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BSS 2013: working with Korea

Korean director Park Chan-wook was one of the Symposium’s major headliners. One of Park’s producers, Wonjo Jeong, who also served as translator, presented a Sunday morning session with Michael Stephens on the opportunities of working with Korea.

While the advantages seemed reasonably clear, what seemed less clear was what benefit Korean cinema might derive from international partners. Over 50% of the country’s box office goes to Korean language films.

Jeong showed trailers from a number of recent Korean titles, along with information on their production budgets and box office returns (all in US dollars). With a population of c50 million, the market is of a similar size to the UK’s.

This year’s top grossing Korean title to date is Miracle in Cell #7, made for $5.2million, box office $80million. Secretly Greatly, developed from an online cartoon, made for $6.3 million, took $43 million.

Last year saw releases of four films that entered the all time top ten list in Korea (the country measures by admissions, not take). Jeong shared two of those films. Masquerade, which opened the Korean film festival in New Zealand late last year, was made for $10 million and took $82 million.


The Thieves, Korea’s most popular film of all time, was made for $13 million and took $84 million.

The Thieves

This year’s Berlin File which premiered at, appropriately, the Berlinale cost $9.7 million and made $48.1 million.

Berlin File

Box office is pretty much where it’s at in terms of earnings for Korean films. The domestic ancillary market is all but dead, since the quality of Korea’s broadband infrastructure has all but killed the DVD market. Korea films regularly make sales into other Asia territories. Given the differences in censorship, not many films see a release in the region’s largest territory, China.

What works in Korea? The question is hard to answer, as it would be in most territories, since most things can work. According to Jeong, nobody was expecting Miracle in Cell #7 to be the year’s most successful film to date. Of the Korean films that have much life beyond its borders, the (often violent) gang movies do well, as do political thrillers – especially those playing on North-South Korea tensions. Romantic comedies do well domestically. Some rom-coms travel well within Asia.

The 2001 My Sassy Girl (still the country’s most successful rom-com) did so well it sparked spin-off TV series in Japan, an English language remake in the US and a Chinese-language sequel.

What doesn’t work? There’s nothing that really doesn’t work, although Jeong likened the general approach to censorship as being closer to US than European standards – violence is very acceptable, sex and nudity less so.

In terms of working with Korean partners, most of Jeong’s advice was as one would expect. He recommended developing some level of understanding of Korean film and culture before engaging, and avoiding stereotypical representations.

“How would you feel if a Korean film set in New Zealand showed people flying into Wellington and all you could see was sheep?” he asked.

“That should be Dunedin,” suggested one audience member.

Korea has a number of companies built on a combination of the US studio model and the Chinese model of vertical integration. They operate across the chain from development and production, through distribution and – in some cases – into exhibition.

Because of that, decision-making – especially around greenlighting projects – can often move more quickly than in an environment like NZ, where there is a larger number of people involved in the decision-making process through agencies such as the NZFC.

More so than in New Zealand, there are name actors whose presence increase projects’ chances of success, both in getting out of development and in box office returns.

Of the younger generation, there are a number of former members of K-Pop bands delivering good opening weekends for a range of titles. Of those who came to acting first, Byun-hun Lee, who led Masquerade, has had some international success, appearing in the GI Joe films and the recent Red 2. Jeon Ji-hyun, travelling these days under the more anglicised Gianna Jun, led My Sassy Girl and featured strongly in both The Thieves and The Berlin File.

There is public money available for film, but in somewhat different ways to how it’s available in NZ. The state agency KOFIC has funds, although it invests less in production than the NZFC and generally in the sort of films that are unlikely to travel well, particularly local dramas.

Regional locations offices have some incentives on offer for both domestic and international productions. Inbound or co-productions also have access to more formalised incentive schemes offering up to a 30% cash rebate.

There are government supported visual content venture funds of up to US$100 million, of which 40% is soft money. Different funds have different priorities, such as to support the country’s VFX industry, encourage co-productions, etc.

Internationally, Korea has had limited success doing business beyond the festival circuit. BSS speaker Park Chan-wook has won a couple of prizes at Cannes, but it’s taken seven years for an English-language remake of one of his titles to reach US screens. His first English-language project, Stoker, has done fairly tepid business, grossing US$9,356,992 off releases in 35 territories.

Within Korea, the government and industry generally regard the international market as a destination for product, not a place to seek finance. There’s an acceptance that success will be limited for Korean language films except on an occasional basis.

The latest Korean film making waves is Snowpiercer, an English-language adaptation of a French graphic novel, shot partly in Eastern Europe by Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Park Chan-wook is a producer of the film (and mentor of Bong). In its first week on release in Korea (from 31 July) it equalled the two-day record to achieve 1 million admissions, set a weekend record for a Korean film, passed 3 million admissions inside five days, and became the fastest film to reach 4 million admissions, passing that milestone in seven days.

Following up his recommendation of getting some local knowledge, Jeong suggested checking out some Korean titles, which is easily done on YouTube or – possibly more legtimately – by registering with KOFIC’s online screening service.

Jeong also recommended the Producers Guild of Korea as a useful place to start making contacts – although the site seems not to have been updated in some time.

The English language version of the KOFIC site carries plenty of information, including good listings of Korean festivals.

As everywhere, Jeong suggested that relationships were important, and that having a local partner was the only sensible approach – not to mention that a local production company needs to be on board for any applications to incentive schemes.

Jeong said there was no point looking for financing only, and that producers needed to understand that in the Korean market, the competition was Korean not international product.

For that reason, it would be hard to find financiers without sufficient Korean content. Three things drove Korean producers’ interest: script, script, and script. Since the Korean industry doesn’t really need international partners for finance – in the way NZ increasingly does – a project that would work commercially in Korea would have a greater chance of finding Korean partners.

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