Debate over S.Korean film quota
12 August 2004
By Ryu Ji-young
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s increasingly successful movie industry is at a crossroads — officials want to phase out protectionism that angers trade partners while other people say films still need to be shielded from Hollywood hits.
At stake is the "screen quota" system, which requires domestic cinemas to show Korean films for 40 percent of the time, or 106 days a year.
South Koreans who support ending the quota — the last hurdle to a South Korea-U.S. investment treaty seen as vital to Seoul’s economic competitiveness — say the film sector is one "infant industry" that has grown up and no longer needs protection.
It is unbecoming, they argue, to demand protection at the same time South Korean films are breaking box-office records, being aggressively marketed overseas and finding favour with movie-goers and festival judges, most recently in Cannes, where the ultra-violent film "Old Boy" took the Grand Prix.
"When you have reserved rights, you become lazy," said film fan Park Kee-young, 35, outside a cinema in Seoul. "The screen quota has to be reduced for our movies to become more competent."
More private funding is flowing into films and the country’s directors are tackling subjects long considered taboo, notably in the movies "Silmido" and "Taegukgi" with North Korea angles.
But those who want to keep the quota say most Korean movies are not ready for life without a government-guaranteed audience.
"The success of the films was only possible with the foundation of the quota system," said Lee Sang-pil, a member of the coalition for preserving the quota. He spoke at a recent rally of 500 industry people fighting plans to scrap it.
"The success story only applies to some isolated examples, produced by extreme efforts of a few talents," said Lee. Others argue the quota acts as a safety net when films flop.
Yet examples of success are becoming less isolated, however.
In the space of a year, South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s "Old Boy" won at Cannes, and two homegrown movies set box-office records while going head-to-head with Hollywood blockbusters.
"Silmido", a story about South Korean criminals trained as commandos to assassinate North Korea’s leader, then the Korean War saga "Taegukgi" became the first Korean movies to draw more than 10 million viewers in a country of 48 million people.
"Taegukgi", with a $14 million budget the most expensive Korean film produced, also went on to pull in 200 million yen in its first weekend in Japan.
Prominent South Korean director Kang Je-gyu’s tale of the struggles of two brothers who are drafted into the South Korean army following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, will be released in New York and Los Angeles on September 10.
Both "Silmido" and "Taegukgi" gave movie-goers a fresh and powerful look at tough subjects, a sign of a generation shift to youngsters who question their country’s past more readily.
The success of these films can only add to pressures on Seoul to lift or modify the quota, which has long been cited as the chief stumbling block to a bilateral investment treaty with the United States.
TIME TO CHANGE?
Maurice R. Greenberg, chief executive of American International Group Inc and U.S. representative at the annual U.S.-Korea Business Council, recently told businessmen from both countries gathered in Seoul: "There’s only one remaining issue: the screen quota."
The investment treaty that would ease U.S. investment in South Korean sectors ranging from financial services to technology could be signed by the end of this year if the quota issue were resolved, Greenberg said.
President Roh Moo-hyun, whose government is keen to clear away clouds that have fogged confidence in Asia’s third-biggest economy, told the same business group: "It is time that we resolved the screen quota issue."
Public sentiment seems to support Roh on the quota.
A survey done jointly by Film 2.0, a popular local film magazine, and Daum Communications Corp, the country’s largest Internet portal, found 53 percent thought the quota could be eased or abolished altogether.
Thirty-six percent wanted the quota kept unchanged.
State-funded broadcaster MBC said this trend reflected growing public confidence in Korean films, which in the first quarter of 2004 held a 64 percent share of local ticket sales.
The pro-quota coalition, which has even enlisted Korean porn stars worried about competition from racier Japanese skin flicks, has tied up with foreign allies. They argue that films and other art should be exempt from the laws of economics.
In June, the International Network for Cultural Diversity, composed of 500 artists from 70 countries, wrote to the South Korean government urging it to "hold firm in its protection of the national screen quota within the Bilateral Investment Treaty".
"Like President Roh, we want to reconsider the screen quota," said pro-quota activist leader Chung Ji-young. "But we want to remember how important it is to keep it as it is, not to cut it."