Cannes: Showbox CEO You Jeong-hun on Battling Hollywood, Setting Up in China (Q&A)

You Jeong-hun

The maverick South Korean exec also discusses why he wants his employees to party.

Long before Hollywood noticed the booming Chinese market, Showbox/Mediaplex was already there. The South Korean financier-distributor has had multiplex theaters in Beijing and Shenyang since 2007 — under the brand MegaBox — and has been an early adopter in the Chinese co-production business.

Under CEO You Jeong-hun, Showbox co-produced John Woo’s two-part epic Red Cliff (2008-2009), which, with an $80 million budget, at the time was the most expensive Chinese-language film ever made. More recently, Showbox backed the VFX-heavy sports drama Mr. Go (2013) from Chinese production company Huayi Brothers. The first South Korean feature to be fully shot in 3D, the film brought in twice as much in China — nearly $17 million — as it did in Korea.

At the end of the month, Showbox will properly set up shop in China, opening a fully fledged operation, Showbox China, in Beijing. The promise of this new division, which has a pact with Huayi to produce at least six titles in the next three years, has sent Showbox/Mediaplex shares soaring in Korea’s KOSDAQ Exchange. In Cannes, Showbox will be wearing its international sales hat, presenting some of the most hotly anticipated Asian titles to the market, including Assassination, a new colonial-era thriller starring Asian superstar Gianna Jun (aka Jun Ji-hyun of the 2012 blockbuster The Thieves).

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with You in his Seoul office to discuss China’s potential, the rapidly changing East Asia film landscape and why the 51-year-old father of two is a cinema purist who won’t watch movies anywhere other than in the theater.

You spent 15 years in the advertising business before entering the film industry in 2005. How did you make the career shift?

I think it was a natural process for me. I have always been interested in what moves the human heart, and, in the end, emotions are what drive consumer behavior, particularly when it comes to media content. And I simply love movies because they are all about emotions. I am first and foremost a movie fanatic. I was a movie fanatic before I was a businessman. As a boy, I used to watch three, four films a day in Chungmuro [South Korea’s equivalent of Hollywood, where the country’s oldest theaters are located]. I would also rewatch my favorites there, and I saw Die Hard four times and The Last Concert two or three times. I still do that. I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel three times at the theater. I don’t believe in watching movies at home. I’m a purist.

Showbox consistently has rolled out blockbusters — like The Host ($80 million box office in Korea) and The Thieves ($87 million) — that win both critical and popular acclaim. Up to a fifth of Korea’s entire population watches your movies. What’s your secret?

I believe we are the most “cinematic” company out there. We don’t get involved in a project unless we believe in its cinematic value. I can confidently say each and every Showbox film has a meaningful place in Korean cinema history, even including the ones that didn’t live up to box-office expectations. The movie industry cannot be understood in pure economic terms. When I visited the production set of [2011 war actioner] The Front Line, some of the extras suffered injuries, but instead of complaining, they were just happy to be part of a movie. Also, I really try to give my employees a lot of freedom. There are no set working hours or dress-code restrictions, and I encourage them to party and have fun. People who have a passion for life and know how to enjoy it are usually the ones who can think outside the box. I believe it’s very important to give individuals the chance to be creative and challenge themselves.

Showbox is an investor-distributor, but it’s also known for getting involved in production. How do you describe the company?

People often mistake us for being a production studio, but we simply operate in a different way. Often Korean studios hire directors or actors that aren’t necessarily the best match for the film. What we do is help connect people, to help find the best suited talent for a given film. And once it goes into production, my employees and I make sure to visit the set. We try to communicate as closely as we can with the director, cast and crew. Winning the trust of the filmmakers has been most important for us, and I believe this is our greatest strength.

How will you be working with Huayi Brothers?

We already have experience working with Huayi on Mr. Go, which was rewarding because we were able to see that we shared similar visions and values. Showbox Korea will be in charge of selecting projects, which our Beijing branch, Showbox China, will then further develop for local tastes and standards. We will then make investment decisions together with Huayi based on the final script. We plan to work with major Chinese film studios to create at least six such films through 2018, and Huayi will then market and distribute them in China. Huayi has been behind four of China’s top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, and we hope to gain greater access to key Asian markets by utilizing its production capacity and wide distribution network.

What kinds of movies can Asian audiences look forward to?

Korean movies are very much character-driven and more diverse in terms of genre. This is what appeals most to Chinese audiences and industry-watchers. So we are looking to create genre films such as youth dramas, comedies and melodramas rather than big-budget blockbusters. There is also a lot of potential for thrillers, too, in spite of censorship restrictions in China.

Do you see China as a solution to problems facing the Korean industry?

The Korean film industry is stuck in a jam. Koreans are watching more movies than ever and want to see something new and different. But there is a limit in terms of what local studios can offer. We already see this with Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron virtually monopolizing cinemas which have traditionally been dominated by homegrown pictures. This is where the Chinese market comes into the picture. It’s true many Korean filmmakers and companies are looking to China and have found work there, but it doesn’t mean there will be a big exodus. There are a lot of really good Korean stories that don’t get the chance to be made here but may, in fact, be better received in China. When I read new scripts by Korean writers, I can easily spot something that is better suited for Chinese audiences. I believe many Korean filmmakers will be given more opportunities, and, in the long run, this will strengthen the domestic market.

Korea has the world’s highest rate of internet and smartphone penetration. How is Showbox catering to integrated digital platforms?

We can no longer treat IPTV or social-network channels as a secondary market. We are thinking of ways to create works tailored for multiplatform releases. We are looking into opening films simultaneously in cinemas and IPTV, as well as taking a bottom-up approach by generating content that can create social media buzz before developing it into a full theatrical feature. Now that the distribution window has changed, the content itself needs to change, too.