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Saying Sayonara to Screen Quotas
Korean filmmakers are winning big at the box office, leaving Seoul to reconsider protectionism
Todd Thacker (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-06-13 12:56 (KST)   
Minister of Culture and Tourism Lee Chang Dong
©2004 Nam S.Y.

It was an abrupt about-face for the staunch film industry ally.

On Friday the Minister of Culture and Tourism and former film director, Lee Chang Dong, announced to a film industry civic group that the state of Korea's film industry is strong enough to merit the examination of a "reduction, alteration and change" of Seoul's policy of screen quotas in the domestic market.

It has always been a thorny issue. At stake are the implications of going head-to-head with the "cultural imperialism" of Hollywood, a heavy-handed entertainment juggernaut that has every nation's film industry quaking in its boots.

Lee was quick to point out that if any changes to the system result in harm to the industry, his Ministry would promptly reinstate the quotas. Later, a Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson took pains to clarify that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is examining changes based on "the promotion of diversity in the local film world" rather than any ongoing trade negotiations with the United States.

Supporters of screen quotas have long cited the danger Hollywood poses to cultural diversity. For decades Korean films had an uphill battle when competing with higher-quality, big-budget Hollywood productions.

Actors, directors and producers staged loud demonstrations advocating the need for the preservation of Korea's national cultural identity in its comparatively fledgling film industry.

Yet with domestic blockbusters like "Silimdo" (2003) and "Taeguki" (2004) cleaning up at the box office, and Korean films like Im Kwon Taek's "Chihwaseon" (2002) and Park Chan Wook's "Old Boy" (2003) winning at Cannes, Kim Ki Duk's Samaria (2004) winning at Berlin, and Lee Chang Dong taking the best director's prize for "Oasis" (2002) at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, this argument is rapidly losing its luster.

A growing number of industry insiders are taking the view that quotas, by flying in the face of free market principles, actually weaken the competitiveness of the Korean film industry. Where domestic sales were the bottom line for production companies, they now see international sales as a goldmine waiting to be tapped, in addition to being a point of national pride.

Last year, Korean films garnered eight of the domestic top 10 grossing films, with Bong Joon Ho's "Memories Of Murder" (2003) coming in top spot. In Seoul alone, nearly 2 million people went to packed cinemas to see it. Hollywood's big-budget "The Matrix Reloaded" (2003) came in an uncharacteristic third place, with just 1.5 million tickets sold.

Domestic films now account for 40 percent market share, a magic number commonly cited by the government as a cut-off point for the need for quotas. Industry watchers point to a tipping point sometime around 2000, when blockbusters "Shiri" (1998) and "JSA" (2000) ignited excitement and patriotic sentiments in audiences nationwide. Since then, the film industry has benefited from increased financial backing and political clout the local and national levels.

A recent Korean Film Commission (KOFIC) report announced that Korean films accounted for 53 percent of total sales. Ticket sales in Seoul, which accounts for about half of all tickets sold in the country, jumped 8.9 percent from last year, a figure KOFIC expects to continue to rise with the expansion of multiplex cinemas, which appeared on the scene in 1998 and tilted the balance in favor of more screens, and thus more revenue, for Korean film industry.

The KOFIC report went on to say that 43.2 percent of Seoul movie-goers saw Hollywood films, 3 percent saw Japanese films, 2.5 percent Chinese/Hong Kong films, 0.7 percent French films and 0.8 percent other.

With young Korean directors rising to the challenge of making internationally recognized films and eclipsing other countries' burgeoning film industries, some talk of a film renaissance here. But the question on everyone's mind is whether Korean film production companies can build on these recent successes, to hold their own against Hollywood.

The answer is now emerging, and it points to a definitive, "Yes."

In a recent international edition of Newsweek, a five-page special cover story detailed the emergence of Korean blockbusters. Newsweek said the former trend of the Korean film industry copying Hollywood is now being turned on its head. The rights to such Korean movies as "My Sassy Girl," "Phone" and "A Tale of Two Sisters" have been bought up by Hollywood and are being remade.

The article pointed to the nearly decade old Busan International Film Festival, which it said is being touted as "Cannes East" by the Seoul government and industry leaders. Movie deals, film financing and domestic exports are all on the table during the two-week, autumn extravaganza.

And with more recognition by the world's critics and moviegoers, domestic and international sales and spin-off revenue is getting attention from even the staunchest protectionists. Popular Korean films abroad are opening the doors to lucrative distribution deals and sales of videocassettes and DVDs. And as seen with the New Zealand "Lord of the Rings" franchise, tourism can get a big shot in the arm by an international hit.

Many argue that the quotas are hindering, rather than helping, the industry.

U.S. trade officials have repeatedly asked Seoul to implement a 20 percent cap on quotas before moving to a phasing-out of the practice altogether. Last July, the assistant U.S. trade representative for North Asian affairs Wendy Cutler told reporters at a news conference that "the U.S. would not conclude a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) without Korea adequately addressing its concerns about the quota system."

The issue of screen quotas and cultural protectionism hit headlines six years ago when the then presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung made a campaign promise to maintain the nearly 40-year-old quota system until a 40 percent market share for Korean movies could be guaranteed.

Once in power, Kim kept his promise, resulting in the postponement of the BIT. This situation remains to this day. Any theater owner who breaks this law is subject to hefty fines in the range of 5 million won per screen.

The quota system was put in place by the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee in 1963. Korea's film industry was green enough to require protection, they said, though many at that time thought the government was more interested in reigning in a free flow of "leftist" ideas.

Subsequent regimes like Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship upped the number of days Korean films were required to appear on silver screens to 165 days. This was dropped to 146 days by the late 1980s.

Korean Films Take the Top Eight
2003 Top Ten Admissions for Seoul

1. Memories Of Murder (Kr), CJ Entertainment - 1,912,725
2. My Tutor Friend (Kr), CJ Entertainment - 1,630,937
3. The Matrix Reloaded (U.S.),Warner Bros - 1,596,000
4. Untold Scandal (Kr), CJ Entertainment - 1,292,951
5. LOTR: The Return Of The King (U.S.-NZ), CJ Entertainment - 1,221,545
6. Old Boy (Kr), Show East - 1,140,000
7. A Tale Of Two Sisters (Kr) Chungeorahm - 1,017,027
8. The Greatest Expectation (Kr), CJ Entertainment - 960,598
9. Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield (Kr), Cineworld/Cinema Service - 960,394
10. Oh! Brothers (Kr), Showbox - 952,010 / KOFIC
©2004 OhmyNews

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