Making Our Own Films
Older people swore it couldn't work, but for the team at 1987 Studio, opportunity was right there before them, and they are determined to pave a new way in filmmaking for themselves and their young peers.
Making Our Own FilmsBy Kwang-yin Liu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 564 )
Three years ago, Jonathan Liao was working as a member of a well-known television production team, dreaming of someday making movies. Yet his senior colleagues continually poured cold water on his dreams. "Stick it out for ten years first," they typically exhorted him over and over. But Liao, who had accumulated extensive cinema production experience during college, thought to himself, with so many talented peers around him now was the time to prove what he could do.
In his twenty-fifth year, Liao responded to this question with a letter of resignation, because he firmly believed that "youth" itself should not be an impediment to realizing one's dreams.
"Rather than tormenting yourself waiting for other people to provide opportunities, it's better to forge them yourself," he offers. And thus Liao departed the production company, gave up the chance to pursue a career in China, and set up 1987 Studio with several dozen friends, taking the company's name from the year of his birth. Youth is their biggest calling card, and the studio's objective is perfectly simple: make movies, and show them in first-run theaters.
Don't wait around - take action!
It is easy to proclaim goals, yet actually making things happen can be fraught with difficulty.
The first hurdle to overcome was everyone's reservations. When Liao shared his plans with former senior colleagues, all he got in return was mockery, like "This thing is not 100 percent going to fail, it's 120 percent sure to flop." Lacking capital and connections, to more experienced eyes it was untenable.
"The more people poured cold water on my plans the more determined I was to show them." Instead of venturing out to approach China's market of 1.3 billion people, nor waiting around quietly for opportunity to come knocking, as his young peers invariably do, he joined forces with his young peers to forge a new era of their own.
Liao joined with Hsin-lung Chen of National Taiwan University's (NTU) Glory of Dance club to recruit people, gathering everyone they knew from previous video projects to form the production team behind Conspiracy.
"They suddenly showed up one late night at the café I worked at part-time," reflects Tseng Yun-fang, a recent graduate of NTU's theater department who was still thinking about whether to go abroad to study. Instead, she decided to make a bold move. A high school music major, she joined the team as a composer and music score instrumentalist. According to Tseng, it was Liao's fearlessness that struck a chord with her.
"I didn't stop and think about success or failure; I just knew that if I didn't do it I'd regret it for the rest of my life," says Liao.
The second hurdle was funding.
Movie director Wei Te-sheng mortgaged his home to fund his first film, and Liao more than followed suit. To demonstrate his determination to make a film, without hesitation he dropped the entire NT$2 million overseas studies fund his parents set aside for him on the film, and other team members invested their time in return for paltry wages.
Opportunity later presented itself, as Conspiracy won a three-million NT dollar grant from the Ministry of Culture for full-length feature films by new talent, plus an additional NT$500,000 in funding via the local crowd funding site, Flying V, for use in marketing. Even though costs have not been recouped to date, Liao takes a positive approach, saying "I see it as an investment and a learning experience, which is a lot more precious than making money."
No clashing, finding ways to touch elders
The third hurdle was the disapproval of elders.
Team members experienced a constant stream of conflict with their parents. Wu Yun-fang, a graduate of the advertising department at National Chengchi University, related, "My parents kept challenging me, saying how I had worked so hard to graduate from a national university, and wondered why, instead of going out and looking for a normal job why was I expending all my energy on a company that might have no future?"
She poured her heart out trying to communicate with them, and what finally got through to them was the following words: "It is a rare thing for someone to use his own money so everyone can follow their dreams, challenge their personal limitations, and do what they want to do. I'm 23 years old, and I'm pretty daring as it stands. But if I were 30 I might not be sold bold. So now is the time to go for it."
She knew that courage and impulsiveness recede with age, and joining the team was about betting on a future while she still had the courage to try it.
Fortunately, not all elders offered only discouragement.
Ma Tien-tsung, general manager of the live music house Legacy Taipei, was one of 1987's earliest fans, having taken notice of Liao back when he was making films under the name Project 10 in university. Liao's approach, from aesthetics to camera work and choreography, was refreshing to him. "They use street dance to tell stories, which is a genre we've never seen before in Taiwan," he gushes.
Ma is hesitant to label the group as "newcomers" due to connotations of amateurism and immaturity. "On the contrary, their sense of beauty and technical skill is right up there with the rest of the world," he offers. Ma calls Liao's crew a "new breed," members of a generation that was heavily exposed to the Internet and multimedia while growing up, learning from all different avenues to take a different route from conventional academic training.
Even though Conspiracy's box office response of half a million viewers surpassed the team's expectations, Ma Tien-tsung prefers not to measure their success in terms of ticket sales. "The biggest success of 1987 Studio is not that they have made money, but that they can keep going on, proving that the path forged by these youths is viable," he opines.
Liao has forged a path not just for himself, but for an entire generation of Taiwanese youths.
No antagonism, influencing every generation
Liao believes that the environment for visual creative work in Taiwan could benefit from change, adding that "I can't expect others for change; I can only rely on myself." Right now the first goal 1987 has its sights on is becoming a platform for youths that lets them be seen. After that, the next step is to become a bridge linking generations, to help people from previous generations see what today's youths are capable of accomplishing, so that they are happy to share the stage with them. "We aren't looking to put different generations against each other, but to consolidate generational resources," Liao states.
Over the course of the decision-making process, they are even less inclined to take the tired old path of top-to-bottom decision-making, choosing a flat "open creativity" approach whereby collective wisdom replaces the "my way or the highway" style.
"From script writing to shooting and editing, each member – whether handling the musical score or marketing – is free to express his opinion," stresses Liao. "I cannot claim that Conspiracy is perfect, but I can emphatically state that it is 1987 Studio's work, not the work of any given individual."
Conflicts inevitably arise whenever the authority to make decisions is left open. At one juncture, differences of opinion created an impasse that prevented the team from deciding on the final cut. Yet they still believe it worthwhile no matter how much effort it takes to communicate, because 1987 wants to establish a team that makes democratic decisions.
Chang Ching, an economics graduate from NTU, previously worked at an international cosmetics company and a high-tech firm, yet she was lost in the large corporate environment. "In the final analysis all corporations are about making money, but that was not enough to get me excited about going to work each day for 10 or more hours," she reflects. She chose to take on marketing work for Conspiracy because, compared to monetary remuneration, ideals and values are what really speak to her heart and motivate her to give it everything she's got.
Youth and fearlessness go hand in hand, and Liao's 1987 Studio team of nearly five-dozen people captures people's hearts not with impressive box office receipts but their fearless energy, and points the way for the dreams of a generation of youths.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman