Busan International Film Festival might be the best-known feature of Busan, the city that styles itself as the hub of Asian cinema. On the production side, Busan has long been home and the location for the majority of South Korean films as well as a several big Asian films. The city boasts the Busan Film Commission, one of the longest-standing film commissions in Asia and one that still remains very proactive, and two production centers that it operates: Korea’s largest studio complex Busan Cinema Studio and 3D virtual production center Digital Bay. But the city had not attracted any Hollywood productions until Marvel chose it for a pivotal sequence in blockbuster “Black Panther.”
“The ‘Black Panther’ team was supposed to visit and check Singapore first, but unfortunately or fortunately, a typhoon hit Singapore at the time of their planned visit and they had to change their route. That is how they ended up visiting Busan first,” Lee Seung-eui, head of the production support department at BFC, told Variety. “When the team first contacted us in the summer of 2016, they did not reveal anything about the film. All we were informed was that it was a big project handled by a major Hollywood studio.”
Veteran location managers at the BFC supported the “Black Panther” staff early from morning to late night, hoping that Busan would be the next Korean city to host a Hollywood blockbuster. In 2014, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” also a Marvel movie, used a few locations in Seoul for location shoots.
“After their scouting trip to Singapore, they came back, and brought director Ryan Coogler along. That was the first time we realized that … something big was going to happen,” said Lee. “We brought the team literally everywhere — all the way from the Jagalchi fish market and the Gwangan Bridge, which later became the route for the film’s biggest car chase scene.”
When Coogler visited Korea for the promotion of “Black Panther,” he explained why he had chosen Busan as one of the film’s main locations.
“Because the action scene took place at night, there had to be a great night view and I also wanted to show a traditional side of the region. We were in need of a unique, different film site,” said Coogler. “I noticed some similarities between Busan and my hometown [Oakland, Calif.]. Aspects such as the hustle and bustle of Jagalchi Market felt very familiar to me.”
Aside from the city’s atmosphere and view, which satisfied Coogler aesthetically, the city’s support team also played an important role in locking “Black Panther” down in Busan. The BFC not only provided the “Black Panther” team with location scouting service but also connected them with all the city authorities that can control the traffic and limit access to particular streets during shooting.
“One problem for Busan as a film location is that it lacks any incentive program for foreign films that shoot in the city. It was no exception for the Hollywood blockbuster,” Lee explained. “The Korean Film Council operates an incentive program for foreign films shooting in Korea, but the institute does not belong to Busan, it is just based in Busan. Of course we thought about launching new incentive programs, but we decided to focus on our administrative power instead.”
During the team’s stay in the city, the Busan city council, the fire defense headquarters in Busan and even guilds of merchants in each commercial district gathered to discuss how to help the superhero blockbuster shoot in Busan with minimum inconvenience.
“The biggest issue was to totally block the Gwangan Bridge for two full days,” said Lee. “Since there are many buses that cross the bridge daily, we had to set up temporary, alternative stops for them. In order to make things easier, the mayor called meetings himself, making sure that there is no administrative problem.”
With the successful theatrical run of “Black Panther” in Korea ($41 million from 5.4 million admissions), one might as well wonder whether it also helped Busan get more attention from foreign projects as a potential film location.
“The impact was great,” said Lee. “Before ‘Black Panther,’ not many industry people in North America showed real interest in Busan. At the annual locations trade show organized by Assn. of Film Commissioners Intl., they knew Korea or Seoul, but not so much about Busan. Now I feel that many of them perceive the city as the location for ‘Black Panther,’ and a few Hollywood projects have started contacting us for locations data.”
Meanwhile, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” came to Busan and became the second Hollywood production that used the locations in the city.
“When they were shooting in China, the ‘Uprising’ team heard from the ‘Black Panther’ team that Busan is an amazing location. That made them come to see the city,” Lee said.
The Busan locations were edited out during the post-production of “Uprising,” but it was not a total loss for Busan.
“That another American blockbuster experienced the great locations and production environment in Busan means a lot. Who knows if they would want to come back for a future project? Who knows if they might encourage other teams to go check Busan for locations? I believe in effect of word of mouth,” Lee said.
Moreover, it did not only boost the demand for the city as a film location. The promotion effect was also noticeable. When the trailer for “Black Panther” was initially released, the name of the dental clinic that was in the frame topped the trending keywords on Naver, one of Korea’s biggest internet portal sites. Some restaurants promoted themselves as “the shop that was destroyed in ‘Black Panther.’”
The film also boosted the city’s economy during the production. Some 150 cars and 700 extras were involved in the epic car chase scene. Also, the production team has employed hundreds of current and former film students from local universities. About 450 students and graduates are known to have applied for staff positions, while almost 350 of them worked in the Gwangalli Beach shot alone.
According to the BFC data, Busan is always in high demand in Asia. Especially with the Busan film festival and the Busan Asian Film School, there are young directors and school alumni that want to come back to shoot their films in the city.
“I remember Leann Emmert, location manager of ‘Uprising,’ saying that Busan is a great city and that it would be able to become a main Asia location for Hollywood films if it only had a mega-size studio,” said Lee. “That means everything else about the city is on a satisfactory level. It will take time, but I see that the future is bright.”