Cannes Q&A: Next Entertainment World Exec Jang Kyungik on Why Korean Film Is Booming

Jang Kyungik - H
Kim Jae-hyun for The Hollywood Reporter

Jang Kyungik - H

South Korea’s newest mogul discusses his company’s rapid growth, the value of giving everyone a say (even interns!) and why he’s in no hurry to conquer the world.

The South Korean film industry long has been dominated by three giants: CJ Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment and Showbox/Mediaplex. But in the past several years upstart production company/distributor Next Entertainment World (N.E.W.) has become a surprisingly dominant force in the market.

Capitalized at $2 million when it launched in 2008, N.E.W. earned a net profit of $20 million in 2013. Last year, it dominated 18.1?percent of the local market with only 21 titles compared to CJ, which accounted for 21.2 percent with twice the number of releases. N.E.W. consistently has rolled out box-office hits, including two of the biggest blockbusters in Korean cinema history, The Attorney ($81.1 million) and Miracle in Room No. 7 ($89.5 million). It also has released critically acclaimed, low-budget works such as Kim Ki-duk’s controversial Moebius. N.E.W. president Jang Kyungik says the company’s success has much to do with its uniquely inclusive corporate culture, which involves taking the entire staff on company trips.

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Sales banner Finecut will represent N.E.W. products at the Cannes market, including Obsessed, an erotic romance starring Asian superstar Song Seung-hun; Haemoo, a maritime epic produced by Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho; and Fashion King, a teen drama based on the popular web cartoon of the same?name.

The 42-year-old father of two sat down with THR in his office, located in the now-famous Gangnam district of Seoul, to discuss his company’s rapid rise in South Korea’s hypercompetitive film sector.

Why did you launch N.E.W.?

I wanted to work with movies but also wanted to earn money with movies. I envisioned a systematic industrialization of the local film scene, to turn it into a full-fledged industry. We’re not directors or producers but still love movies and thought we could develop viable and efficient investment/distribution models. Though we’ve grown fast, I’d like to emphasize that we took baby steps with one film project at a time. Our annual net profit thus rose steadily each year, from $1 million, $2 million, $4 million and then $20?million last year. It’s our dream for N.E.W. to become a firm that will endure a century; it’s difficult for any endeavor to last three generations, but we strive to be a company that is created for and by passionate people, viable business structures and a unique culture.

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How does N.E.W.’s unconventional corporate environment help the business?

We try very hard to have everyone feel like the company, and each film we work on, is his/her own. I know this sounds like a fairytale, but I truly believe that one person’s dream can stop short of being a dream, but the shared dream of a group can turn into a reality. Everyone from the CEO to a summer intern is an active participant from the start to end on each film, from choosing the script to watching previews. This can be inefficient, particularly as our staff grows larger, but I think it’s really important to cultivate passion in every single person for each project. Going on regular trips together helps build trust and honesty. Since we get input from all levels of the company, from the middle-aged senior staff to young twentysomethings, we can get a variety of perspectives. There are times when there is unanimous consensus, and I disagree for the sake of throwing in new ideas.

N.E.W. doesn’t have its own chain of multiplexes that would ensure a distribution channel. How do you get around that?

Because we don’t have anything to fall back on, we simply have to compete with good content and good strategy. We really need to distribute and market films in a smart way, and I can confidently say we’re experts on choosing release dates. My past experience programming at [major cinema chain] Megabox helps. It also boils down to choosing works the entire staff has confidence in from the start. We simply don’t choose works that we shouldn’t get our hands on. In a way, not having cinemas to fill is a plus, because there are cases where companies will distribute works just for the sake of filling the lineup?quota.

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Why is Korean cinema booming right now?

First of all this is possible because we have a consumer demand of large audiences, and a distribution market via large multiplex cinemas. But another reason -- a darker one -- is that local production companies take home an extremely high share, perhaps the highest rate in the world. Despite less-than-favorable conditions, a lot of people enter the film business out of pure love for cinema, but sadly only a small portion of those involved are entitled to the profit. Because of this business structure, local production companies can earn a lot of money with just one successful film. That’s why these firms have managed to survive [the economic crisis of the mid-2000s] and expand the Korean film industry to continue to create quality?work.

Lately a number of Korean directors have walked off sets due to creative differences with the investment/distribution side. What is your policy when it comes to creative input?

In order for films to succeed, it really boils down to choosing the right script. The strength of the original script almost always determines the quality of the finished product. This is why we get the whole team involved, to pitch ideas and vote on the right piece in the first place. But once production begins we leave things up to the director and producer, and we just focus on marketing and distribution. We leave the creative decisions at the discretion of the creative people. I think it’s most important to stick to the basics.

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N.E.W. distributes a lot of family-friendly dramas.What made you decide to back Kim Ki-duk’s controversial Venice Golden Lion winner Pieta?

I think it’s really important to look at films without prejudice. I’ve personally been a fan of the director and approached him
after reading the script. Honestly we had no idea it’d go on to win at Venice. We’re happy that it did of course, and the film
did achieve a high profit margin through international sales. I think a clean, no-frills approach is best when it comes to films, whether they’re geared to be art?house or mainstream. Because in the film biz what worked before is never guaranteed to work again. I think it’s really important to expand the pool, to give more films an?opportunity.

Now that N.E.W. has become a major player in the domestic market, what is the outlook for going?global?

What is going global for an investment/distribution company? It probably means investing in Hollywood or Chinese projects, but it’s something we’re still mulling over. The Attorney was released in the U.S. through an American distributor [Well Go USA] rather than, say, through CJ’s CGV Theater in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. It was a great way to test out ways to enter foreign markets, but we’re still brainstorming. But it again boils down to doing something that we believe is truly meaningful, not for the sake of expanding overseas.