By Kim Sung-jin
South Korea on Thursday decided to halve its 40-year-old screen quota, the mandatory period for theaters to show domestic films a year, to 73 days to clear the way for its free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States.
"The government decided to cut the screen quota by half and the decision will go into effect on July 1", Finance and Economy Minister Han Duck-soo said in a press conference at the Kwachon government complex, south of Seoul.
Han, however, said that the quota is an internationally recognized legitimate tool to protect homegrown movie industries, ruling out the possibility of a complete abolition.
Korea has been operating the screen quota system, a measure that has shielded the Korean film industry from the influx of big budget Hollywood blockbuster films since 1966. Under the system, local cinemas are required to show domestic movies for at least 146 days a year.
Although the enforcement decree of the Film Industry Promotion Act required local theaters to show Korean films for more than 146 days or 40 percent of the year, the actual quota comes down to 106 days a year when applying various provisions that ease the required Korean film showing days.
"The decision matches Korea's dual goals of actively pursuing the World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral negotiations and bilateral FTAs, and promoting our national interests", Han said.
Han noted that FTAs are a global trend and an inevitable choice for Korea, a country that relies on international trade for more than 70 percent of its economy.
"The government will make multilateral efforts to support the Korean film industry, which has proven its global competitiveness, to help foster the sector into one of Korea's core industries", Han said.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism will announce detailed film industry promotion plans on Jan. 27.
The screen quota reduction will expedite the protracted Korea-U.S. FTA talks.
Responding to Hollywood's strong lobby, Washington has repeatedly called on Seoul to phase out the screen quota ahead of the launch of formal bilateral FTA talks.
The Korean film industry objects to any change in the quota, arguing that it would be tantamount to its abolition. Strong opposition by actors and members of the industry blocked the government's attempts to reduce the quota.
Actor Ahn Seong-ki and film director Jeong Ji-yeong, leaders of the anti-screen quota reduction, Thursday claimed that the movie industry will muster all available means to overturn the government's decision.
This time, their opposition is expected to fail as the market share of Korean movies has passed 50 percent since 2004 and the government is eager to sign the Korea-U.S. FTA to attract foreign direct investment.
Last week, President Roh Moo-hyun said his administration would pursue formal FTA talks with the U.S. in the near future, claiming that the deal is necessary to boost the Korean economy.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman also said on Jan. 20 that the Bush administration hopes to initiate more FTA negotiations in 2006, possibly with South Korea and Malaysia.
"I'm very encouraged by the talks and I'm very hopeful that we can deepen our economic relationship with Korea through an FTA", Portman was quoted as saying, "but we're not quite there yet".
Some 10 countries, including France and Italy, are implementing a protectionist system similar to Korea's screen quota system to protect their film industries.