Berlin: Seoul Searching in Southeast Asia

'Let Hoi Decide' Poster - P 2014
Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

China's hot as ever, but thanks to crossover hits and a multiplex boom, the South Korean film sector has set its sights on its neighbors to the south.

When 20 Once Again became the highest-grossing South Korea-China co-production in China in January ($55.7 million as of Jan. 29), South Korean entertainment giant CJ E&M immediately announced plans to create localized versions of the comedy throughout Southeast Asia.

Just a few days before, the romantic comedy Let Hoi Decide, a film that CJ co-produced with Vietnam's Chanh Phuong Films, earned $4.7 million (as of Jan. 28) to become the highest-grossing film of all time in Vietnam.

South Korean filmmakers have heavily targeted China's explosively expanding market in recent years — but many also have eyed Southeast Asia's booming young population. Indeed, insiders say that Asia currently resembles Korea back in the 1990s, when it experienced the rapid emergence of homespun blockbusters and multiplex cinemas before becoming the global powerhouse it is today.

If Korean filmmakers previously had been limited to selling local titles during international film markets, they now are investing in new content and distribution strategies to find ways to expand beyond Korea's saturated domestic market.

"Many of our biggest titles are now simultaneously released across Asia, and we have to act fast for seasonal openings, since many Asian countries celebrate the same holidays," says Soojin Jung, vp international business at Seoul-based distributor Showbox/Mediaplex, which is unveiling the period actioner Gangnam Blues at the European Film Market (it already has opened in most of the 13 Asian countries to which it was presold). The company also has high hopes for Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island, a sequel to the successful 2011 costume adventure Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow, which is set to hit screens in half a dozen Asian territories, including Vietnam and Indonesia, for the Lunar New Year holiday later in February.

The widening distribution channels in Southeast Asia are a direct result of changing demographics throughout the region. Since 2006, the South Korean movie chain CGV has opened 22 multiplexes that now account for more than half of Vietnam's box-office revenue. Lotte, a conglomerate with headquarters in Korea and Japan, follows close behind with 16 cinemas. Vietnam has a population of 90 million, of which 60 percent are 35 and under — a considerably higher number than Korea’s rapidly aging population of 50 million. CGV plans to open at least seven more theaters by the end of 2015, pulling up the total number of cinemas in Vietnam to almost 100.

In Myanmar, CGV operates six screens that grab 15 percent of the country's box office. While there are only about 70 screens nationwide, which earned barely $9 million in 2013, insiders see strong potential: Myanmar has a population of more than 50 million, with a median age of about 29, and the local film market slowly is opening up after years of heavy censorship and funding shortages. "With Myanmar opening up its economy, foreign investment has increased explosively to forecast a 7 percent economic growth by 2018," says CGV representative Kim Dae-hee.

Indonesia, on the other hand, had a giant film industry until the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s cut the number of screens from more than 2,000 to about 780 today. "But the future is bright," says Yoon Ha, a researcher at the Korean Film Council, noting that Indonesia — the world’s fourth-most-populated country, at 250 million — enjoys a GDP growth rate of 5 percent to 6 percent. "Once there is capital inflow and a reinforcement of infrastructure, prospects are quite positive."

Infrastructure growth not only means more films get distributed, it also translates into more opportunity for co-productions. Among the 160 titles released per year in Vietnam, fewer than 20 are homegrown. But these account for about 20 percent of the market share, with many scoring higher than Hollywood films. CJ thus saw more reason to take part in local ventures. Three Girls, another CJ co-production with Vietnamese partners, will be released in the first half of 2015, while a number of other local remakes of popular Korean films also are in development. “We are aiming to distribute at least 10 films and produce two to three local films every year,” says CJ CEO Taesung Jung.

CJ also is developing local productions in Indonesia. "Because a lot of Indonesian films are religious or educational in nature, we want to introduce new genres — art house films with international appeal and big-budget projects," says Mike Im, senior vp international sales and distribution at CJ.

Opportunities also are increasing in countries where censorship restrictions are starting to ease up. Korean indie-film stars Kkobbi Kim and Choi Woo-shik have been cast in Singapore's first erotic film, In the Room, directed by Eric Khoo. "Singapore's film industry is tiny but is considered an important gateway to the Southeast Asian market, particularly in terms of investments, funding and other business opportunities," says the Korean Film Council's Woody Kim.

Partnerships also are being forged at governmental levels.

In 2013, Korea and Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding to promote exchanges between the two countries' film sectors. Last year, the state-backed Korean Academy of Film Arts hosted workshops in Indonesia and Vietnam. These exchanges helped launch the Association of Indonesian Film Producers, which since has signed cooperative treaties with the Producers Guild of Korea. In November, the third annual Film Leaders Incubator was held in Yangon, Myanmar, and extended invitations to aspiring filmmakers from Korea and the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Says Oh Seok-geun, director of the Busan Film Commission, the Korean co-organizer of the conference: "Korea's goal is to provide an opportunity for exchange, to create a cooperative system between the film industries of Korea and Southeast Asia."