South Korean rebates keep biz healthy

New commissions nourish flowering productions

Korean films are growing in popularity with the world’s moviegoing public, but not much is known widely about the filmmaking industry in the nation that produces them.

That industry has long been controlled and supported by the Korean Film Council, which runs government-owned film studios and post-production facilities. However, changes are emerging. South Korea had no regional film commissions before 2000; now it has 10, which are supporting the production of a growing number of features, TV dramas and documentaries.

The first was the Busan Film Commission (BFC), started in 2000. It hosts the yearly Busan Intal. Film Commission and Industry Showcase (Bifcom) every year, and in 2004 it opened its film studio to attract local and international film production. Since then BFC has lured six to 10 international productions annually. And earlier this year the city opened a post-production facility in a bid to vertically integrate all aspects of production.

Currently, Korea’s film commissions offer no tax breaks. Instead — adapting to a tax system that is different from that of other countries — the commissions have developed incentives based on cash or goods.

BFC, for example, has just started offering two incentive programs to international co-productions and foreign features. One, the location incentive, is a maximum 30% rebate of the expenditures for shooting in Busan. The other, a scouting and post incentive, takes the form of in-kind support.

Benefits are greater for films that use Busan’s studio and post facilities together. Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” benefited from these programs. Recently, three Chinese films have agreed to use Busan’s post facility, including Ziyi Zhang starrer “Sophie’s Revenge” and the Huayi Brothers’ new martial arts project “Tracing Shadows.”

BFC also offers help with location searches. “With more than 30,000 locations in the database, we make our best efforts to offer the most efficient shooting conditions,” says Yang Sung-young, head of the org’s location-support division.

Busan is seen in the tsunami blockbuster “Haeundae,” which sold more than 10 million tickets in South Korea this summer. The production was able to shoot flooded streets on the spot, assisted by the city’s fire and water departments.

Other film commissions — including those of Seoul, Gyeonggi and Jeonju — are providing similar programs. Jeonju, which opened a film studio in 2008, offers 10%-25% as cash rebate on production costs, which are mostly capped at $100,000. Seoul figures prominently in helmer Lee Hey-jun’s “Castaway on the Moon,” shot along the Han River, which runs through the center of South Korea’s capital.

“So far we have offered relatively small incentives due to the lack of budget,” says BFC director Park Kwang-su. “But Busan has plans to make the city a gateway to Asia’s film industry. We’re trying to bring innovative ideas to the incentive programs and persuade the government to increase the budget.”

The rebates are all the more helpful to independent co-productions. So Young Kim’s “Treeless Mountain” and Ounie Lecomte’s “A Brand New Life” both benefited from the Seoul Film Commission’s production cost support initiative. “These programs are very useful and important for us who produce arthouse films on a low budget,” says “Life” producer Lee Joon-dong, who also adds, “Things have changed, and it’s now easier to get a permit from the city.”

No Korean content is necessary in order to benefit from the incentives — with the exception of the Seoul Film Commission’s international co-production development cost-support program, which requires that at least 25% of the story take place in Seoul.

Other Korea-shot projects include Japanese helmer Isshin Inudou’s “Zero Focus,” filmed in Gyeonggi, which is well known for its resemblance to early 20th-century Seoul. An episode of Japanese TV drama “Twentieth Century Boys” was lensed in Busan, saving money over what it would have cost to shoot in Japan.

“Korea has many advantages in terms of film locations,” says Seoul film commissioner Mark Siegmund. “There’s a lot of cultural diversities, including old and new, which I believe is more appealing to foreign productions.”

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