the only impact was launching the titles on schedule because they had to be supported by on-ground events, particularly basketball story Fly The Jumper."
Despite Covid, you are on track with your three-year timeline. What other productions are you planning? "When we started the company a year ago, 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 to come 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 in several script competitions in Taiwan as well in order to discover more good stories in Taiwan."
Your first four productions are very different from each other. There's horror theme, 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 a very strict budget control on every title that we are producing. There is some drama we cannot do, but there are a lot of good stories that we can bring into production and show it to people saying, ‘hey, it’s a good original story that we're trying to tell out 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, especially the industry that Studio76 is trying to do something differently and that’s why we selected horror story because this is a genre that normally the TV station will not touch. Mostly they do love story. There's a limitation of time you can play horror story on TV, right. Like in Taiwan, you can only show horror stories after 10 pm. So we think ‘okay maybe it is a good genre to start with’. Also, horror genre is actually a popular genre, especially for the OTT or the digital platforms. So that's why firstly we went out to look for some popular stories outside in many discussion forums in Taiwan. There is a discussion forum, which is one of the top discussion forums in Taiwan called PTT, which is similar to Reddit in the U.S. So there are a lot of people sharing their original stories and there's one ghost story that got a lot of fanbase. The writer wrote about thirty-six stories on that and they got a really strong fan base out of this. A Taiwan publisher actually put all thirty-six stories into three books and then publishing it in Taiwan and China and again that goes to a much bigger fanbase. So that's why we then wrote to the writers saying, ‘hey, I love to adapt several stories from your story that already been published’ and then we contacted the publishers and also the writers then we chose four stories to adapt for 76 Horror Bookstore - Tin Can of Fear."
Essentially an adaptation of fan-based fiction? Exactly.
What about Fly the Jumper, which is very very different. Where did that come from? "The idea is actually coming from target audience that we want to go after it because before I started Studio76 actually I was a co-founder of KKTV, which is a SVOD platform in Taiwan. So we understand that the core users or core audience for digital platforms OTT services, it's actually 25 to 35 years old females especially in Taiwan. Yeah, so we think that okay Horror Bookstore actually is right on the target 25-35 years females and how about we bring that target audience down to 15-25? What kind of formats or what kind of stories might attract them? Okay, we should try sports teen drama, which is a popular genre as well in Taiwan. Also a lot of the production company in Taiwan… love comedy teen dramas. So then we went out and look for good sports teen drama and luckily we found a good original story from a writer and then we adapt that. We bought that IP and story rights and then we develop that in a 100-minute TV movie."
Your third one is Kill for Love, which again is very very different. Where did this one come from? "This one comes from the idea of a famous scriptwriter in Taiwan. This script was actually awarded one of the best scripts back in two years ago in Taiwan. It is based on a real event. The story is inspired based on a real crime event back in 20 years ago in Taiwan, which is a very popular case. We think that that is a good idea and also a good direction for us to explore more crime story, especially crime story based on female murderer. This is a good sub genre under the crime investigation. So that's why this is a good story to start with so we worked with the script writer who also wants to be the director as well. So we bring the production team together to work with the scriptwriter/director.
There's something quite unusual about the series that you’re making, all of these as well. There’re four episodes per series and they're about 25 minutes. So they're basically a half hour. Why did you decide on this format? "When we started out, we understand the direction of our productions; we want to do as many 100-minute TV movies first and back in the days in KKTV, I have produced three titles. So each title that we produced was about 90-100 minutes in total duration and total run time. And then we chopped that into eight episodes and we would play one episode per day and we see that our audience fanbase is actually breeding so we say, ‘okay this is a nice experiment’ because before that nobody was showing one episode, which is only like 12 minutes per episode per day and then just trying to get the audience base, based on everyday viewing. When you show a new title, there are more people joining, there are more audience joining. So then we started talking to the production company and we found that maybe if we extend that to 25 minutes per episode, the story might be more solid and more interesting to tell so that's why we turned that concept into 25 minutes per episode and then with a hundred minutes total run time, we can have four episodes. So there are several ways to present that for the platforms. So for the platforms that licensed this title, they actually have two edits; one edit is 25 minutes per episode and a hundred minutes full length version. So there are two edits for the platform to choose from so they can choose a 25-minute edit or they can also choose the 100-minute. As long as the story is interesting, I think there is a market. No matter if it is in the Covid-19 period or after that, right? So our idea is trying to produce stories that fit into the formats of the digital platform and for TV, so that's why we managed to get the total run time of one title to be not less than 90 minutes. We can fit it back into the TV format. That's why when we finished production, we show that to the TV station and luckily, we got a lot of good demand coming from the TV stations in Taiwan, in China, in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Korea as well. We are also prepping up to license that to Japan as well."
What do you think demand from streaming platforms and others has impacted the production that you do in Taiwan? "Taiwan is quite lucky because there's no lock down. There is several weeks of working from home period that the government is asking the companies to try to keep the social distancing in March and April but after that everything goes back to normal. Of course the demand coming from OTT platforms and TV stations are 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 from us. They also asking from other production companies in Taiwan and also the licensors in Taiwan, because there’s a stronger demand coming from China and there is lesser supply. The good thing about what we are producing in Taiwan, all is in Mandarin and with the Mandarin content, we can sell it to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, to the Chinese markets."
Has this increases 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 which is quite unique for Taiwan is that if you look at Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan is probably the only market that has a good supply of directors in production companies for music videos. So that's actually a good place for us to start choosing the new directors with very unique visual styles. So this is actually what we are trying to cultivate, to learn."
What do you see as the creative challenges in Taiwan? "Taiwan used to work very closely with Hong Kong, China, Singapore, 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 the idea of why we are producing very genre based stories. So that is the way for us to reach further to the markets like the U.S. or Europe. Yes, we’d 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 and because aside from Taiwan, I mean if you're looking for Chinese content and yes there's also some very strong supply coming from China and from Hong Kong as well, yeah but as you said with Taiwan, one thing that supports the creative industry in Taiwan is the strong support coming from the government and recently TAICCA, which is one of the creative agencies set up back by the government. I think they are trying to not only support more production projects but they are also supporting companies and also they are trying to match the original IPs coming from the publishing industry because in Taiwan there are also many books being published in a year in the market. With that many original stories coming from the books, is it possible for us to adapt into TV dramas or movies? So the government is putting a lot of resources and support right now trying to match those original ideas and stories and IPs together and trying to create much bigger synergies in all these creative industry. I think this is something good for Taiwan."
Talking about synergy and matching synergies, you're also a very strong supporter of co production. So before we wrap my last question, I guess would be what's the best way to approach Studio76 for co-production partnerships? "Yes, we are open at any time to any ideas for co-production partnership, reach out to me anytime. And yeah, we are willing to share our experience and we are willing 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."
This interview took place as part of the ContentAsia Summit at the end of August 2020.