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Team of Rivals: South Korea’s Film Companies Strive to Cooperate

Competing buyers and distributors attempt to unite as they call for fairer business practices

During the Busan Intl. Film Festival last year, South Korean film companies got together and launched the Foreign Film Buyer-Distributors Assn. of Korea.

About 300 independent companies are registered in South Korea as buyers or distributors, or both, according to the Korean Film Council, but fewer than 10% are actually functioning as such.

The association initially started as a group of 21 companies aiming to improve their business environment. After seven months, however, only half the founding members remain active in the organization. That already shows how difficult it is for the small-sized companies to cooperate when there is little room for indie releases in local cinema and the business is all about competition.

“There are a certain number of films that buyers would all like to buy at film markets, meaning that we’re competitors. Of course it is quite difficult for companies in such condition to get together and promote common interests,” Kim Sang-yun of Cinelux, co-head of the association, told Variety. “However, there are also certain things that cannot be solved if we don’t unite.”

Some of the ongoing problems in the industry include over-competitive bids made at markets and fests, unfair business practice in contracts with sales agents and even in local distribution.

“Over-competitive bids sometimes make buyers believe that they have no choice but to pay more than the asking price, even if they know it is overpriced,” says Kim. “I thought maybe the association can come up with guidelines for those cases. Yes, we do compete in the market, but I believe we can prevent unnecessary disadvantages if we unite.”

At a press conference last year, Kim Nan-sook of Jinjin Pictures mentioned that Korean buyers sometimes end up with unfair or less-than-fair contract conditions. “For example,” she said, “if we already have the Korean rights to Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ it means that we have the priority in negotiating with the Busan festival to screen it. Sometimes, however, licensors ignore such right and negotiate with festivals directly, taking screening fees.”

Kim Sang-yun suggests that a standard contract would be a solution. “We have learned that there are Korean buyers that sign unfair contracts with sales agents that actually have no problem with other buyers,” he says. “We mean to start with what we can do — creating a standard form of contract is time-consuming and is not easy, but for now, it is important to at least share information transparently.”

Joint marketing is also under way as part of the cooperation. At a screening of “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” that Jinjin Pictures distributed in January, trailers of films that other members of the association had bought were screened.

“We’re all small companies and the association is young,” says Kim Sang-yun. “We can’t achieve things at once. What matters is to create a precedent. When we went to film markets, we gathered and discussed what we can do in the long term. Though it might not be possible at the Marche du Film in Cannes this year, we look to import good films as a team.”

(Pictured above: Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World,” one of many titles distributed by members of Korea’s new film association.)

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