Indie filmmakers ask: ‘Quota for whom?’
The film broke the nation’s box office record earlier this month, attracting over 10 million viewers in less than three weeks. It’s gotten rave reviews from critics ― some Japanese critics have dubbed the director, Bong Joon-ho, the “Korean Akira Kurosawa.” Japanese fans will be able to deny or confirm that on their own: the film will be released in 250 Japanese theaters next month.
So are the movie’s producers laughing their way to the bank? Not yet ― the film’s success stands on a trap door called the screen quota system, a law that forces owners of theaters to screen a certain number of Korean films. Starting July 1, that number was cut in half, despite a series of heated protests in support of the regulation by those in the industry, including the film’s director and the leading actor, Song Gang-ho.
Lost in the debate is the fact that the quota’s reduction has led to a dearth of small, independent films, especially low-budget Korean films that had barely survived in the past under the quota’s protection.?
The opponents of the reduction still insist that a reduction in the quota, which was lowered as a precondition for talks on a free trade agreement with the United States, will lead to Hollywood dominating the film industry and market in Korea. The government argues that the Korean film industry is strong enough to stand on its own.
It certainly looks that way. “The Host” showed that Korean blockbusters could outmuscle both Korean and foreign rival blockbusters. The film opened in 620 movie theaters with 1,600 screens nationwide, accounting for 40 percent of Korean theaters. “Hanbando,” a big-budget Korean political thriller, played at 448 theaters.
Those in the film industry say many Korean producers are holding back their releases, waiting until the major summer blockbusters disappear.
“There are 120 Korean films being produced in Korea this year,” wrote Choi Gong-jae, an independent film director, in his column for the online newspaper “New Right.” “The number is going to be higher if we count unregistered films such as the one I’m working on now. But I wonder how many of these films would get a chance for a screening this year. If films like ‘The Host’ come out in Korea every summer, we’re likely to see an average of less than 20 Korean films a year. Even if they compete with other blockbusters, they’ll fail miserably in the box office. So what about films that won’t even get released at all? You can draw a clear picture of a cultural tsunami in Korea.”
In fact, the government’s indifference to independent films had been criticized even by successful Korean independent directors. Kim Ki-duk, an arthouse film icon, screened his film, “The Bow,” at Cannes, but in Korea it opened in a single theater, had no press screening and drew less than 1,400 viewers. Kim recently announced in an open letter to the press that he would retire from the Korean film industry.
Not that Kim is in a hard spot: The man is an art-film superstar in Europe. His films have been sold to European distributors for millions of dollars.
“The Host” has been so dominant that some people have suggested turning the screen quota around, onto big-budget Korean films.
One option is a minority quota, which would require Korean theaters to screen a certain number of small, independent films ― both Korean and foreign ― that would otherwise be a financial risk for the theater owners.
Cheon Yeong-se, a representative from the Democratic Labor Party, said he will submit a bill later this month that would limit a single film to 30 percent of theater screenings for theaters with more than five screens. The bill would also make it mandatory for multiplex theaters ― those with more than eight screens ― to set aside one of their spaces for alternative films. The bill would dovetail with the announcement by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism earlier this year of a plan to expand the number of arthouse theaters in Korea, to protect smaller Korean films after the quota is cut.
But theaters that play small independent films continue to see heavy losses. After Core Art Hall was closed down in 2004, its affiliate chain, Cine Core, which played a mix of non-mainstream foreign films and independent Korean films, closed down in June due to financial difficulties. Seoul Arts Cinema, another arthouse theater, has been conducting a major campaign with the help of big-name directors as a way to draw attention to classic cinema.
CGV, a multiplex chain run by CJ Entertainment, is currently operating “indie screens” in four locations, setting aside screens with 90 to 178 seats apiece to play Korean independent films. The company said, however, that it has lost an estimated 1 billion won ($1 million) annually and that the audiences for the independent films will be half the average occupancy of that for blockbusters.
Currently, six arthouse theaters nationwide are partly funded by the Korea Film Council, which is affiliated with the Culture Ministry. But even with the support most theaters suffer major losses, according to Kim Bo-yeon, an official at the Korean Film Council.
“The practical solution is to make the current conditions for arthouse theaters more flexible so that theaters can play a good mix of commercial films and arthouse films with less risk,” Mr. Kim said.
At least three-fifths of the films screened at arthouse theaters funded by the council must be independent films, according to the council’s regulations. The Culture Ministry had originally planned to expand the number of arthouse theaters supported by the council from six theaters to 100. Experts say that was simply unrealistic, because it placed an inordinate financial risk on theater owners. There might not have even been enough arthouse films to supply so many theaters, much less arthouse cinema fans.
Theater owners are also being attacked by distributors, who say they deserve a more equitable share of the profits from the screenings of Korean films. Currently, distributors and owners split profits 40-60 for foreign films and 50-50 for Korean ones.
“We know the audience for arthouse films is still there,” said Song Il-gon, the independent film director of “Magicians.” “It’s an obligation for us to make an environment in which people can see films that show a diverse array of values. But most theaters don’t wait long enough for word to spread about the films. That’s the only way for small, independent films to attract attention, because there is so little money spent on the film’s marketing and PR, but the reality is that they close after two weeks.”
by Park Soo-mee