Asia biz reflects

Forum to study old ways, new trends

More Pusan news

BUSAN, South Korea -- The Pusan festival gets under way Thursday with a grand pageant, a film that by many accounts is a smart piece of hokum, and then a happy party at the Grand Hotel. After that the serious work of re-examining the Asian film industry can start in earnest.

Pusan is well-suited for this. The festival, with its enormous program, sets out to be "the window to the world for Asian films, including Korea's," according to PIFF head of programming Park Do-sin. It is also famous for its late, late nights and passionate soju-soaked discussions. But pinpointing the big issues is a problem in itself.

Ask 10 film executives what the major concern in Asia is today, and you will get 10 different answers.

"Piracy, which is eating 50% of our business," said Thai exhibitor Suvanee Chinchiewchan of SF Cinemas. "Fast-vanishing international markets for Asian films," said Emperor's Albert Lee. Shrinking secondary markets, said another. How to do business with China and not get ripped off, said another. Still others point to the effects of the global recession, the rising cost of theatrical distribution and Asia's non-integration with the rest of the film world.

This litany of worries comes at a time when Asian film is doing respectably well. The region has not suffered from the global meltdown nearly as much as the U.S. and Europe and production finance in Asia did not dry up as it did elsewhere. Theatrical boxoffice across much of the region is still growing and in many cases the market share of local films is on the increase -- Korea has just enjoyed its best ever quarter boosted by record-breaking domestic titles (see separate story.) And Asian films continue to win top prizes at major festivals (Locarno and San Sebastian this autumn alone).

The trouble is that just as the current successes are real, they have mitigated and masked the global and regional negatives. Put simply, it is becoming harder than ever to see far into the future. The only certainty is that further major changes are on their way.

That will be a real challenge for Pusan's Asian Film Market, which begins Sunday. "We face the potential loss of some international markets such as France and Germany, where acceptance of our films is becoming more difficult. Other smaller ones, such as the West Indies, have completely disappeared," said Emperor's Lee.

One of the results of this is that the Asian industry is becoming increasingly decoupled from the rest of the world. "Asian films are playing at festivals, but they represent a small fraction of the business and cannot be an economic model for Asian cinema as a whole," said one expert. "But if we make fewer films and concentrate on local audiences that may not be a bad outcome."

The Pusan festival is home to many initiatives intended to foster working links between the region's local industries -- these include APAN, the Asian Cinema Fund, the PPP and Asian Film Academy -- but none are currently so important as the bilateral relations with China. "China is slowly opening up and maturing," Lee said. "Without that process, a lot of companies would already have gone out of business."

However, while Chinese boxoffice is growing at more than 25% per year and may have the potential to be the locomotive for the whole region, its movie industry is still ring-fenced by regulation and an intrusive censorship process. And it suffers from a dearth of significantly developed studio groups. Understandably, Pusan will be hosting a seminar on Korea-China relations.

"Digital piracy is the biggest issue for us at the moment," said Mike Suh, head of international at Korean giant CJ Entertainment, whose film "Haeundae" was leaked while it was in postproduction. "While it is still playing strongly in theaters, we have suffered opportunity cost in terms of sales in Southeast Asia and China. Digital files are widely available to download even though we have not yet released it to the home entertainment or TV markets."

Understandably, CJ is working with the government to define rights and to educate audiences about the illegality of sharing copyright material. It will also be using its influence with the talent community to give Pusan's "Good Downloader" campaign on Saturday as big a boost as possible.

In Korea, where Internet speeds are among the world's fastest, the illegal sector ranges from the amateur to the highly organized. Millions of people use LG's "webhard" or virtual hard drive, which can store and transfer huge files in a matter of minutes. That has prevented the emergence of a legitimate online distribution business in Korea to replace the now all but disappeared video and DVD sector.

Events at this year's festival show that Pusan is doing its bit to move the agenda forward.

> The decision to screen half a dozen films from India and to honor Yash Chopra represents a belated olive branch between the often separate industries of South Asia and the Confucian North East.

> The promoters of 3-D say it represents a technology with the potential to keep cinema a theatrical business while also limiting the tide of piracy. Both are of interest to Asia and the festival will follow Saturday's seminar session with a weeklong workshop for selected participants.

> The decision to collaborate with Europe's EAVE organization puts a spotlight on script and corporate development in the film business, niceties which Asian filmmakers have often ignored.