Filmart: Studio Head Jay Choi on Warner Bros. Immediate Success in South Korea, the Importance of Localization

Jay Choi Exec Suite - Staff - H 2017

Choi hit the ground running with the $57 million smash hit 'The Age of Shadows' but plans to invest in small films just as much as big ones.

Last year, South Korean studios watched nervously as Warner Bros. launched local productions in Seoul under the direction of star producer Jay Choi (also known as Choi Jae-won). Their fears came true as the Hollywood giant’s first Korean-language project, The Age of Shadows, a period drama by Kim Jee-woon starring Snowpiercer actor Song Kang-ho, raked in over $57 million to become one of 2016’s biggest films as well as Korea’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar.

The 50-year-old exec believes Warner Bros. Local Productions is bringing “healthy tension” to a market that had long been dominated by four giant investor-distributors, CJ, Showbox, Lotte and NEW. “People have been telling me to take it easy when Shadows did so well. But it’s about time someone shook up the big-four system and turned the industry into a creator-oriented one,” says Choi, who had once been president at NEW. The focus on talent reflects in how the opening credits of the film features cast and crew before the investors, breaking a long custom in Korea.

It was the first time that a debut local production was such a smash hit for Warners, Choi says, but the inaugural success was “unsurprising” in light of Shadow’s star-studded cast as well as the studio’s intensive efforts to enter the world’s fifth largest lm market.

Shadows is the latest in Choi’s long filmography of 30-odd works, which includes investing in and/or producing some of the biggest blockbusters in recent Korean cinema, such as 2013’s The Attorney ($75.3 million). Next up on Warners’ Korean production slate are much-anticipated works by renowned directors including The Bad Lieutenant by Lee Jeong-beom (The Man From Nowhere), V.I.P. by Park Hoon-jung (The Tiger) and Inlang, a big-budget sci-fi actioner also to be directed by Shadow’s Kim.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Choi in his Gangnam office to discuss Warner’s long-term vision in Korea — with a strategy that has decidedly been different from Fox’s local productions — the importance of bringing diversity to the Korean market, and the busy exec’s dreams of directing his own film one day.

You were a financial analyst before entering the film scene around 2000. How did you make the career move?

I actually wanted to attend art school and was also active in theater groups, but as the eldest and only son of a conservative family, I was pressured to study something “more serious.” Director Kim Jee-woon tells me that I have an artistic sensibility and uncanny eye for visualizing scripts that make it easy to discuss projects. I ended up in finance, first in stocks and then a venture capital firm. But I always craved doing something creative and started investing in films. I was in my early 30s, and I managed to persuade [director] Kang Woo-suk and [producer] Cha Seung-jae to create a giant film fund.

You then enjoyed a string of successful investments, from Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder to Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters in the early 2000s.

Yes, and then I lost it all with a string of failures, and my family and I had to move out of our Gangnam [a posh area of Seoul] apartment to a satellite city. I thought I had lost everything, but then I was offered the opportunity to come back to the lm industry in 2005, and even went on to produce films. The Attorney was my third piece as a producer, and I overlooked everything, from choosing the script to raising funds and organizing the production. I went to the shooting location every day, and my wife told me as I was about to leave one morning that I looked really happy. I’ve achieved what people consider worldly success. I’ve made lots of money. But The Attorney allowed me to savor the joy of filmmaking.

You’re known for introducing changes to the industry, from signing filmmakers for multiple films like a professional sports team would do with athletes, to helping set standard budgeting and contracting systems. How did this come about?

At the time, around 2000, there was surprisingly little awareness about standard contracts or intellectual property in the industry. So I introduced a 14-page contract that has become the template for what is largely used today. I also used Microsoft Excel to sort accounting matters, from tracking rebates from marketing fees to recording daily expenditures. This was never done before, and most people in the industry didn’t even know what Excel was. It really went against industry customs back then, and got me into fights. But things have changed for the better now.

I heard you created a contract for Warner Bros. that fuses together American and Korean customs.

Yes, it took me eight months. I really appreciate how the head office was willing to do this. They also OKed doing payments the Korean way, which made everyone happy here.

Fox began putting out local productions several years ago, but it took a while until The Wailing made a box-office splash last year. It seems Warner Bros. took a different approach to South Korea.

Warner’s expansion here is the result of intensive study over how to advance into the market. I initially turned down the offer to head the Korean office, saying I can’t speak English, but Warner’s only requirement was that the exec be a veteran in the Korean film scene. I believe Warner was a success from the start because it tried to do a lot of things the local way, with a clear goal of making Korean movies for Korean audiences.

Why do you think Warner Bros. eyed the South Korean market?

South Korea actually has a local market where domestic films outperform Hollywood ones, and it’s the fifth largest in the world. It’s significant in terms of numbers. There is a language barrier when it comes to earning revenue overseas, but Korean films have a solid reputation in terms of cinematic value, creative storytelling and domestic ticket sales. They say the industry size is now stagnant but theater ticket prices [about $10] are ridiculously low, so there is still room for growth in terms of revenue by raising ticket prices.

It is interesting that Warner's second film here is a small, artsy release like A Single Rider, the debut by newcomer Lee Zoo-young. It has been praised for bringing back the tradition of films like Failan, which has a slower pace than most action-heavy South Korean films these days.

Warner’s long-term devotion to Korean cinema manifests in the efforts to foster diversity and new talent, so we’re always watching out for works by local lm school graduates for example. A Single Rider is by an upcoming filmmaker who also happens to be female, which remains rare here. It really is a beautiful, slow-paced film, like Failan, that the industry hasn’t seen in a while and seriously lacks, and filmmakers who’ve seen A Single Rider have told me they’ve been craving something like it.

I think our first two films, a big-budget blockbuster like Shadows and a small film like Rider, really reflect what Warner is trying to do: Make different types of good movies that Koreans want to watch, and reinvest earnings to make more different types of good movies Koreans want to watch. Our goal is to produce four to five titles per year, including both tent poles and smaller, yet cinematically meaningful projects like A Single Rider. Warner Bros. isn’t here to make money and leave. It’s here to create healthy tension in the long run.

What are some personal goals in the long run? Do you still paint?

I still paint in my free time. It’s been a dream of mine to do a nude painting of my wife, but she keeps saying no (Laughs). I can paint more now because I have my own studio at home. It’s because our son has left behind an empty room, after becoming a Buddhist monk. All my life I had to bear the burden of being the eldest and only son, of continuing the family line in a strict Confucian family. With my son having become a monk, our family line has been cut off. But I am happy for him because it was his choice and he seems very content. This has really made me rethink everything in my life.

I’d also like to direct a film one day. I really love to write and am working on several scripts. Song Kang-ho has already promised to play the lead role and I’m going to make Kim Jee-woon produce. Things will come full circle because [Kim] will finally know what it’s like to handle money matters and fickle artists (Laughs). 

March 17, 8:33 p.m. Director Lee Zoo-young's name has been corrected. It was previously spelled as "Lee Ju-yeong" in accordance with the official Korean language Romanization system.