Korean biz alters ego

Producers look to transform, upgrade business model

The Korean film industry is undergoing transformation as the majors cede ground to upstarts, locals seek out more international co-productions and 3D alters production plans.

The distribution picture has diversified, with the power of Korea’s major studios — CJ Entertainment, Showbox and Lotte Entertainment — becoming diluted under the pressure from the economic downturn in the last few years. This has left an opening for new companies such as N.E.W, Sungwon I Com and Synergy to grab titles.

Investment sources have been also diversified overseas as the three major studios, along with the country’s major telecommunication companies KT and SKT — traditionally heavy investors in film — turned out to be more and more prudent with their money. Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is the first film funded by Japan-based high-tech outfit Softbank, via Softbank Ventures, a joint venture launched by KT and Softbank in 2008. Other high-profile pics, such as “Murderer,” a co-production with Fox Intl. Prods. and Showbox directed by hot helmer Na Hong-jin (“The Chaser”), are hitting up foreign money sources. Local producers of Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” and Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” are also in talks with foreign investors.

Another hot topic is 3D, the biz buzzword since “Avatar” smashed Korean B.O. records.

Government organizations quickly programmed 3D seminars and conferences that were packed with showbiz insiders. Policymakers announced future plans to invest and cultivate 3D business, embracing both the film and TV industries.

But despite a couple of projects that have been announced, local 3D production might not be quite ready to blossom. Korea’s B.O. market is still recovering, and local investors are spooked by 3D productions costs — on average, about 50% more than a regular feature. There’s no guarantee that a 3D film will be a hit outside Korea.

Yet Korean filmmakers and producers know that they must go global, via international co-production and films aimed at the international market. CJ Entertainment is spurring international business more than ever, not only with the already completed Korea-Japan co-productions “Golden Slumber” and “Sayonara Itsuka,” which it’s selling at Filmmart, but also by joining a few established projects, including David Hasselhoff starrer “Dancing Ninja” (Korea-Canada) and an English-language animated feature “Dino Mom” (Korea-U.S.).

Another notable Korea-U.S. co-production is “Man chu” (“Late Autumn”), a remake of classic Korean melodrama from Boram Entertainment and M&FC, which is shooting in the U.S. with Kim Tae-yong helming an international cast, including Tang Wei (“Lust, Caution”) and Hyun Bin (“I am Happy”).

Relatively smaller in number are Korea’s Asia (and specifically China) co-prods, with a few notable titles including “Camellia,” a $1.3 million project financed by the city of Busan, the Pusan film fest and the Sidus FNH-Benex Cinema Fund. It is being produced by Busan-based Balcon, and Pusan fest prexy Kim Dong-ho takes executive-producer credit. Helmer Lee Yoon-ki’s “Dear Comrade,” introduced at this year’s HAF, is a Korea-Japan-Vietnam co-prod.

Yet the Korean box office is still not at levels insiders consider healthy, despite the local hits “Secret Reunion” and “Harmony.” Only 11 local films will be released in March and April, with this year’s big films from big names mostly slated for post-Cannes dates, including pics from helmers Kang Woo-suk (“Moss”) and Im Kwon-taek (“Scooping Up the Moonlight”).