Korean Animators Face Screen, Financing Barriers

Despite commercial success, local anime still finds itself at the back of the line.

BUSAN, South Korea -- Leafie, A Hen into the Wild was nicknamed “the emperor of the matinee” in Korea when the film first hit theaters this summer.

An animated film directed by Oh Seong-yoon with the budget of 3 billion won ($2.5 million), it is one of the few Korean animated films that broke 2.5 million admissions domestically. Still, theater owners refused to screen the film during the evening hours. And when it did, the film was given screens left over by 3D Korean blockbusters such as Sector 7.

“It’s an irony because they’re only ahead of us by 50,000 admissions now,” said Kim Seon-koo, the producer of the animated film. “And our film is still playing in theaters and they’re not.”

In an industry where animation is more closely linked to merchandising than a film, the Korean animation industry has had a bitter experience with local investors and policymakers. Once funded and controlled under the umbrella of Korean Film Council, a state-run film body, the sector is now under the auspices of the Korea Creative Content Agency, whose main responsibility is to develop cultural content that can be exported overseas.

But a rising number of independent Korean animators such as Oh and Yeon Sang-ho, director of King of Pigs, are making new movies. Yeon, whose film is currently being featured in Busan, made an unconventional animated thriller with 150 million won,  thanks to the help of student animators.

“I find that it’s harder get people to invest 100 million won as opposed to one or two billion,” said Jo Yeong-gak, an animation producer. “Investors are less confident about the commercial success of a low-budget film. When investors put in 2 billion they’re a making a decision that it'll make a hit.”

Securing prime-time screening spots has been one of the biggest frustrations for most animation producers in Korea. Leafie was a better case, given the film’s target audience is mothers who mostly visit theaters in the morning with their children. But the morning screening hours for adult animations such as Dream of Precious Days failed to attract their target audience, who visit theaters after work despite the film's commercial potential.

“No country except Korea can make an animated film so well with the budget we’re given,” said Kim, the producer. “In a sense films like King of Pigs set a bad precedent for animation directors and producers because now investors will use this an example to tighten the budget even more.”

Oh said grants and government-funded programs in Korea are focused too heavily on commercial aspects, especially in the overseas market since many in the industry believe that animation doesn’t sell domestically.

?“We can’t make an animated film to make foreign audiences laugh,” said. Oh. “The film needs to inspire Korean audiences first. If the content is good, the film will naturally attract audiences and buyers overseas.”