The door has opened wider for gay content in Taiwan since the island became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in May, and companies like CEO Jay Lin’s Portico Media are hoping to turn LGBTQ stories into good business.
The firm is ramping up its development of originals on its GagaOOLala platform, Asia’s first and only OTT streamer for LGBTQ content, and is hosting events to bring industry players in this space together from across the region.
The ground appears to be fertile. More than a hundred attendees came to Taipei to discuss the future of streaming and of gay-content creation earlier this month at the first GOL Summit, organized by GagaOOLala’s development arm, GOL Studios. And between this year and next, a record-setting dozen or so gay-themed films will be getting a theatrical release in Taiwan.
The legalization of same-sex marriage has “allowed us to open that door a little bit wider when persuading sponsors, platforms or government to see [LGBT representation] as something that’s beneficial for them as well,” Lin said. “And it makes it easier for us to find production and distribution partners outside of Taiwan,” particularly among those who are hopeful that their countries will one day have similar rights.
Thai filmmaker and summit attendee Anusorn Soisa-ngim said he was “jealous, honestly” of Taiwan’s marriage law and creative freedoms. “My country produces a lot of boys’-love films and gay content, but they never actually accept LGBT people for real,” he said. He is currently developing a sequel to his first feature “Present Perfect,” which will continue the story of a romance between a Thai man and his Japanese partner.
Portico Media began as a distributor in 2009, then branched out into production services in 2014 and gay-themed publishing the year after that. Initiated in 2017 and now planning a global launch next year, its OTT service GagaOOLala hopes to become Asia’s Netflix for gay content.
The platform currently has more than 270,000 members in 21 countries, about half of them in Taiwan, with the next largest markets Thailand (17% of users), the Philippines (13%) and Malaysia (7.3%). As of the end of October, the website currently has 179,000 unique users and its app 32,000.
At the GOL Summit, participants discussed current trends in Asian LGBT content, agreeing that sex was often expressed less overtly in the region, and budgets are generally low.
For Taiwan, that has generally meant the content of lesser quality than in France or Europe, said Gene Yao, CEO of Taiwanese distributor Swallow Wings. Taiwan’s gay films are “not very artistic, and are rather lowbrow and tacky in tone. The dialogue is at a TV soap level because that makes it feel closer to the audiences,” he said.
A lot of stories in Asia to date have centered on the painful experiences of coming out, coming of age, the obligation to get married, and rejection from society or family, Lin said. But these days, people are seeking escapism, and so GagaOOLala is developing a slew of lighthearted romantic comedies, its most popular genre so far. “People are looking for a fantasy or imagining of how great life could be, not a mirror of how harsh life actually is,” he said.
About 6% of the content it currently hosts are originals, including “The Teacher,” which just netted Winnie Chang the Golden Horse Award for best supporting actress, and “Handsome Stewardess,” a Singapore-based rom-com about a butch flight attendant from Taiwanese LGBT filmmaker Zero Chou.
The latter might seem like a generic or trivial tale, but such stories “can actually have a huge impact in a country like Singapore, where LGBT stories are required to have a sad or tragic ending… because gays are supposed to be seen as having tragic lives,” said Lin.
Another upcoming GagaOOLala original is “5 Lessons in Happiness,” an anthology of five uplifting short films from five directors, including Chou and Nancy Chen (“Big Three Dragons”).
Chou, whose 2007 film “Spider Lilies” (pictured) won the Teddy Award for best feature at Berlin, is currently four films into her six-film “Asian Cities Rainbow Project,” in which she’s shooting a queer film in metropolises across Asia to stream on GagaOOLala. She’s already hit Taipei, Singapore, Beijing, and Chengdu and will head to Hong Kong and Malaysia next year.
Shooting in censorious China had to happen underground without proper permits, for fear that authorities would shut down production. “I chose to work in China because doing so can help Taiwan reaffirm its own values,” said Chou.
“If we want gender equality and gay rights to forever be a part of Taiwanese values, we can’t stick to simply trying to convince only those here at home. We have to make an effort to push our values abroad for our progress here to be sustainable,” she explained. “We’re using cinema as activism, to create a movement.”
Two and a half years ago, China still hadn’t fully banned gay content from streaming, and so Chou managed to sell the online rights to her Beijing and Chengdu films for $43,000 (RMB300,000) to a Chinese LGBT platform — which was subsequently wiped from the internet entirely just months later as authorities cracked down on such fare.
A number of LGBT projects and creators who have hit dead ends in China are trickling over to Taiwan now instead, where Taiwanese partners “are breathing a second life into them,” said Lin.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any state-affiliated Chinese organizations getting up on stage to proclaim their commitment to gay rights, as Taiwan Public Television’s president Tsao Wen-Chieh did at the summit when she took the stage to describe their recent LGBT-focused programming and her commitment to developing more.
“We’re not doing what we do for the money, but so that society can be more diverse and more open, and for people to better understand each other and [be] more accepting,” she said.
Jennifer Jao, director of the semi-governmental Taipei Film Commission, also told a personal story of how she overcame her own early prejudices against LGBT people, before encouraging LGBT content creators in the room to reach out for her organization’s support. “We’re behind you, supporting you. Friends, you’re not alone.”