By Trista di Genova / Originally published in The China Post
Phillip Epps is an American producer who began his own video and film production company, international-creative.com, in 2005. In the past, he has worked on political campaigns in America, helped set up the first Internet cafe chain in China and was senior editor of ‘Travel in Taiwan.’ Some of his recent clients in Taiwan’s creative industry include the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet and Microsoft.
He divides his projects into three types: one is in the area of corporate and community video where he acts as producer. ‘The second is more creative projects that I’m self financing, such as a work in progress I’m calling ‘Beautiful Island,’ he said by telephone interview with The China Post. Right now he’s taking ‘beauty shots’ around the island and is making a casting call. ‘I expect if it’s just me doing it, it will take a year in total,’ he estimated.
‘The third type is not for money or pet projects,’ he continued, ‘but to enhance the film and TV industry in Taiwan, or I should say ‘attempt to.’
‘There is opportunity here because there really isn’t a film industry currently in Taiwan. There’s low production quality in terms of writers and directors mostly because there’s so little return on time and investment.’ He described it as a self-defeating cycle: on the one hand, nobody gets paid well for production, and on the other nobody wants to be involved in filmmaking in Taiwan because it doesn’t pay much. In other words, there’s little reason to get involved with few career opportunities. That in a nutshell is the underlying problem.’
He gave the counter example of South Korea: ‘They had a similar problem four or five years ago and the government invested a billion US dollars in the film and TV industry, realizing it was a great way to get out their national identity. It was money well-spent, which in a way fits the Taiwan model.’
Local people may argue my opinion on this, he says, ‘but the writing here is bad, the acting is bad, and few creative types are compensated, so what we see on TV is the lowest common denominator.’
Epps urged Taiwan’s government to ‘get focused and admit’ Taiwan has got an identity problem. ‘The best rebuttal in favor of the current conventional wisdom is that now everyone watches Korean soap operas and dramas. South Korea’s film industry has turned itself around. It’s very creative and they win international awards.’
‘The local industry has got lots of talent’ he insists, ‘it’s just totally underfunded. They’ve got this struggling artist mentality and only a few people can break out of it,’ he said, citing director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) (of ‘City of Sadness‘ fame among others) of the old school, and more recently Wei Te-sheng (魏德聖), director of the massive hit ‘Cape No. 7’(海角七號).
‘That’s a really important movie not only because it’s interesting but they made lots of money (grossing NT$100 million so far). You couldn’t even buy a ticket recently which is almost unprecedented for Taiwan film. It’s a very local story and though it’s not seamless, it has some great storytelling elements. With the funds they had, they did a really good job. And with Cape No. 7‘s success, Wei’s next movie is going to be great. The guy’s obviously talented.’
Epps suggested Taiwan’s leaders look at the feasibility of injecting some serious cash into its creative industry.
‘Taiwan is not a poor country; there’s cash here. There is also a great need to get beyond the corruption,’ he posited, and enhancing national identity, but apolitically. ‘And also enable an institutionalized legal apparatus where if you default on a contract, you should face real legal constraints. But, right now, you can just pay off a judge. The reason why Hong Kong’s film industry works – and Taiwan’s doesn’t – is rule of law.’
‘Second, let’s praise folks like Ang Lee (李安), do everything we can do to put him on Mt. Rushmore, if you will, as probably one of the best directors in the world. Start an international institution that helps Taiwan directors to develop and finance projects.’
He lamented there is very little nonprofit, government or university-allied forms of support for those in the film industry.
‘I’d like to see something like an Ang Lee Center for Film Excellence, a clearinghouse for the younger generation of actors and directors where they can get funding for their projects and invite successful producers from abroad who can tell them how to develop good stories and get connected.’
But, most importantly, Taiwan needs to ‘praise talent,’ he urged, and ‘find the money, even a fraction of what they have in Hong Kong, just to have that fundamental support.’
However, the culture in Taiwan itself is one of the trickiest things, as ‘families don’t allow their children to go into the arts here. There’s a lot of resistance to this in fact as parents want their children to go into traditionally high-paying jobs, not more artistic endeavors.’
‘Some of the arts thrive here but in actuality, most are just limping along,’ he observed, ‘because there isn’t the opportunity there should be. Right now, the elite support classical music, painting and sculpture, but not what I think are the more interesting, more modern arts. There are fits and starts with supporting modern art here,’ he says. ‘For example, the Huashan Arts Village just seems like it’s just not working. It’s a great venue but they get these commercial events that are boring and nobody wants to go. And I believe there needs to be a stronger focus on film and TV.’
‘To me, it’s a no-brainer,’ he concluded, ‘that with more support and the social and political will,’ the talent here could be nurtured. ‘Film professors here are saying the same thing: there’s energy, but no push. Ma (Pres. Ma Ying-jeou) came into office with big promises. Here’s one he should keep.’
Check out Epps’ Website