Busan 2012: Korean Film Report Stirs Debate

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A recent survey suggests corporate multiplex owners give preferential treatment to films released by affiliates.

A summary report of the Korean film industry submitted to South Korea’s National Assembly last week by the Korea Film Council contained rare surveys on the country’s film distribution system by local film professionals. In the report — part of the mandatory documents for an annual audit hearing held every fall — 86.6% of 492 film professionals said Korean multiplex theater owners are “unfair” in selecting films between their affiliates and other producers. The survey also said that theaters discriminated against films of other producers in allocating the number of screens and screening time. Up to 67.2% said local theaters are “unfair” in allocating screens. 

Chun Byung-hun, a lawmaker with the Democratic United Party, who initiated the survey, said the report is a telling sign of films that are playing in theaters now, citing that Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King, which opened on 689 screens last month, and sold 6 million tickets in just 20 days, was backed by CJ Entertainment, which also runs the country’s largest theater chain CGV. Spy, a film from Lotte Entertainment, which runs the second largest Lotte Cinema, had a smooth start by securing 533 screens.

“Even without discussing film quality, it’s hard to deny that the backing of major multiplex theaters was an absolute factor of the films’ success,” Chun said.

Lim Seong-kyu, a spokesman at Lotte Entertainment, declined to comment specifically on the government survey, but added that the company has been collaborating with film bodies like the Korea Film Council to achieve “shared growth” with local film professionals by strengthening copyright issues of screenwriters and properly insuring its production staffs. Elsewhere, CJ Entertainment operates “Movie Collage,” or special screenings of art house films. 

But in a country of less than 30 arthouse theaters, the survey result sums up the complaints film directors and producers have about theater owners. .  

“There are no rules to the market competition at the moment,” Korean art house director Kim Ki-duk told THR. “In many countries outside of Korea, theater owners are banned from producing or investing in a film for a good reason. When I went to a theater in France, they had 13 screens and they still played 13 different films, and The Dark Knight was only one of them.”

Pieta, Kim’s latest film, which won Golden Lion award in Venice, opened in 153 screens locally, and closed after 27 days.

Pieta filled 46% of seats on average,” Kim said. “By the general market rule, theaters would have expanded screen numbers, but films [produced by affiliates of theaters] with less than 15% of seating were given more screens instead. This attitude of major distributors shows the market trend. Clearly, they don’t want to screen films like Pieta, because it challenges their system of filmmaking.”

Others like Jeon Chan-il, the programmer at Busan International Film Festival, however, disagree with that view.

“The problem about the monopoly in the film industry is not limited to Korea,” Jeon said. “I also think that despite such conditions, Korean cinema is still one of world’s most vibrant and diverse, and the country being the world’s 7th largest film market is a telling sign.” 

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