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Art and Independent Movies on the Verge of Perishing

2004/02/17 Source

by Seung-Jae Lee

It was Friday when "My Beautiful Girl, Mari", a Korean animation of watercolors, opened in theaters in January 2002 in a multiplex theater. The animation was cross-played after a Hollywood movie the next day, and it finally had to shut down on the third day, a Sunday, because the movie did not attract any viewers. Lee Sung-gang, the director of the animation, won the Grand Prix award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, one of the four biggest animation movie festivals in the world, and boasted its title all over the world.

The stronger the sunlight is, the darker the shadows are. "Silmido" is approaching a record 10 million viewers and "Taeguki (Brotherhood)" has renewed the record every day since its opening, but the Korean movie industry is facing problems which have been accumulating for a long time.

As of February 17, Taeguki is currently playing in 513 theaters and Silmido in 220, for a total of 733 altogether. According to the calculations of the Federation of Theater Owners in Korea, the number of theaters nationwide is 1,241. Both movies took up 59 percent of the theaters nationwide. Because of this, other small-scale movies are experiencing difficulties in finding theaters to play their movies. Films such as "Love Me If You Are There" and "Eight Women", which were supposed to open in mid February, have postponed their opening dates to late March and late February, respectively.

This "rich get richer and poor get poorer" phenomenon gives rise to worried voices. The worry that both large-scale directors Kang Woo-suk and Kang Jeh-gyu are monopolizing the movie industry, and the worry that small-scale movies are having difficulties introducing their movies into theaters. "'Jealousy Is My Middle Name", a medium-sized movie, and "Take Care of My Cat", a small-sized movie, use the same line of distribution as large-scale movies, so if they fail in box office, they have to close down right away according to film critic Shin Young-sup.

It is fortunate that the prejudice that "Korean blockbusters fail" was shattered with the movies Silmido and Taeguki, but this can bring about a boomerang effect, which will make the movie industry a center of gambling. The market is becoming more insecure with film investors who are crowding to certain types of movies that have been already hits the box office. Art and independent movies might perish in this barren environment.

What is more, not all Korean movies are celebrating success over a glass of champagne. Even with the current era of box office hits, there are hundreds of other movies that are at loss with their losses. According to the Korean Film Commission, Korean movies released last year experienced a 431 million-won loss per movie, and only one-third of the movies made a profit among all 65 movies that opened last year.

Even with the movie industry's sizeable growth since the first Korean blockbuster, "Shiri", along with its enormous increases in production and marketing fees, the infrastructure of the movie industry has not evolved to the point where it will work to continually reproduce Korean movies. President Chae Hee-seung of Miro Vision, a marketing company of Korean movies abroad, said, "The salaries of the staff compared to the scale of the industry are lacking to a great degree. We also lack in world-star level directors, actors, and actresses". A representative of a movie production company was also critical, saying, "Many movies are experiencing failures because they followed the huge trend of comedies and gangster movies. The vicious circle of following the big trends without much self-reflection is behind the scarce cases of success".

The guarantee of actors or actresses should not stay in a bubble for now. President Kim Mi-hee of "Good Movies" said, expressing her concern, that "the groundless practice of setting guarantees 20 to 30 percent higher than in previous movies increases the production fees of Korean movies. If the present practice continues, only the actors or actresses will profit and the limited Korean market will experience a decrease in the number of movies produced as well as distract investment".

With the growth of production fees, the fund raising and distribution end of the industry need more attention to make movies successful. Naturally, investors are very involved in the production process, which will hinder the development of Korean movie industry. A representative of the movie production industry said, "The investors come to our office and bother us, saying, 'You should put this scene in and take that out, etc'. The directors are discouraged from fully expressing their spirit and mind, as well as the producer's voice". He also added, "The enormously extended version of the scenario is that investors understand movies better, which give rise to production fees as well".

There are critical views towards the explosive success of Korean movies that cater to the audience's unbalanced tastes. Film Critic Kim Young-jin said, "As the movie title Taeguki suggests, the trend of copying Hollywood movies is everywhere, and we should reconsider this". He added that "the exclamation saying that 'we have made such movies!' could be another face of nationalistic narcissism".

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