Americans looking for latest high-concept Korean pic for retooling

PUSAN, South Korea — Amid all the meetings that took place during the recent Pusan Promotion Plan (Nov. 18-20) about Asian co-production and cross-financing, there was only one thing that the burgeoning Yank contingent was really interested in: nabbing a tasty Korean morsel for Stateside remake.

From acquisition execs at Universal and Miramax to L.A.-based indie producers like Roger Garcia and Mike Macari, the main game in Pusan was hearing early buzz on — and grabbing screeners of — the latest high-concept Korean movie as they prowled the Paradise Hotel’s luxurious corridors and the sixth floor, where local sales companies had set up shop.

While this development isn’t new, the twist is that the relationship has become equally convenient for both parties on the Pacific Rim. Hollywood is still hungry for new ideas; and for the Koreans, remake rights offer a convenient hedge against looming problems, as well as against softening prices for theatrical rights.

Western buyers, in thrall to the festival circuit, generally favor artier fare, whereas remakes are mostly centered on comedies and romantic dramas — the hardest theatrical sell to the West.

Suh Young-joo, managing director of sales company Cineclick Asia, notes that, with local budgets escalating and P&A costs sometimes equaling or exceeding an average pic’s budget ($1.5 million-2million) thanks to rising TV, print and radio costs, the danger signs of an industry overheating are already apparent.

Recent big-budget flops of f/x titles “R U Ready” (tab: $6.7 million), “Yesterday” ($5 million) and “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” ($9.2 million) hit local pocketbooks and national pride hard.

Tcha Sung-jai, CEO of entertainment group Sidus Corp., raised the same red flag at a PPP confab, declaring that “the party is now over. Compared with the increase in sales, our market size hasn’t changed.”

From a broader perspective, a warning also is sounded by Pathe producer-cum-Asian film guru Pierre Rissient, who recently received the prestigious Ok Gwan (Jade Crown) from South Korea’s Culture Ministry for services to Korean film.

“Korean cinema is at a dangerous point if people think it’s so easy at the moment,” Rissient says. “The same happened in Taiwan and the Philippines, but the good times quickly stopped there.”

Since Cineclick sold U.S. remake rights on comedy “My Wife Is a Gangster” to Miramax for $950,000 in fall 2001, remake fever has gripped the South Korean industry. And Jennifer Muhn, international business director at Cinema Service, the country’s leading production-distribution conglom, makes no bones about it.

“We’re concentrating on the remake market,” Muhn tells Variety. Such deals can net sizable returns — typically from $300,000 to $750,000 — especially if a backend percentage on the remake (between 2.5% and 5%) is factored in.

With time-travel romance “Il Mare” and comedy “Marrying the Mafia” in development at WB, comedy-romance “My Sassy Girl” at DreamWorks and femme action drama “No Blood No Tears” under discussion with one studio, Cinema Service is atop the remake heap.

And in current hit “Jail Breakers,” which preemed at the Pusan Intl. Film Festival (Nov. 14-23), Cinema Service already has a new buzz title. An anarchic comedy centered on two escaped cons who have to break back into jail, Park Jung-woo’s inventive script seems to need only a translation and some small tweaks to equip it for U.S. auds.

Muhn says her company has excellent relations with U.S. brokers like Roy Lee, a Korean-American who placed many of the current remakes — “Roy’s done an excellent job, as he knows the top execs,”Muhn notes — but she doesn’t rule out direct negotiations in the future. “Roy’s done an excellent job, as he knows the top execs,” Muhn says. “We went ourselves to L.A. a while ago, but it’s more difficult for us to get access.”

Indie scouts Garcia and Macari have so far managed to berth “Hi, Dharma!”, a comedy about gangsters hiding out at a monastery, with MGM, and were in Pusan eeking other titles. Macari was the initial mover behind DreamWorks’ remake of Japanese psychothriller “The Ring.”

Following her early coup with “My Wife,” Cineclick’s Suh is high on the remake potential of “Saving My Hubby,” an “After Hours”-like odyssey by a ditzy young wife that offers a juicy role for any Yank actress who can replicate the offbeat appeal of Korean thesp Bae Du-na (from “Take Care of My Cat”).

Other screeners in U.S. scouts’ return baggage included romantic comedy “A Perfect Match”; “Break Out,” an escalating action-comedy set on a high-speed train; and crime comedy “Boss X-File,” about an elaborate police sting to catch a gangster.

But with South Korean cinema enjoying one of its most successful years ever, and what looks to end up as a 50% share of local B.O., the industry isn’t yet reliant on foreign deals. “If a film can work in the Korean market, we greenlight it,” Muhn says. “We don’t think about foreign sales at that stage. It’s too risky.” She adds that Cinema Service’s creative director, legendary helmer-producer Kang Woo-suk, has excellent commercial instincts honed from his own experience as a hit-maker.

Mirroring remarks by all sales execs, Jun Lee, European and Latin American sales director at conglom CJ Entertainment, admits that things aren’t getting any easier. “One of Europe’s best markets, France, has been affected by Canal Plus’ problems,” Lee says. And the B.O. flop there of costume actioner “Musa,” sold at a high price, hasn’t helped. Japanese buyers are also more conservative, as only “Shiri” and “Joint Security Area” really worked there, though Muhn hopes that the upcoming releases of martial arts fantasy “Volcano High” (Dec. 14) and “My Sassy Girl” (January) may change that situation.

Elsewhere in Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand are descibed as “quite developed” by sales execs and Taiwan as “just starting” (following the success of “Sassy Girl” and sleeper hit “My Way Home…”).

Between packed houses for PIFF, hardtops in Pusan were still riding high on local hits, including newcomers “Wet Dreams” (Korea’s first gross-out college sex comedy) and mystery romance “Addicted,” plus holdover biz for “Mafia” and well-tooled period item “YMCA Baseball Team,” a kind of “Lagaan”-type yarn centered on Korea’s first hitters.

In the short term, there’s no shortage of potentially exciting material coming down the pike. Though the Christmas period offers no local blockbusters — “We’re all steering clear this time of ‘Harry Potter,’ ” notes one exec — the coming months are thick with high-concept and buzz fare, from “Tube” (a terrorist on Seoul’s subway) and “Double Agent” (North-South spy drama) to serial-killer dramas “H” and “Memories of Murder,” plus super-terrorist suspenser “Deus Machina.”

Summing up the future, Rissient adds: “Veteran directors like Im Kwon-taek (of Cannes laureate “Chihwaseon”) will always be protected. But the way to keep the ball rolling is not only subsidies to the better directors but also to help distribution and exhibition of films within the country, to stimulate audiences’ interest in a wide variety of cinema.”

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