[VIEWPOINT]The antiquated quota system
We expected it would happen sometime, so we were more concerned about the timing and scale of the action.
The minister of culture and tourism, Lee Chang-dong, had spearheaded the opposition to the reduction or scrapping of the movie screen quota with a firm tone for a long time. But surprisingly, it was he who gave notice in a meeting with filmmakers of the inevitability of “adjustment and change.” This amounts to the declaration by the ministry that there would be a big change in the policy.
Because of the discussions on a bilateral investment treaty with the United States, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade advocated the abolition or gradual reduction of the screen quota, and President Roh Moo-hyun also began to talk about “reduction” occasionally since November of last year. The prediction of reductions at some point came true as a specific announcement.
The screen quota system, which was implemented in 1967, has been considered a wart on the chin of both film producers and theaters, despite its declared cause of protecting Korean movies. The producers, who are also distributers of imported films, wanted deep in their hearts to have a few more days to show foreign films, and theaters also preferred foreign films to the Korean movies, whose box-office attractiveness was unsure.
But since the import of movies was liberalized, productions and theaters have responded sensitively to the enforcement of the screen quota system and have sometimes even come into hostile conflict. Productions, which couldn’t make profits from importing foreign films any more, began to strongly ask theaters to observe the screen quota system, whereas theaters have resisted this demand. Moviegoers distrusted Korean movies, theaters avoided them, and the film productions failed to stand on their own feet despite the strong support from the quota system. When Korean movies were not equipped with competitiveness, the cause of protecting them only led to repeated controversies without meeting initial expectations.
Paradoxically, what raised the competitiveness of Korean movies was not the institutional protection but the situation in the market, where only fierce effort and determination were important. In the situation where producers had to choose whether they would withdraw from the film industry or make desperate efforts to survive, they struggled to find out what movies audiences wanted, increased their technological capabilities and developed new market strategies. The upgrading and diversification of theaters was also an important factor to their survival.
Korean movies such as “Seopyeonje,” “Two Cops” and “Wedding Story” are the specific results of these efforts and “Shiri” was the highlight. The recent popularity of those Korean movies, that was followed by “Silmido” and “Taegukgi,” proved that the stability of Korean movies was not just a temporary phenomenon. Now neither producers nor theaters are distressed with the screen quota. As the competitiveness of Korean movies recovers, theaters come to have no reason to complain about the system, and producers also have no reasons to argue with theaters, which run more Korean movies than prescribed.
Although film is a culturally and industrially important area, Korean movies cannot exist alone. In a reality where the box-office receipts of Korean movies increases every year, their market share reaches 50 percent, and their overseas distribution increases, to invoke “the invasion of foreign films into the domestic market” and “cultural sovereignty” is excessive exaggeration and emotional instigation.
Foreign movies have already been distributed in the domestic market without any restrictions. Even if the screen quota system disappears, there are slim chances that more foreign films, particularly, American movies, would be distributed. Theaters base their choice of movies entirely on business judgment and the basis of their judgment is the preferences and trends of the audience.
The cinema industry needs to pay attention to demanding the support of other factors, such as production funds and guarantees of distribution networks, and in enhancing competitiveness rather than adhering to the quota system, which has lost its usefulness.
As we did in the demonstrations against the direct distribution of foreign movies in 1988, will we repeat the same “failure of negotiations” in which we ended up only opening the market without coming up with any alternatives?
* The writer, a film critic, is a professor of cinema studies at Sangmyung University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Hee-moon