In Korea, bigger is seen as better

Film, TV projects upping the ante with soaring budgets

SEOUL, South Korea -- For years, the Korean film industry considered itself a sickly, slingless David, forever threatened by the Goliath that is Hollywood. After all, how could tiny films of $1 million-$2 million possibly do battle with Steven Spielberg or Jerry Bruckheimer and their $100 million-plus budgets?

Then the Korean film industry started growing, learning how to compete, and for the past five years, local movies have outperformed the Hollywood blockbusters.

But as Korean films started getting better, they also began to get more expensive, topping $5 million, then $10 million, then $15 million. Sure, many of the new, relatively gigantic films flopped. But others made more money than ever thought possible in Korea -- capped by last year's $11 million monster movie "The Host," which made a record-breaking $88 million.

Today, even bigger projects are in the works, taking the big-risk, big-reward strategy to greater heights.

Prime Entertainment is one of the major leaders in this more-is-more trend. In its pipeline is the $25 million "Untitled Julia Project," the story of an American woman who married the last prince of Korea's Joseon Dynasty. A co-production with Focus Features, "Julia" is being directed and written by Deepa Mehta ("Water") and is scheduled to begin shooting this year for a 2008 release.

Prime is also working on the $20 million "Lee Shim," a true love story between a Korean court dancer and a French diplomat in the 19th century, and the $14 million "Isang Yun, The Wounded Dragon," a biopic of avant-garde Korean composer Isang Yun.

"The basic and fundamental reason for these bigger movies is the limit of the domestic film market," Prime Entertainment president of production Lee Seung-jae says. "Korea's film industry has grown, but return on investment remains poor, and Korea's population size is small. It is inevitable for producers to go outside the domestic market."

Local production house Blue Storm, together with Cineclick Asia and Terence Chang's Lion Rock Prods., is creating the $20 million Korean War epic "Christmas Cargo," based on the true story of American soldiers who rescued 100,000 refugees during the Korean War.

Vision Link Global is working on "Melanie's Violin," a $50 million co-production with China's Great Wall International Communication Co., with an October 2008 release date targeted.

Most staggering is the nonstop action/CGI fest "D-War," which producers say cost $70 million. Even with local entertainment conglomerate Showbox having invested more than $10 million in the mammoth budget, producers will need serious partners internationally to make their money back.
Down the road, leading director Bong Joon-ho ("The Host") is planning to turn the French science-fiction comic book "La Transperceneige" into a large project for Moho Film, probably in 2008.

Not everyone, however, is enamored of the trend toward bigness. "Films that go over 10 million admissions are always the films that prove people wrong," says Jonathan Kim, who produced the hit "Silmido." "And in Korea, if a film does not do well in the theaters, you're done. There is no home theater market here."

Movies are not the only medium stepping up. Korean TV is growing rapidly, too. One of KBS' latest dramas, "The King Dae Joyoung," will cost more than $40 million to tell its ancient tale over 100 episodes. Yellow Film will spend $16 million for a 24-episode thriller called "Agent Zero," which will span Korea, China and Japan.

But the biggest television project is "Legend," a 24-episode series about the mythical founding of Korea, which will clock in at a stunning $43 million -- nearly $2 million per episode.

"Legend" producer John Kim, CEO of SSD, has even bigger projects in the works -- including not one, but four TV series and a movie spinning off the incredibly popular Japanese comic book "City Hunter," each in a different city (Seoul, Tokyo, New York and Paris).

This is not the first time the Korean market has seen this pattern of growth and contraction. After the 1999 hit "Shiri" rewrote all the records, earning more than $30 million, many filmmakers rushed in with ill-advised, big-budget projects that flopped. The market soon readjusted, but along the way many investors were burned badly.

"Korea is a market where you can hit a home run like nowhere," says Paul Yi, an international sales agent, "but then very few films get to first base."