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BiFan Boss Shin Chul Wants to Reinvent Film Festivals for the Digital Era

With credits including “My Sassy Girl” and “Lies,” Shin Chul is one of Korea’s most successful film producers. Recently put in charge of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Shin readily volunteers the information that he doesn’t much like festivals. Yet Shin’s shy, Otaku-like character may be exactly what Bifan needs as it adapts and embraces the digital era.

Variety: You say that you don’t like film festivals. So why take the job?
Shin: “I was tricked into it. I was told I only needed to come to the office twice a week. I’m from the first generation of modern K cinema. But since then I never liked to speak in front of crowds of people. Since college I avoided nightclubs and preferred my own company.

“Before we had online ticketing, people would line up outside the theater on the opening day. That always made me scared. 80% of my films were big hits in Korea, including ‘My Sassy Girl.’ And each time I wondered if I wasn’t tricking the audience. I took the Bifan job to try to overcome my own fear, and stop running away.”

What are the changes you are trying to make at the festival?
“My own lifestyle has totally changed. Now I watch much more on streaming services. I spend 3-6 hours per day watching content online. Recently, when I went to a conventional theater I felt out of place. That is a sign of the changes coming.

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“Audiences are changing, the production process is changing, platforms are changing. Festivals have to change too.”

What is the right direction for festivals?
“Festivals have to embrace digital. Digital content is becoming really strong. But with that being said vinyl records are making a comeback, at the same time as online music streaming services are proliferating. The balance between those two is really important – between a digital festival and an old-fashioned one.

“We cannot fight against digital, but need to learn how to utilize it. I’ve always been interested in adopting new tech. I was the first producer in Korea to embrace CGI technology.

“When I took this job, I started taking (online) lectures on AI, business implementation of AI. I can see that AI will have a huge impact on film production and distribution.”

Is AI something that audiences will need to know about. Isn’t VR more relevant and changing story-telling?
“The art of adopting new film technology is to make the audience not notice it. Artificial Special Intelligence specializes in one thing, like Alpha Go. Artificial General Intelligence should be able to reach into every aspect (of film) and learn with exponential speed. A panel of scientists was once asked how long it will take to achieve AGI. Their answers ranged from 25 year to 100 years, but the point is that they all agreed it will happen. According to one Korean professor we are now “phono sapiens” walking around with our external hard drives or external brain.

“Interactive movies have been in vogue since the early 2000s or before. In 2000 I tried to produce a film where it had to be decided whether the couple broke up or got married, and have the audience vote. But I failed. The cinema owner disagreed. I had already put so much money during the process but ended up losing money.

“Almost twenty years later, these days games can be seen as interactive movies and forms of visual story-telling. So can VR, even though traditional films have more of the emotion that engages the audience.

“Traditional film has tried to become more immersive with IMAX and 3D. But games and VR are more immersive still.”

So what is the role of the film festival when everyone is strapped into a headset, and having an individual experience?
“Some genres are certainly becoming much more individual, and everyone is watching what they like at home on Netflix. Festivals nevertheless are where people get together. I want to make the festival more fun and attractive, and to convince more people to come, and explore different content.

I earlier said that I’m not really very sociable. But when I was offered the job, I thought that I might try to make the kind of festival that I’d actually like to attend. Others who didn’t go might be convinced.”

How did you come to locate part of the festival in the Art Bunker (a converted waste treatment plant)?
“The Art Bunker actually opened last year. We can’t take credit for building it. But are happy to use it this time. There remain some problems to be ironed out. Next year there will be another section opened in the building, which we hope to use too.

“We might continue the trash theme, and make it a place where people can come and clean out their overcrowded brains and minds.

As a producer, what are you working on currently?
“I’ve got ‘The Orbit’ a comedy about Korean astronauts going into space. I was very into space in 2002. I also have a Bruce Lee resurrection project. I spent five years, and a lot of money, getting the rights from Lee’s estate, staying in the States. One of my early ambitions was to make a Korean film that could do better in Korea than Hollywood movies. That has now been done. One of my other dreams was that would be successful on a global stage – for a while I thought the Bruce Lee Resurrection project might be the one. And there is a Korean robot film.

“And one other is an English-language, project called ‘Three Planets’ that I’ve had for 10 years, and have only recently found an American writer I think could do it. It is something the world has not seen yet. I haven’t made the decision whether to make it into a conventional film form or other. This is the era when a good piece of IP can be produced in many different formats.”

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