H’wood snaps up remake rights to top Korean pix

Films include 'My Wife Is a Gangster,' 'My Sassy Girl'

HOLLYWOOD — Hollywood is hot for remake rights — and no country is being mined for movie material as feverishly as South Korea these days.

The guy behind this growing interest in Korean subjects is Roy Lee, who, with partner Doug Davison of 6-month-old Vertigo Entertainment, is responsible for setting up three of the four Korean films sold for remakes to date.

The three are “My Wife Is a Gangster” at Miramax, “My Sassy Girl” at DreamWorks and “Il Mare” at Warner Bros. Lee also has licensed remake rights to a number of Japanese pics.

A Korean-American who has lived his entire life in the U.S. and never learned to speak Korean, Lee tapped into the films of his ancestral homeland only after establishing himself as an exec in Hollywood.

Bored by his work as a corporate lawyer at the powerhouse firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., Lee made his way out West in 1996. He previously had stints at production company Alphaville and management-production firm Benderspink. Vertigo has a first-look deal with Dimension Films and is housed in its Hollywood offices.

“Roy has really done an amazing job at exposing many people in this community to Korean-language films,” says Eric Paquette, VP for production at MGM, which acquired remake rights to “Hi, Dharma,” a comedy about a group of gangsters hiding out in a Buddhist monastery.

Though “Hi, Dharma” is not one of the Korean films set up by Vertigo, Paquette still credits Lee for carving out a lucrative niche that had previously been nonexistent.

The quality of storytelling and production values in Korean films has been eye-opening to a growing number of other Hollywood development execs.

“Maybe every country has movies like this, but there just aren’t producers that have developed relationships with studios in various countries and brought them to this community,” Paquette says.

“It’s like zero-to-60 in one year,” Lee says of the recognition Korean films have garnered in wake of the sale of “My Wife Is a Gangster” in October for $950,000 in remake rights, plus another $150,000 for U.S. rights to the original.

Lee says he is deluged by tapes and scripts arriving from Korea, other Asian countries and even Spain seeking remake deals.

“I have box loads. I get one or two a day,” he says.

Lee will be traveling to Seoul in July to further cement relations there.

Considering remake rights to “My Sassy Girl” sold for $750,000 plus 4% of global revenues, “Il Mare” took $500,000 plus 2.5% of global revenues, and “Hi, Dharma” went for $300,000 plus 5% of global revenues, Lee should find a receptive audience.

Meanwhile, producing partner Davison is charged with the creative side of the remake equation. Davison says he’s been “blown away” by his exposure to Korean films since teaming with Lee.

Nonetheless, outside of development circles, many in Hollywood remain unaware of Korean cinema.

“I think you have to sell agents and writers a little more on Korean films, although you get a lot of converts once they actually watch it,” says Davison, who previously worked for producer Andrew Lazar.

One person who’s already a convert is producer Mike Macari, who set up “Hi, Dharma” at MGM.

Macari was impressed with what he saw when he visited the Pusan Film Fest back in 2000, one of the few Americans at the time to attend. He even slipped into some theaters to see Korean films not part of the festival.

“I was surprised. I knew what was going on and I didn’t speak the language. There were some really great movies,” he says. “Good storytelling is good storytelling. I became determined to find a Korean film to remake.”