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Conference report: the Korean film industry examined

Charlotte Street HotelNotes from the industry conference held in the Screening Room at the Charlotte Street Hotel, 10 May 2005, 3pm – 6pm.

One of the sideshows of the 2005 London Korean Film Festival was a get-together of industry representatives, academics and observers who made observations on current trends in the Korean film industry and the reception of Korean films in the UK.

The first session, chaired by Chris Berry of Goldsmiths College, had Kim Young-jin from Film 2.0, Kim Dong-joo from Show East, Kim Seung-bum from Tube Entetertainment, Choi Pyeung-ho from CJ Entertainment, and Lee Hyangjin from Sheffield University.

Interesting observations which I noted down at random were

  • While a typical Japanese or Hollywood film recovers around 40% or 45% of its production costs from domestic box-office (the remainder being export and video), the typical Korean film has to recover 80% from box-office because of download piracy. So a lot rides on domestic box-office success.
  • While the growth of domestic box office has been tremendous over the past 8 years or so (three or four-fold increase in attendance, or 15% compound annual growth depending on what statistics you look at) this can’t be relied upon to continue as visits to the cinema per person per year are now approaching Western levels.
  • Oldboy has been exported to 60 countries. For some it was their first Korean movie.
  • There is upwards pressure on production costs, leading to an increased reliance on overseas investment and sales.
  • Some directors (Hong Sang-soo, Im Kwon-taek and Kim Ki-duk) have more success abroad than at home: Kim’s latest will only be shown in 2 screens in Korea.
  • But big budget doesn’t guarantee success (eg Rikidozan did much better in Japan than domestically; and there’s an expensive film made at the South Pole where it looks like the return on investment might not stack up). Everyone saw Shiri as a milestone in terms of domestic and particularly international success.
  • A question from the floor was on the quota issue. While no strong views were expressed from the panel, it was observed that there were lots of books in Taiwan and China which expressed envy at the success of the Korean Film industry (and cultural exports more generally), and this was interlinked with the quota. It was noted that Korean films used to account for 12% of domestic box office, and now they take more than 50%.

The second session, chaired by Julian Stringer of Nottingham University, focused on Korean Cinema in UK / Europe. Panellists were Roger Clarke (film critic at the Independent), Paul Smith (Tartan Video), Simon Ward (Independent Cinema Office), Eve Gabereau (Soda Pictures), Ian Wild (Showroom Cinema).

Oldboy - 70,000 DVD sales and Jonathan Ross's introduction to K-film
Oldboy - 70,000 DVD sales and Jonathan Ross's introduction to K-film

Again, some random jottings:

  • 2004 may in the future be regarded as a breakthrough year for Korean film in the UK with the huge success of three very different films: Spring Summer, Oldboy and Memories of Murder
  • Tartan have in many ways defined a market segment with their Asia Extreme label, but they are careful not to treat all Asian releases as “Extreme” (eg Spring Summer was released under their mainstream label). They have opened a market, and other companies are following.
  • Foreign films have moved from the arty intellectual audience to the mainstream. You can pick up Oldboy at the supermarket, and in the mass-market media you will find interviews with minor celebrities who say their most recent DVD purchase was Oldboy. It has sold 70,000 copies since its release in February.
  • It’s difficult to persuade a festival to showcase a Korean film unless it’s a premiere — and there’s a limited number of them.

Thanks to all for participating, to the sponsors CJ Entertainment, Korean Air and the KNTO, and to Oh Tae-min from the culture & entertainment arm of for putting this together.

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