Territory Reports: Korea

HOLLYWOOD — If South Korea was a champagne-drinking nation, the corks would be flying over the most successful year ever for the nation’s filmmaking biz. In turn, the market for imported indie fare has lost much of its fizz.

According to the Korea Film Commission, local pics captured all top five slots for 2001, with another finishing in tenth. Hollywood blockbusters, including “Shrek,” took the remainder of the year’s top 10.

Korean pics about gangsters performed like gangbusters over the past year. The somber “Friend” was the year’s No. 1 — and all-time — top grosser; “Kick the Moon,” and comedy “My Wife Is a Gangster” took third nd fourth spots; “Hi, Dharma,” No. 5; and “Gun & Talks” took the 10th spot on the B.O. chart. Offbeat love story “My Sassy Girl” took the second slot. Despite the seemingly similarity of themes, auds were wowed by the fresh take and energetic performances of the homegrown productions.

Imports on decline

In the wake of this blossoming domestic success, sellers at the American Film Market should not expect the zealous throngs of Koreans from years past.

“I’ve noticed a big drop in Korean buyers attending the markets in 2001,” says veteran importer Gene Yoo of Hana Media, who has been attending AFM annually for nearly two decades.

Over the years, Yoo’s marketing savvy has helped turn challenging films like “The Shawshank Redemption” into hits at the Korean box office. But this time around, his mood is distinctly gloomy.

Imported films screened in 2001 declined to around 200 from an average of 300 in previous years, with independent fare feeling the biggest squeeze.

Says another veteran of the game, producer Jonathan Kim of Han Mac Films, “I’m not too keen on buying anymore foreign films.” Instead, Kim is focusing on putting together his own movie projects.

According to projections by the Korea Film Commission, domestic films took a record 49.5 % of the nation’s B.O. last year, making Korea one of the few nations to take on the Hollywood giant and win. U.S. fare had to settle for around 30%, with the remainder going to imports from Japan and the rest of the world.

All in all, Korean films experienced quite a comeback from a nadir of 15.4% market share in 1993.

Overall attendance increased by 28.4% to an estimated 84 million admissions, with the biggest chunk of the uptick attributed to Korean films. (Ticketing outside major urban areas remains largely uncomputerized and final tallies may not be available until March.) Average ticket price last year was 6,000 won ($4.50).

Sellers shine

But while Korean buyers heading to AFM may be less than fired up, sellers have a much greater opportunity to shine.

Suh Young-joo, managing director of sales agent Cineclick Asia, became the first to broker U.S. remake rights of a Korean film with the sale of “My Wife Is a Gangster” to Miramax for a reported $950,000. Her firm also represents “Friend” and “Hi, Dharma,” among other titles.

It has become easier to introduce Korean films to foreign buyers, says Suh. “So now our goal is looking for (better) distributors, not simple buyers, to expect back-end benefit from the distribution in foreign territories.”

Of the 132 U.S. films screened in Korea last year, 59 (44.7%) were imported directly by companies such as WB and UIP, and 73 (55.3%) were imported independently by Korean companies like CJ Entertainment and Cinema Service.

The number of Indies imported this year is likely to decrease quite a bit. studio: 44.7% indie: 55.3%

S. Korean titles at AFM:

My Wife Is a Gangster

Pic shatters the mold of the put-upon wife in its tale of a tough gal who marries a mild-mannered fellow to please a dying sister. Sales: Cineclick Asia

Kick the Moon

Comedy is a role-reversal story of two school chums. The more timid one grows up to be a cutthroat gangster; his friend, an aggressive street fighter, turns into a straight-arrow gym teacher. Go figure. Sales: Cinema Service

Hi, Dharma

A group of gangsters hide out in a Buddhist monastery. When the gatecrashers won’t leave, it’s the real monks who cause a dustup. Sales: Cineclick Asia

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