Abroad strokes

Film biz growth depends on overseas sales, regional co-productions

SEOUL Other national industries that struggle to compete against Hollywood may envy South Korea’s supportive local audiences and businesses. Nonetheless, many influential figures in the Korean industry recognize the danger of relying too much on the local market.

In the past several years, the Korean film industry has worked hard to expand its business activities to other parts of Asia, through co-productions, joint ventures and cooperative efforts in China, Vietnam, Japan and elsewhere.

Though motivated partly by the more intangible benefits of “soft power” — thanks to films and TV dramas, a whole generation of Asian youth are growing up with a profoundly different image of South Korea than their parents held — such efforts also are being pushed with a recognition of the practical and long-term benefits of inter-Asian cooperation.

One example can be found in Vietnam, where cable firm CJ Media has helped build the nation’s first fully equipped TV studio in Ho Chi Minh City to help stimulate local production.

Its first production, the 100-episode “Scent of Coriander” (Mui ngo gai) has captured a 22% rating, tops among Vietnamese TV dramas, and next up is a drama pitched at kids, scheduled for broadcast in July.

“Previous collaborations based on the ‘Korean Wave’ possessed many limitations and resulted in failure in the end,” says Lee Ho-seung, general manager of CJ Media’s business administration department, on the decision to focus on Vietnamese content.

Admitting that the studio “may not result in a profitable return in the near future,” Lee notes that it has greatly reduced the cost and time involved in creating local content and argues that it may provide a model for other territories. “We really believe that we can stand at the center of a multisided cultural exchange.”

Formerly skeptical film producers are also coming around to the benefits of looking abroad.

“There are three very practical benefits to international co-production,” says Seoul-based producer Lee Joo-ick of Boram Entertainment, who recently scored a pan-Asian hit with “Battle of Wits.” “You have a wider pool of talent, you can share risk among various markets and you can work with a larger budget. Eventually Asia is going to emerge as one big market, or at least a region where interdependency is much greater.”

Lee also notes foreign producers sometimes possess a more objective view of local talent.

“Investors in Hong Kong or China would never have trusted Jacob Cheung (who had a background in smaller-scale dramas) to direct ‘Battle of Wits.’ That project was made possible by the Japanese producer Satoru Iseki.”

Such sentiments are fueling a sharp increase in Korean companies’ activities abroad.

Major distributor CJ Entertainment is co-producing three titles in 2007 with Japanese strategic partner Kadokawa and plans to unveil its first co-production with China by year’s end. Production houses Billy Pictures and Popcorn Films are co-producing the $3 million horror pic “Muoi” with Vietnam’s Phuoc Sang Film Studio, shot in Vietnam with a mixed cast. In the exhibition sector, distributor MK Pictures and market leader CJ CGV are already operating multiplexes in China through joint-venture deals, with Megabox set to join them in April. CGV is even planning a theater in L.A. to target that city’s sizable Korean-American population.

With organizations like the Korean Film Council and the Pusan Intl. Film Festival also encouraging cultural exchange through scholarships, internships, regional cooperative bodies and other efforts, it seems likely that a decade from now, the Korean film industry will be much more closely intertwined with the rest of Asia.

Whether Korean pop culture will still be the toast of Asia at that time is another question.

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