[VIEWPOINT]Film industry under pressure

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[VIEWPOINT]Film industry under pressure

Director Kang Woo-suk, arguably one of the most powerful figures in the Korean film industry, recently accused certain movie stars of asking for too much money. This caused the two actors Mr. Kang mentioned to hold a news conference and demand a public apology from him.
As the case is treated as a contest for hegemony between production and management companies, many are watching the duel with interest. However, the essence of the case, the structural contradiction and crisis of the Korean film industry, has not been properly examined.
After a boom in the last few years, the Korean film industry is heading toward a fatal catastrophe. Since August 2004, the number of moviegoers has been falling every month. Box office sales for Korean movies have fallen by 33.4 percent in the first five months in 2005 compared to the same period last year.
In economics, a recession is defined as negative growth for two consecutive quarters. In a normal nation, the public would criticize the government policy, and then the administration might change. However, the Korean Film Council, which is operated with taxpayers’ money, has committed the folly of misreading the cause of the industry’s sluggishness, blaming it on a lack of good films or a cyclical drop before the high season.
However, the Korean film industry is facing a structural crisis, not a cyclical drop, resulting from a combination of different contradictions and changes in industrial conditions. The system that created the resurgence in Korean film has become a victim of its own success.
During the boom, the film industry attracted audiences by raising a huge visual industry fund, using carpet bombing-style marketing and advertisements and offering discount tickets. These tactics brought about miraculous results. Scales of production grew bigger, movies became a leader of popular culture and more Koreans flocked to the movie theaters.
But they caused some unintended consequences: Korean stars now get twice as much as what Japanese actors are paid; movies are either a blockbuster or a disaster at the box office; the price system of the industry has collapsed and the film market has shrunk. Therefore, the stars’ demands for an excessive paycheck are the last outcome of the structural contradiction of the film industry.
The second crisis the film industry faces is the change in trends ― the focus of popular culture is moving from movies to television and sports. The three television networks are leading the so-called Korean culture wave with their drama series, and soccer player Park Chu-young is creating a sports boom.
However, a more serious crisis comes from the technology innovation represented by large-screen televisions and mobile phones with digital multimedia broadcasting features. The IT industry is advertising the large, flat-screen televisions as ideal for home theaters and the DMB phones as mobile theaters. Even as we speak, countless movie theaters are sprouting up in living rooms and in the palms of cell phone users.
The video technology revolution is frightening the global film industry. In Europe and Japan, movie audiences have fallen by 10 to 20 percent. The United States is going through a historic box office recession, and a survey showed that 73 percent of Americans prefer watching movies on DVD or cable at home instead of at a movie theater.
However, in Korea’s case, the technological threat is combined with the systematic problems and the entertainment trends, and a catastrophic tsunami might be waiting to destroy the film industry.
Mr. Kang was harsh but correct to blame the stars who ask for huge stakes in profits and in production for driving the Korean film industry into a crisis. However, the producers themselves also have to take responsibility for pushing the industry into an extreme game of money.
Both producers and actors have contributed to the growth of the Korean film industry in recent years. This isn’t the time to criticize one side or pick a fight. Instead, they must examine the structural contradiction of the jeopardized film industry and find a solution. Just as they joined forces to defend the screen quota system, they have to come together again to save the Korean film industry.

* The writer, a film critic, is a professor of film at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kang Han-sup
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