A nation where artists literally starve

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

A nation where artists literally starve


‘If employment insurance was extended to cover artists, they could receive the minimum unemployment benefits needed to survive, and it would raise them out of extreme poverty.’ - Theater Professor Chai Seung-hoon

It was a shock to the nation. The lifeless body of a successful and talented screenwriter was found in her small, unheated home on Feb. 8. Beside her body lay a handwritten note begging her landlord for rice and kimchi. In the short letter, Choi Go-eun repeatedly apologized for failing to pay her electricity bill.

The 31-year-old died of complications stemming from hyperthyroidism and pancreatitis. Her colleagues say her death was avoidable, and Koreans struggled to comprehend how someone so seemingly successful could have led such a desolate life.

Since Choi’s death, she has become something of a martyr for impoverished artists across the country. Professional musicians, writers and actors say they have long suffered from unfairly low wages, while at the same time they are excluded from state-sponsored welfare.

In the wake of the screenwriter’s tragic death, a string of measures have been proposed to protect film industry workers. Sweeping bills covering everything from the entertainment industry’s well-known contractual problems to the extension of welfare provisions to artists have been submitted to the National Assembly by both the Grand National Party and the Democratic Party.

Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choung Byoung-gug held a roundtable discussion last month aimed at getting to the bottom of the problems that have long plagued professional artists.

Choi’s untimely death brought back memories of musician Lee Jin-won, who went by a stage name that translates to “A Moonlight Fairy’s Come Back with a Grand Slam Home Run.” Lee released seven albums before passing away on Nov. 1 last year at the age of 37.

His death brought to attention the entertainment industry’s profit
distribution scheme between major music portals and musicians, which critics have long labeled unfair.

What’s eating artists?

Choi was a nameless screenwriter before her talents were recognized for her piece “Passionate Sonata” (2006), which won the Face in Shorts award at the Asiana International Short Film Festival that year.

Despite her talents, she could not sustain herself. Found near her body was her cell phone, which had been cut off because she hadn’t been paying her bills. When she did land screenwriting jobs, they often failed to pay her on time. In the note she posted on her landlord’s door, Choi indicated that she was owed money for past work and that she would be able to repay debts owed to her landlord once she was paid.

Unpaid wages are an industry-wide problem. According to the Federation of Korea Movie Workers’ Union, overdue wages in the film industry in 2009 totaled 1.7 billion won ($1.5 million).


On Jan. 27, almost 100 bands and hundreds of music lovers swarmed the Hongik University area to mark the first anniversary of the death of singer Lee Jin-won. [JoongAng Photo]

“Investments and the actual movie-making process begin only after the script is finished. So it’s hard for screenwriters to make a profit in this system, even though their work is crucial to any production,” explained Jo Hyun-kyung of the movie workers’ union.

“The contracts are vague in details. Even when a company says they will pay the writer 3 to 5 million won, the terms of the contract are never clarified,” said Jo. “There is a difference in being paid that sum in the course of one year than, let’s say, five years.”

This lack of financial stability leads to another problem. Many writers in Korea think of screenwriting as a stepping stone to directing. Most recently, screenwriter Park Hun-jung, famous for his screenplays for “I Saw the Devil” (2010) and “The Unjust” (2010), made his directorial debut earlier this month with “The Showdown.” The consequence is that professional screenwriters in Korea have no power to influence their own fates in the way they do in foreign countries.

In 2007 and 2008, the Writers Guild of America went on strike to claim a piece of the so-called “new media” pie. For years, they said, corporations were short-changing them on profits made from new forms of media such as DVD sales and revenue generated over the Internet. Many top television shows and films were put on hiatus during the strike. Eventually, production companies succumbed to the writers’ demands and adopted a fairer profit distribution scheme.

“All I can say is that we’re very envious of the situation in the United States,” said Jo. “We just simply do not have the manpower or the capacity to pull off something like that.”

The Federation of Korea Movie Workers’ Union only consists of five screenwriters. Although the Korea Script Writers’ Association also exists, it is not easy to join and lacks industry-wide influence.

The music industry is no better, which has three major problems, according to experts.

First, music profits are disproportionately skewed toward major content providers, such as Cyworld or Melon, while the artists who create the content get comparatively little. Singers say they have no choice but to accept unfair contracts since few other outlets exist to distribute music.

Second, subscribers to music portals do not pay per content but rather pay a lump sum for unlimited music downloads. Ultimately, it’s good for consumers and portals and a raw deal for artists.

The third problem is that content platforms tend to push only a small number of popular songs, making it harder for unknown musicians to break into the industry without the help of big-name publicists, who in turn force unfair contracts on the musicians. Here, both the artist and the consumer lose. Musicians struggle to make it big, and consumers are exposed to a limited number of new artists.

“Most indie artists have two jobs. They get into this business knowing that it’s hard to make money just by making music,” said Lee Moon-seek, head of the Korea Live Music Culture Promotional Association.

“So the perception that underground musicians have it worse than singers who often appear on television is wrong - the system itself is simply more favorable for content distributors,” he added.

The problem of unfair compensation is also felt by authors.


The death of two artists, musician Lee Jin-won (left) and screenwriter Choi Go-eun, reminded the nation of structural problems in the nation’s music and film industries. [JoongAng Photo]

Baek Heena, an author and illustrator of children’s books, said authors in Korea are treated no better. Baek rose to stardom with her first children’s book “Cloud Bread” in 2004, but the contract she signed with a publishing company stated that the content of the book belonged to the company, which is a widespread practice in the publishing industry.

“The industry is still growing, but I’m really concerned about these kinds of contracts,” said Baek. “For this reason, many authors and illustrators of children’s books often have side jobs to earn a living.”

Not enough money to go around

The director of the Korea Film Producers’ Association, Choi Hyun-yong, explained that production companies paid all of the costs to make a film before 2007. However, funds put up by production companies since then have been cut in half to cover losses from box office flops.

“In 2007, the average investment put up to make a film was about 3.2 billion won. Now, it’s 1.4 billion won,” said Choi. “Although there is a problem in the system itself, we [the industry] need to learn how to spread the risk fairer with all those involved.”

If the problem is not dealt with, Choi said that the only Korean movies produced in the near future will be from major production companies.

Another problem, said film director Kang Woo-suk, is that too many people want a cut of a shrinking pie. “There are simply too many people who wish to be in the film business. The Korean industry cannot accommodate them all. It started when several colleges started establishing theater and film departments, resulting in this overflow of manpower,” Kang said on the MBC radio program “Son Seok-hee’s Focus” on Feb. 12.

“But the number of films that are made in any given year is now half of what was made 10 years ago,” he added.

As the National Assembly deliberates bills to deal with unfair compensation for artists and to expand welfare benefits for them, grassroots campaigns are afoot to find solutions.

“Because bills and laws take forever to be passed, we have come up with our own resolutions to protect [vulnerable] artists in the industry, such as allowing the provision of unemployment benefits,” said Jo of the movie union. “The news of Choi’s death really propelled the urgency of these laws.”

Veteran artists say the most effective way to prevent tragic deaths like Choi Go-eun’s would be to extend government-backed employment insurance to artists. Under current Korean law, artists are only eligible to receive two of the four types of employment welfare schemes. Artists are cut off from employment and industrial accident welfare.

During a recent meeting between artists and Culture Minister Choung, veteran theater actress Park Jung-ja shared her experience of applying for a credit card.

“I was rejected by a credit card company about 20 years ago because the company thought [theater actresses] could not afford to pay for their credit card bills,” Park told reporters. “We always feel like we are standing on the edge of a cliff.”

An association of theater professors issued a statement urging the central government to pass a law guaranteeing a minimum standard of living for professional artists.

Said Chai Seung-hoon, a theater professor at the University of Suwon who heads the association of theater professors: “If employment insurance was extended to cover artists, they could receive the minimum unemployment benefits needed to survive, and it would raise them out of extreme poverty.”

By Sung So-young, Hannah Kim [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

Related Korean Article[중앙일보]
예술인 지원 ‘최고은법’ 통과시킨다
복지기금 조성 … 고용·산재보험 가입 허용
심재철·전병헌, 13개 법안 국회 처리키로

한나라당 심재철·민주당 전병헌 정책위의장은 27일 ‘예술인 복지 지원법안’ 개정안을 비롯해 민생 법안 13개를 3월 2일까지 처리키로 합의했다. ‘예술인 복지 지원법안’은 일명 ‘최고은법’이라 불린다. 시나리오 작가였던 최씨의 죽음이 이번 법안이 만들어지는 계기가 됐기 때문이다. 최씨는 지난달 말 경기도 안양시 월세방에서 지병과 굶주림에 시달리다 세상을 떠났다.

‘최고은법’은 전병헌 의장이 직접 발의했다. 전 의장은 18대 국회에서 2년간 국회 문화체육관광방송통신위원으로 활동했다. 이때 안성기·박중훈씨 등 영화배우들과 친분을 쌓으면서 예술인들의 경제적인 어려움에 대해 이해하게 됐다고 한다.

최고은 법안은 예술인의 복지활동 지원을 위해 ‘한국예술인복지재단’을 설립하고 예술인 복지기금을 조성하는 내용을 뼈대로 하고 있다. 예술인을 근로자로 간주해 고용보험이나 산재보험에 가입할 수 있게 했다.

2009년에도 당시 민주당 서갑원 의원(현재는 의원직 상실)이 이와 유사한 법안을 발의했으나 재정 악화를 걱정한 정부의 반대에 부닥쳐 법안 통과에 실패했었다. 그러나 이번에는 전 의장이 최고은씨 사건을 계기로 법안을 협상테이블에 다시 올려놓았고, 한나라당이 동의하면서 법안 통과 가능성이 커졌다. 전 의장은 “최씨의 사망을 계기로 사회적 공감대가 형성된 지금이 법안을 통과시킬 수 있는 적기”라며 “예술인들이 사회안전망 없이 방치된 것에 대해 정치권이 깊이 반성해야 한다”고 말했다.

한나라당 이군현 원내수석부대표도 “우리나라가 선진국이 되려면 문화콘텐트를 만들어 내는 예술인에 대한 처우 개선이 필요하다”며 “최고은씨 사건을 보면서 법안의 신속한 처리가 필요하다는 공감대가 당내에 형성됐다”고 말했다.

한편 이날 여야가 합의한 13개 민생법안 가운데는 보장성 보험금에 대해 채권추심행위를 금지하는 ‘채권추심법 개정안’, 성폭력 범죄로 유죄 선고를 받은 사람에게 의무적으로 ‘성폭력 치료 프로그램’을 이수하도록 규정한 ‘성폭력 범죄의 처벌 등에 관한 특례법’ 개정안 등이 포함돼 있다.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)