Slumping sales shift focus in Korea

Cineclick Asia bucked slow trend

Business was locked in slo-mo for Korean sales companies this week in Cannes. Most confessed to having had a miserable time, despite their high-profile booths and well-backed promotion campaigns.

“It has been pretty quiet for us,” said Judy Ahn, VP of international business at vertically integrated major Showbox.

Also putting on a brave face was a spokeswoman at richly backed talent management cum production shingle iHQ. “Buyers have become very cautious and pre-sales much harder than a few years ago,” she said.

CJ Ent. and Lotte Ent., sales arms of South Korea’s other majors, were unable to report the inking any significant deals during the Cannes Market.

The export torpor experienced this week stands in stark contrast to the Korean Wave boom times of just two or three markets ago. And it represents a major headache for an industry that just a couple of years back was giving other Asian countries lessons on how to reinvigorate a moribund local movie scene.

With its booming domestic market, strong overseas sales and, in Pusan, the leading festival in the region, South Korea until recently could claim to be the locomotive of Asian cinema. The only sales company to buck the trend was Cineclick Asia, which only carries arthouse titles such as Cannes competish pic “Breath” by Kim Ki-duk, and a slate mixing Korean- and foreign-made fare.

Reasons for the slowdown in overseas biz for commercially oriented pics are multiple.

Most serious has been the evaporation of big-ticket pre-sales to Japanese distribs on films featuring stars of Korean hit TV shows. Flops of these star vehicles and the renaissance of Japan’s own B.O. champs have limited the taste for costly Korean fare. ShowEast, which specializes in this kind of property, announced no major deals in Cannes. Korean mellers it seems are no match in Japan for Japan’s own “pure love” genre.

Moreover, while top-notch craft skills have helped Korean movies make inroads into markets such as Eastern Europe and Latin America, value of these sales is still small compared with the deficit suffered from the missing Japanese sales and rising production budgets.

Implications for sellers are not good.

“We will be suggesting that for future Cannes Korean companies make use of umbrella stands and share their costs,” said Justin Choi, international business manager at Lotte. “We may also cut the number of festivals and markets we attend. I don’t see the need to do more than Hong Kong FilMart, Cannes and Pusan.”

“We are used to bringing everything we make to market. Now we will be increasingly selective about which titles we bring to market,” iHQ said.

The sales slowdown has made Korean film investors very nervous.

“Even though we have done the same amount of sales business as last year and this week got together the finance for our international projects, the investors are ringing us all the time for reassurance,” said Cineclick topper Suh Young-joo.

Korean films have had a pretty rotten time at home too. Market share this year has slipped from the 60%-plus enjoyed last year. Territory, which has long defied Hollywood strength, now seems to be falling in line with other international markets and summer releasing sked is being cleared to make way for Hollywood tentpoles.

But the weakness of local films has, for the first time in several years, made South Korea a boom for foreign sales firms. Korean distributors this week bought more foreign films and paid higher prices than before.

Studio 2.0 picked up “City of Amber” and “Step Up 2” from Summit Ent. Korea Screen bought Catherine Zeta-Jones starrer “Death Defying Acts” from Myriad Pictures. Sponge Ent. was particularly active. Distrib said it made its most expensive purchase with acquisition of “L,” spin-off from Nippon TV’s “Death Note” franchise. Arthouse specialist Sponge also grabbed Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” made two pre-buys from Japan’s Stylejam — “Sad Vacation” by Palme d’Or winner Shinji Aoyama and “Drifting” — Alexandr Sokurov’s “Alexandra” from Rezo, Emir Kusturica’s “Promise Me This” from StudioCanal and Brian De Palma-helmed “Redacted” from HDNet.

Newfound interest in foreign film imports has seen micro-distributors come to the fore. Jin Jin Pictures took David Mackenzie’s “Hallam Foe” from Independent, while Eureka bought “Shotgun Stories” from France’s Coach 14 and MFI bought French futuristic thriller “Chrysalis” from Gaumont.

Boutique Japanese producer and sales agent Stylejam scored four deals with two distributors. It pre-sold “Sad Vacation” by Palme d’Or winner Shinji Aoyama and “Drifting” to leading Korean importer Sponge Ent. Company also pre-sold “Then Summer Came” and Joe Odagiri’s directorial debut “Looking for Cherry Blossoms” to Cinema Valley. All four pics are in post-production.

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