Biz now eyes foreign fields as local pics continue B.O. run

Is the Korean film industry firing on all cylinders, or stricken with a case of irrational exuberance? That is the question as the year 2006 adds even more superlatives to the recent performance of Korean cinema. As money pours into the biz, production is booming, setting off a mad scramble for experienced crew members and equipment (producers have taken to borrowing cameras from Japan and China).

More than 100 commercial features are expected to be shot this year, placing even more pressure on a release schedule that was bursting at the seams over the peak winter season.

Meanwhile, amid this frenzied rate of production, local audiences appear to be growing even more partisan. Allowing for the fact that the strongest Hollywood films will be released in summer, not a single imported film topped the box office between January and mid-April, and a list of the 10 top-grossing features released in 2006 consists of nine local pics and “Memoirs of a Geisha” squeezing in at No. 10. (“Pride & Prejudice” ranks as one of the few imported titles to generate strong word of mouth, with a $5.5 million take in four weeks.)

Most notable in terms of box office performance has been “King and the Clown,” a moderately budgeted period film about a love triangle between a mad king and two court jesters. Despite its gay subtext, the film shocked observers by rocketing past “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War” to earn a record $83 million (12.3 million admissions) over four months. Yet box office success has been broad-based. Leading exhibition firm CGV estimates that local market share stood at 76.4% in the first quarter.

Statistics like these have caught the attention of investors. One major source of production finance has been the listing of production companies such as MK Pictures and Hanmac Films on the stock market, often through reverse acquisitions or mergers with larger firms. At the same time, Korea’s three major telcos — SK Telecom, KTF and LG Telecom — are anxious to secure content for newly emerging windows on mobile phones and portable devices. In 2005, SK and KTF purchased leading stakes in film companies iHQ and Sidus FNH, respectively.

With plenty of capital and highly supportive audiences, can anything slow down the Korean film industry? The MPAA scored a long-sought-after victory in January when the Korean government agreed to halve the nation’s screen quota system, meaning local theaters can screen imported films for up to 80% of the year if they so choose.

Given the current strength of local films, exhibitors are expected to continue to give the majority of screening days to local films, regardless of where the quota is set. Yet this has struck the industry at its most sensitive spot, as continued weakness in ancillary markets mean that producers rely almost entirely on theatrical receipts and international sales for revenues.

Expect Korean filmmakers to take advantage of the spotlight at Cannes to protest the weakening of quotas.

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