Seoul — Local pics are flying high in South Korea these days, bumping films from the Hollywood majors off their secure perches and virtually squeezing out pics from other countries. In 2003, homegrown fare edged out Hollywood imports 49% to 44%.

2003 STATS
Top film: “Memories of Murder” ($32 million)
Top indie film: “Memories of Murder”
Total B.O.: $688 million
Indie B.O.: $390 million
Total releases: 240
Indie releases: 128
“Infernal Affairs 3” (Taichang Entertainment)
“Kill Bill Vol. 2” (Taewon Entertainment)
“The Phantom of the Opera” (I-Vision Entertainment)
“Shrek 2” (CJ Entertainment)
“Van Helsing” (Tube Entertainment)

That was before things started to get really hot. Driven by huge hits like “Silmido,” “Taegukgi” and “Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School,” local pics are off to a sizzling start in 2004, grabbing a 73% market share in the first quarter and dropping Hollywood competitors to 26%.

These are significant developments in a nation that still maintains a quota, requiring theaters to devote 40% of screen time to local pics. It was originally implemented to ensure that homegrown fare could get the distribution it needed to succeed.

“At the rate we’re going, we’ll need a screen quota to protect foreign films,” jokes one marketer at a Hollywood studio arm in Seoul.

Although local pics are expected to come back down to earth and strike a balance with Hollywood imports as 2004 progresses, films from other countries are facing stiff competition to break into the distribution pipeline.

“The strength of Korean films is not likely to cool down soon,” says Lewis Kim, head of international at Chungeorahm Film, a local distrib that handles only Korean films. “The situation is completely different from a few years ago. Now the film industry is attracting quality brains like never before.”

Meanwhile, South Korea’s DVD market remains lukewarm in comparison. The tendency to slash prices as titles get older is discouraging purchases of new releases, according to retailers.