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Japan welcomes outside pics, but Korea, China like homegrown

Most foreign awards carry little weight in Asia; Japan most likely to appreciate Globe winner

HONG KONG — Since the dawn of the 21st century, the revived fortunes of homegrown movies have propelled the Asian film industry, reducing the impact of European and American content.

Nowhere has this been more true than in Korea, where the movie industry burst free of the shackles of heavy censorship and state control. Addressing local issues with local stars has lifted Korean-made fare to a 60% share of the box office for the past two years. Hollywood movies have lost share, although their overall B.O. has climbed as the total market has grown.

Meanwhile, European arthouse and U.S. indie films have found it much harder to get distribution in Korea, and many international sales houses express deep frustration at their inability to break through.

A thawing of cultural relations with neighboring Japan has made Japanese pics the exception. In September, Korean films grabbed an 80% share, Japanese films 7% and Hollywood an unheard-of 5%.

Japanese cinemagoers, on the other hand, have the most eclectic taste in Asia, possibly the world. (This despite the fact that Japan is on pace to release more than 400 homegrown films for the first time since 1973.) Some 700 movies a year are released in Japan overall, with Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” in 2000 and Hur Jin-ho’s Korean meller “April Snow” achieving $25 million or more at the B.O.

Though foreign awards (with the exception of the Oscars) carry little weight in Asia, Japan is the continent’s most likely locale to appreciate a Golden Globe picture prizewinner, American or otherwise. The impact of foreign awards is muted because release dates in Japan often come months after a film’s heat has died down, though that’s not to say Japanese distribs won’t mention a Globes win in promoting a pic.

Many movies are released on single screens or on limited circuits in Japan, but theaters have their own followings and address highly segmented audiences. Getting the right combo and support can mean a run that lasts for months.

In China, one finds a battleground between a local industry with a handful of genuinely strong, audience-friendly pictures and a Hollywood sector that is kept in shackles. The country argues that the quota system, which only allows 20 foreign films a year to have a wide revenue-sharing release, is necessary because the industry there is still underdeveloped. (Other foreign pics can be imported, but only on a flat-fee basis, which is of limited interest to rights owners.)

China Film has used an array of tactics, including censorship, blackout periods reserved for Chinese films and bureaucratic delays, in order to give its own pictures the best possible chances at the B.O. and maintain a market share bigger than Hollywood. The Chinese public is aware of other filmmakers, but for most, that demand is satisfied through the pirate disc market. Many Beijing Film Academy students get a big part of their education thanks to an illicit vendor across the road from the film school.

Still, there are signs this is changing. Distribs PolyBona and Huayi Brothers are starting to acquire foreign films for theatrical release, as they are seen as low-cost alternatives to Hollywood. Leading the way are French commercial movies (including “Sky Fighters” and war-set drama “Merry Christmas”) and Korean actioners such as “Daisy.”