CJ Entertainment Chief on the Biggest Challenge in International Co-production

Mike Suh also tells THR what he's learned about the markets in China, Japan and the United States.

Since taking his position as the head of international film financing and production at CJ Entertainment five years ago, Mike Suh played a unique role in building the company's development resources with major studios in Asia and Hollywood. And now after striking major deals with Hollywood's 1492 Pictures, Japan's T-Joy and China's Polybona, the senior investor of the South Korean film powerhouse looks to pan-Asian co-production with contents that are thematically universal and culturally unique. Suh shared his company' vision for a global film market with The Hollywood Reporter's Park Soo-mee at the height of American Film Market.

The Hollywood Reporter: How is the market so far? What's the CJ lineup at AFM?

Mike Suh: We have market screenings of The Man from Nowhere, A Better Tomorrow and The Unjust along with 3D promo screenings of Tarbosaurus and the theater version of Bolts and Blip animation that will be released next year. We're also pitching Looking for Kim Joong-wook, which will be released in December and a 3D feature, Section 7, which is one of our main lineups next year. As far as the overall market it's probably too early to say, but the sales and offers we're getting are quite encouraging so far.

THR: In the last two or three years, CJ Entertainment has been aggressively investing in overseas markets. What were some of the company's notable achievements?

Suh: This year, we laid a foundation for our overseas projects. In April, we established a joint venture between by CJ Entertainment and T-JOY, a subsidiary of Japan's major studio TOEI, to produce and distribute our films in the Japanese market and explore the local market. We set up a strategic partnership with China's Bona Film Group to expand distribution and co-production opportunities in the region. For production in North American, we started on a number of developments of family action adventure with 1492 Pictures by Chris Columbus, our production and development partner in the region.

THR: It appears that many Korean film companies, including CJ, felt the need to explore overseas market as the domestic film industry suffered a major downturn two or three years ago. What's the current ratio of the company's investment in international production versus domestic production?

Suh: Certainly domestic investment and production is far greater at the moment in scale, but we expect to see that change in the next two to four years to an even scale. At the moment, our investment in overseas markets takes up about 10%-20%.

THR: What have you learned about the markets in China, Japan and the U.S. over the last five years?

Suh: There are so many lessons. We're still learning through trial and error due to differences in market disposition, distribution and production systems and business customs in each region. But most importantly, we find that practical understanding about the local audiences is crucial. It's one of the reasons why we try to increase localized projects and bring as much local input and manpower as possible. In the end, partnership with our local businesses is everything.

THR: You advised at a forum for Korean film companies who are trying to break the overseas market that global film market is becoming "one market" as national boundaries diminish and content is digitized without a barrier of place and time. In that context you stressed the need for a universal storytelling. This must put companies like CJ in dilemma between global content and original content. Where does CJ stand on this?

Suh: The most difficult thing [in international co-production] is to develop a crossover content that communicates in both markets while maintaining a localized substance that makes the story unique. We try to find a universal theme and sentiment since differences do exist in the sentiment and storytelling approach that appeal to each market. We try to develop a Pan-Asian commercial genre and storytelling formula. Ultimately, we're after developing a universal story or a subject that could culturally cross over. But in the short-run we're focusing on developing unique local content that will increase our presence in the market. It's most important to understand our selling points in the foreign market.

THR: What makes Korean films attractive for North American market?

Suh: Korean films in the North American market are still limited to 'specialty films' or 'foreign films,' which makes it hard for Korean film companies to penetrate the mainstream market. This still has largely to do with the cultural and language gap, and we need to overcome that through such experiments as strategic co-production [with Hollywood studios]. Also, Korean films are still led by many excellent creative talents who take challenges in new genres, styles and subjects that are still considered a risk in Hollywood or the global mainstream market. That's a big strength. Also, I think Korea has a competitive hardware market in that it possesses advanced technology in VFX and computer graphics that are economically efficient as well. CJ will continue to collaborate with Hollywood with these factors as a foundation of our competition and ultimately become the gateway of Hollywood-Pan Asian co-production.

THR: If you had to imagine CJ in 10 years what it would be?

Suh: The company's vision is to become a major studio representing Asia. By that we don't just mean in terms of quantity but we mean an Asian studio that could connect Asia and Hollywood and eventually the rest of the world.