[TURNING 20] Cinecube marks 20th year of success by sticking to the rules

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[TURNING 20] Cinecube marks 20th year of success by sticking to the rules

Kang Shin-woong, CEO of Tcast, poses for photos prior to an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. [TCAST]

Kang Shin-woong, CEO of Tcast, poses for photos prior to an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. [TCAST]

The Korea JoongAng Daily is turning 20 this year and to celebrate we will be bringing you 20 coming-of-age stories whose subjects range from people to animals to organizations, all of which have also turned 20. 
Cinecube is one of the rare cinemas in Korea that specializes in indie and art films and is always bustling with visitors regardless of the time of the year.
There are three rules at Cinecube: visitors are only allowed to bring in water; the doors to the theater will shut 10 minutes after the movie begins, which does so without any commercials; and those who do arrive in time will have to stay seated until all the credits have finished rolling. It’s definitely not the place for people accustomed to multiplex cinemas armed with all sorts of food and entertainment — plus, it goes against the idea of all commercial cinemas whose main goal is to attract visitors with mind-blowing blockbuster hits and a variety of other experiences to top it off.
Yet, Cinecube is celebrating its 20th anniversary, having taken a much different path to success. 
“It’s just like at the Cannes Film Festival, you would only focus on the film because the films are good and that’s what you’re there for,” said Kang Shin-woong, CEO of network Tcast which operates Cinecube. “Our rules may be inconvenient and analogue in a way, but our goal is to provide the best environment for people who are here just for the movies. We’re grateful that Cinecube has been running without deficits, but we won’t be changing our methods. We have a strong position on that.”
Cinecube Gwanghwamun in central Seoul [TCAST]

Cinecube Gwanghwamun in central Seoul [TCAST]

Inside Cinecube Gwanghwamun [TCAST]

Inside Cinecube Gwanghwamun [TCAST]

Cinecube first opened its doors to the public in December 2000 in the bustling neighborhood of central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun on the basement level of the Heungkuk Life headquarters building. The no food, no late arrivals and no leaving until the credits are finished rules were set out from day one at Cinecube which was founded by film company Baekdu-Daegan Film. Heungkuk did not receive rental fees and agreed to split any profits fifty-fifty. Cinecube had been seeing an average of 180,000 moviegoers annually — an astonishing number for an art film house. But still, making ends meet without commercials or selling food was no walk in the park.
Naturally, when Tcast took over in 2009, concerns arose in the film industry about a television network that it would easily change the rules and damage the integrity of Cinecube with million-dollar blockbusters and popcorn machines. But Tcast stuck to what made Cinecube, Cinecube and continues to play art films and films that promote diversity. Films that are being screened as of August include “Water Lilies” (2020), “In The Tracks of Alexandre Desplat” (2020) and “Young Ahmed” (2020).
In fact, Cinecube is not the only means through which Tcast aims to promote diversity. Its TV channel CineF also celebrates its 10th anniversary this year as Korea’s only female movie channel. It was the first to incorporate the F-Rating system — which is a rating given to films that are either directed by a female auteur, written by a female playwright or features a female character as a leading role in the narrative — and CineF makes sure that one in three films that are broadcast on its channel are F-Rated. Diversity films, which are films that are classified as art films and indie films by the Korean Film Council, also took up 41 percent of all films broadcast on CineF last year.
“We would not have run these businesses this way if our goal had been to make money,” said Kang. “But they’re a part of our cultural businesses — a corporation mécénat. It was never our goal to make money with them. There is a mismatch between our methods and the demand, but it inevitably arises from cultural projects. But since we have made it without losses even with our non-money-seeking management methods, it’s given us the confidence that we need to stick to what we have been doing.”
An image from "Sporty Sisters," a reality show featuring some of Korea's biggest female sports players that airs on Tcast's E Channel. [TCAST]

An image from "Sporty Sisters," a reality show featuring some of Korea's biggest female sports players that airs on Tcast's E Channel. [TCAST]

While keeping to traditions with Cinecube, Tcast endeavors to venture into a newer realm of content through the other platforms on its hands, namely in content production and distribution. Tcast has started aggressively creating its own television programs since earlier this year, as it readies itself for its launch into the online digital platform in the form of OTT services. Behind all of Tcast’s decisions is Kang, who uses his experience and vision from having started out his career as a producer in the 1990s and working with various companies such as Samsung’s New Media Department, MBC and the JoongAng Television Broadcast.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with CEO Kang for an interview, to look back on the past and future of film and video content. The following are edited excerpts.
The theater inside Cinecube Gwanghwamun [TCAST]

The theater inside Cinecube Gwanghwamun [TCAST]

Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of Cinecube. It must have been hard running an art film cinema, so is there a reason why Tcast jumped to the challenge?
At first, the film industry was definitely challenging for us. The field had been almost torn apart after the economic depression of the 1990s, and I myself hadn’t been acquainted with art films in the past. But we found that just like anywhere else in the market, there was an audience there.

When we first decided to operate Cinecube, I insisted that it should be kept as a separate company from the other film or content businesses to make sure that its integrity wouldn’t be damaged or interfered with by the other commercial projects. But the company was resolute, saying it would benefit Cinecube by allowing it to carry on without making money and letting the other businesses pay for it instead. They were right and thanks to that, Cinecube can continue without resorting to unwanted methods to make ends meet.
What do you think is the one thing that makes Cinecube different from all other cinemas in Korea?
We have one goal with Cinecube, and that is to make a cinema that people can come to knowing that the films here will be worth watching. The most important thing is curation, which is, deciding what film to premiere and when. The decision process itself is curation, and good curation leads to trust from the consumers. They can trust the cinema to come and like the films they watch here, even when they don’t come to the cinema with a specific film in mind. They can have a stroll around the neighborhood — which has nice spots like the Gyeonghui Palace and restaurants — and pop in for a movie.
Tcast and Cinef

Tcast and Cinef

CineF is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year as well. Was it a part of the cultural business of Tcast to run a film channel that focuses on diversity films?
It’s true that the inception of CineF was much influenced by Cinecube. And just like when we started running Cinecube, we were prepared to not make money out of CineF. There are famous film channels in Korea like OCN and CGV, and Tcast also has commercial film channels like Fox and Screen. CineF definitely sees less viewership than Screen, but there is a loyal fandom for the channel. The awareness and preference for the channel is steadily rising, which has allowed us to keep running it without a hitch.
What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to curation?
I started out my career at an advertisement production company and as a producer, so I have always been sensitive to what people prefer and how they react to certain content. And as a producer, I realized that content is all about the act of choices. When you edit something, the simple act of deciding which part will go where leads to the creation of a content, but that’s not just it. What to shoot, how to shoot it and how to present it — these are all part of the choices that we must make, and those choices lead to different reactions from people. I think this is the basis of curation.

The most important thing is understanding the audience. When we first took on Cinecube, the first thing I did was to see who our audiences were. How old are they? What are their jobs? How much do they earn and what do they watch? It wasn’t done well, because back then the idea was just not widely accepted in the film industry. Many of the choices were made based on intuition; things like, this actor is guaranteed for success, or this director will do this.

But this is the reason OTT services do well these days. For instance with Netflix, viewers can self-program the itinerary for themselves, but with TV channels, it’s set out by the operators. Television tells you to wait until this certain hour of the day if you want to watch this, but on Netflix and OTT services, self-programming allows you to watch what you want at anytime of the day. Their recommendation algorithm even allows them the convenience of choice, and that’s their No. 1 asset: taking the same data and using it differently to recommend just the right content for each user.
Kang Shin-woong, CEO of Tcast, poses for photos prior to an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. [TCAST]

Kang Shin-woong, CEO of Tcast, poses for photos prior to an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. [TCAST]

Does that mean that Tcast will also be jumping into the OTT business soon?
We do think that ultimately, we should run an OTT business along with our program providing business. But I think that the OTT service we see now will change. OTT services are like large-scale department stores at the moment: it has movies, dramas, reality shows and whatnot. But I think they will change into “skinny bundle” types in the future, because viewers can’t pay 14,000 won [$12] for Netflix and 7,000 won for Disney Plus and keep adding to their list.

I like sports and documentaries, so they’re virtually the only channels that I turn on at home. In a similar way, people won’t be willing to pay double, triple for the same content consumption. And in the end, people will end up choosing little packages that have only the things that they like. I think the market will divide into smaller sectors and there, the goal is to take a certain part of that division as our business.  
Are there any specific plans in mind for OTT's launch?
Once again, the most important thing is curation. And the safest way to ensure a secure amount of content to curate is to create our own items. That’s why we have been creating our own content this year. Rather than take other people’s content, we aim to create our own. And in the future if we accumulate a library of our items, then we can start our own service.

But focusing on new media just because it’s new won’t be profitable. Content must always be consumed with advertisement in the bigger frame, because without it, the cost of consumption for the users is set too high. Advertisers have to pay for me so that I don’t have to pay the entire price of that content. Fortunately, Korean people are becoming more accustomed to paying for content and the number of one-person households is rising. With that, platforms will also divide. But television won’t just fall apart because of OTT services. There is still the advantage of live broadcasting, and that won’t go away.  
BY YOON SO-YEON    [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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