Local pix ready to go abroad

South Korean pics double export take in 2003

SEOUL — Following the dazzling success of South Korean cinema in recent years, the local film industry is increasingly eyeing overseas markets even before the production stage.

The numbers are encouraging. Local pics hauled in $31 million in exports to 56 countries last year, more than doubling the $15 million recorded in 2002, according to the Korean Film Commission. A total of 164 titles were sold, per the commish, a 23% rise over the previous year, while the average pricetag was $188,896, a 68% boost.

“The local market is saturated with competition. From now on, we have to make movies with overseas markets in mind and be ready to compete around the globe,” says Shin Chul, CEO of local producer ShinCine.

“Taegukgi,” for example, with a $14 million budget, was the most expensive pic ever made in South Korea. The risk has paid off, as the film has rung up $5.1 million in exports to 15 countries so far.

The rush of exports has gone hand in hand with the “Korean Wave” of South Korean pop culture that has stormed China, Southeast Asia and, to a lesser degree, Japan. Star power is turning into a significant asset for local pics, as actors who have established fan bases in other Asian countries are fueling interest in their latest projects.

Actors such as Jang Dong-gun, who starred in “Taegukgi,” was known to foreign auds from his TV drama appearances, and was also cast in Chinese helmer Chen Kaige’s “The Promise.”

South Korean exports to Japan are heating up with the recent success of comedy “My Sassy Girl” and horror pic “Phone.” “Silmido,” “Taegukgi” and period piece “Untold Scandal” are all slated for release in Japan this summer.

Competition among buyers has driven up the going rate while motivating them to strike deals early based on the participation of a particular director or actor. For example, horror pic “Bunshinsaba” was pre-sold to Japan for $3 million, according to film company Mirovision. “Phone” helmer Ahn Byung-ki will direct.

About 18.5% and 14.5% of exports went to Europe and North America last year, respectively, the latter due in large part to sales of remake rights.

However, only one out of three local pics was able to turn a profit last year, showing that the local film industry is still on unbalanced ground.

“Instead of thinking too much about overseas markets, we should focus on making movies loved by Koreans. Then overseas markets will naturally open up, too,” says Kim Dong-joo, CEO of local producer Show East.