South Korea Unveils Movie Theater Relief Amid Virus Crisis

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A general view of Seoul on March 20, 2020 in South Korea.

Exhibitors will be exempted from paying the usual 3 percent cinema development fund fee on all ticket sales, and studios will be able to recoup some funds lost due to canceled shoots or delayed releases.

South Korea's government has unveiled a series of measures designed to boost the country's influential but coronavirus-battered film industry.

Central to the policy plan is a decision to exempt major cinema chains from paying into South Korea's movie development fund. Under local law, large movie theater chains usually are required to pay 3 percent of all ticket sales to the Korean Film Council's movie development fund, which is used to support the local industry's development in various ways. The fund typically generates about $45 million in contributions per year. The new exemption will apply retroactively from February.

The policy response was unveiled in Seoul by South Korea's Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki. He said the government was originally envisioning allowing only delayed payments into the development fund, but decided an exemption was required after further countenancing the depth of the damage caused by the coronavirus.

After Bong Joon Ho's historic Oscar wins for Parasite in February, 2020 was expected to be a celebratory year of growing global relevance for the Korean film industry. But the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Korea hard in February, has put a damper on such hopes. The Korean Film Council reported Wednesday that box office in March totaled just $12.3 million (15.15 billion won), down from $103.0 million (126.56 billion won) last year.

The government also unveiled several measures to support production and distribution companies. It will subsidize a portion of the marketing costs for 20 selected movies that were forced to postpone or cancel their release plans during the first quarter because of the coronavirus epidemic. The production companies behind 20 selected movies that were forced to halt shooting because of the crisis also will receive funds to help them resume production, according to the finance minister's announcement. At the level of the individual, the government said that 400 industry professionals who lost their jobs or haven't been able to find freelance gigs because of the crisis will be eligible for free vocational training.

The policy plans drew a decidedly mixed response from industry observers. Korean news agency Yonhap ran a story Thursday questioning whether the measures "are effective and realistic enough for theaters and filmmakers to get over the crisis."

Independent movie theaters and art house cinemas with less than 1 billion won ($814,000) in annual sales already were exempted from the fund and don't seem to be getting any aid from the government's proposals. It also has been pointed out that most Korean production professionals who have been made idle by the coronavirus shutdown of film shoots are already skilled technicians — most simply need jobs or temporary financial support, not vocational training.

The Korean Film Council is preparing an additional set of support plans for the film industry, which are expected to be unveiled soon.