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Traditionally, the peak season of the year for the Korean movie biz is Chuseok holidays, a long harvest festival in mid-September. This year’s Chuseok season was more competitive than ever for Korean films, with six local pics in release, including Song Hae-sung’s “A Better Tomorrow” (CJ Entertainment), Kim Hyun-seok’s romantic comedy “Cyrano Agency” (Lotte Entertainment), Jang Jin’s “The Quiz Show Scandal” (Cinemaservice), actioner “Trouble Shooter” with Sul Kyung-gu (N.E.W.) and Hong Sang-soo’s “Oki’s Movie” (Sponge). And while the field was crowded, no B.O. record was set.
Yet Korean films seem to be in full recovery mode from the downturn of the last few years. The market share of Korean pics is estimated at 39.2% as of August, a little down year on year due to strong Hollywood movies that took 56.3% of the market. Total admissions are down 4.6% compared to the previous year, but as in the U.S., box office is up 10.8% thanks to a ticket price hike and the higher premium for 3D admissions.
While “Avatar,” “Iron Man 2″ and “Inception” dominated the box office, actioner “The Man From Nowhere,” which opened Aug. 4, has grossed more than $37 million from 5.8 million admissions for CJ Entertainment, leading the local high-grossing pack.
The five-year tumble of the biz has changed the way movies get developed and put together finance, not to mention the size and subject matter of the movie favored by investors. In the past few years, producers could easily get funds for medium-budget projects if they cast star actors despite the quality of the script; these days, investors prefer known directors with high-concept movies over star casting, as well as higher-quality scripts, say insiders.
“The situation is getting better compared to the worst days in the industry. At that time, producers couldn’t even think about preparing or drawing up a plan for a movie, but now things are different. If a project is developed well, with a mature script, there are chances to secure money and get it onscreen,” says Lee Tae Hun, president of Opus Pictures, which produced “The Man From Nowhere.”
Major distributors and even local governments have expanded their funds for films and other visual content. This year, SidusFNH, a subsid of Korea Telecom that invests in and acquires movies, and Lotte Entertainment have been more active than ever in developing slates and looking to acquire films. SidusFNH’s lineup includes Cannes screener “The Housemaid,” “Grand Prix” “Camellia” and “The Showdown.”
Lotte Entertainment has distributed 10 local films so far this year, while CJ Entertainment distribbed 16 as of August. Showbox/Mediaplex has released only five local films so far this year.
“We’re gradually expanding our business this year. For the second half (of the year), we will distribute and invest more into our lineups, including ‘Cyrano Agency,’ ‘Midnight FM,’ ‘Natali’ and ‘Rolling Home With a Bull,’ among others,” says Ayoung Im, assistant manager in charge of international affairs for the Film Business Team at Lotte.
Another good sign for the Korean biz is that investments by local governments are up this year. Notably, the province of Gyeonggi-do is launching a new film fund and expanding supports for the biz.
But the government of Goyang, a city near Seoul, has really taken the lead in its media support. Its Broadcasting & Multimedia Complex has lured 76 companies with cheap rent, infrastructure and other conveniences.
Top helmers including Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-ho and Lee Joon-ik have all moved their bases from Seoul to Goyang. Other companies moving to the city include production shingles such as Barunson Film (“Mother,” “The Servant”) and high-profile post-production houses such as Digital Idea and Livetone, among others.
In July, the local government also established a $26 million joint-investment fund with major investors, the Gyeonggi-Goyand Film Fund. Managed by Gyeonggi Digital Content Agency, the fund will be used to for 3D, CG and movies produced in the Gyeonggi area.
Despite the decrease of exports, the demand for international co-productions is up. CJ Entertainment has started on co-production projects with the U.S., China and Japan. Big international co-productions such as “Late Autumn” and “Warrior’s Way,” from Boram Entertainment, will also be distributed later this year.
While 3D has stood out as a key factor in the biz this year, a few 3D movies are being developed, including “The Seventh Sector” and “Song of a String.”
A mystery melodrama shot in 3D, “Natali” will be released by Lotte at the end of October. But the problem with 3D is that while investors want blockbusters and 3D productions, many directors and producers favor low-budget productions, with budgets under $10 million.
Lee Sang-yong, the Korean film programmer of PIFF, sees a new generation of filmmakers rising in Korea. “Going through the crisis, there (arose) a lot of indie features shot with digital cameras,” he says, yet they retain a high level of artistic quality.
Korean film looks to be back on track.