Busan vs. Seoul for film crown

Two Korean cities compete for productions

SEOUL — Many Westerners may only have heard of one city in South Korea: the bustling metropolis Seoul, home to 11 million people (19 million, including the suburbs of Gyeonggi Province). But those with an interest in Korea’s robust film industry are likely to be familiar with the nation’s second city, Busan, a seaside port that is home to 5 million and which hosts Asia’s premier film festival. Seoul may be the undisputed financial, cultural and political center of the country, but nonetheless every year a high percentage of Korean films — including such classics as “Oldboy” — are shot in Busan.

There are several factors that motivate Seoul-based film companies to take the high-speed train down to Busan.

“Production costs can be lower here in Busan due to the assistance of citizens, the city government and the BFC,” says Park Kwang-su, head of the Busan Film Commission. “Police assistance, blocking roads, shooting in public places and such are all free of charge.”

Busan offers a wider variety of locations, including beaches, cityscapes and mountains. The city’s proximity to Japan, and the comparatively high level of assistance provided by the BFC, also make it an increasingly popular location among Japanese producers. Ten Japanese features, including last year’s smash hit “Hero,” have shot in Busan since 2001.

The city has ambitious plans to become recognized as a filmmaking hub further afield, too. A $34.4 million, 71,160-square-foot post-production center currently under construction is a key part of those ambitions.

Featuring facilities for film development, editing, sound recording, CGI, digital intermediate and other digital processes, the center will make it possible for the first time to carry out both production and post-production entirely in Busan. The first stage of construction, consisting of film development and digital post facilities, will be done in October, with a full opening planned for 2011.

One of Busan’s advantages is that all of its key facilities are centrally located near the beachside Haeundae resort area and its five-star hotels. Among these are the Busan Cinema Studios, featuring two soundstages of 18,105 square feet (Korea’s largest) and 9,009 square feet.

The BFC is also planning to build more studio space. “Currently, the Busan city government has (commissioned a report) to research new soundstages. We will use this to determine the best design, size, location, etc., for a new complex,” Park says.

However, in recent years Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi Province have worked hard to boost their own competitiveness. Most significantly, the Seoul city government launched an incentive program last year in cooperation with the Seoul Film Commission to attract international productions to the city. Producers can receive a 25% rebate on in-city production spend, capped at $100,000, and the SFC also supports airfare and accommodation costs for location scouting.

In 2007 the fund supported four documentaries from the National Geographic Channel plus the low-budget U.S. feature “Treeless Mountain” by award-winning Korean-American director So Yong Kim (“In Between Days”). Produced by Bradley Rust Gray (“Hitch”), the partly autobiographical “Mountain” shot in Seoul in November and is expected to make its presence felt on the festival circuit this year.

Yet 2008 looks to be the year when the incentive program gets its first real workout. Numerous U.S. projects are pushing ahead with plans to shoot in Seoul, from $5 million indie feature “Hanji Box” starring Amy Irving and Korean thesp Baek Yun-shik (skedded for an April/May shoot) to an untitled $10 million-$15 million Channing Tatum project financed by Fox Atomic and produced by Roy Lee’s Vertigo Entertainment and Management 360. The SFC’s Mark Siegmund lists four U.S. productions, one French feature, two Japanese features and a major U.K. documentary among projects with concrete plans for the coming year.

Meanwhile the Gyeonggi Film Commission has introduced its own incentive program, which will provide $106,000 cash grants to two local or international productions per year.

Compared with other Asian metropolises like Tokyo, the logistics of shooting in Seoul are easier to navigate.

“We spend a lot of time helping productions get permission to shoot in public facilities, in the subway, in government buildings, getting police assistance, etc.,” says Dony Kim, location coordinator at the Seoul Film Commission. “For international producers, we also assist with location scouting since they may not be as familiar with the city.”

Korea’s biggest strength as a shooting location may be its highly professional crews, and the advanced infrastructure that has been built up by the local industry. Shooting in Korea is less expensive than the U.S. or Japan, and it’s more transparent than in neighboring China. Nonetheless, a big weakness is the small number of soundstages available and — in the case of Seoul — their distance from the city center.

The Namyangju and Paju shooting studios are both located an hour or more outside of Seoul, meaning crews have to be put up in hotels, although space is available downtown in the Seoul Trade Exhibition Center for productions able to construct a makeshift stage.

The coming year is likely to be key for the future of location shooting in Korea. If the territory can attract a sizable Hollywood production, and politicians and the public see for themselves the benefits of hosting foreign shoots, then momentum may be created for improving Korea’s attractiveness for international productions.