WHITHER THE KOREAN FILM INDUSTRY?1

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  • ABSTRACT

    In the past decade, the Korean film industry has enjoyed never-before-seen success at home and abroad. With the high domestic market share of local movies (recording more than 40% market share continuously from 2001), it has been reported that Korea is “the only nation during the post-Vietnam War history that would regain its domestic audiences after losing them to Hollywood” (Kim, 2004). Based on this domestic achievement, Korean cinema’s foreign exports have also drastically increased, from 14 movies that generated revenue of US$173,838 in 1993 to 202 movies that reached about US$75 million in 2005 (Korean Film Council, 2010) . Despite this achievement, trade headlines and popular news reports have continued to rave about these external figures while ignoring significant internal changes from within the Korean film industry. In addition, there is a tendency among scholars to interpret this commercial achievement simply as successful resistance against American cultural imperialism within the local vs. global paradigm. In order to understand the cultures of production (du Gay, 1997) of the current Korean film industry, this study examines the changing industrial formations and ownership concentration processes in the Korean film industry of the 2000s against the backdrop of distinct media globalization processes. It relates this finding to larger discussions concerning the overseas development of the Korean Wave or Hallyu. From this political-economic approach, it is expected that readers can gain a more holistic understanding of the Korean film industry and the Korean Wave.


  • KEYWORD

    Korean film , film industry , Korean Wave , Hallyu , Asian film

  • INTRODUCTION

    In the period circa 1999–2006, the Korean film industry enjoyed its never-beforeseen success both at home and abroad. With the high domestic market share of local movies (recording more than 50 percent market share continually from 2001), it was reported that Korea was “the only nation during the post-Vietnam War history that would regain its domestic audiences after losing them to Hollywood” (Kim K., “Movie Power.”).2 Based on this domestic achievement, the foreign export of Korean films drastically increased, from 14 movie exports for US$173,838 revenue in 1993 to 202 movies for over US$75 million in 2005. Some scholars interpreted this commercial achievement as a successful resistance against American cultural imperialism within the local vs. global paradigm.

    If we naïvely stick to the above line of interpretation, we ignore the corporate concentration process in cultural production. Even Herbert Schiller (1992) revised his thesis of American cultural imperialism in the 1990s, arguing that the modern juggernaut in global culture was transnational corporations with U.S. know-how in production and marketing practices. As such, the issue today is not so much whether there is global or local control of the media, but how the implications of corporatization are manifested in cultural productions in each locale.

    In fact, the Korean film industry has been through many upheavals and trials in the past two decades. Local big business conglomerates, or chaebŏl, including Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo had been important players in production and investment in the 1990s, and largely withdrew from the cinema scene during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Then, venture capital and investment firms became the major financiers of local film production in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Shim, “South Korean.”). With the rise of Korean popular culture overseas in the early and mid 2000s, characterized by the Korean Wave phenomenon, the Korean film industry was flooded by diverse forms of money. After this bubble burst in the late 2000s, however, vertical integration and concentration processes in the industry deepened, casting important implications on the nature of cultural production. Going through this process, many small and mid-sized production companies went out of business.

    Despite more critical raves from abroad, and more invites to the top international film festivals, those in the Korean film industry, ranging from filmmakers to critics, these days are surrounded by crisis-consciousness. In order to understand the discourse of the Korean film industry crisis, this study applies a multi-layered analysis with foci ranging from cultures of production (du Gay et al.) and ownership concentration to audience culture. It is expected that we would have a more holistic understanding of the Korean film industry and its efforts to open up new markets.

    2Except for 2002, when the figure was 48.30 percent.

    KOREAN FILMS IN 2010

    In 2010, important directors whose films had been critically praised at home and abroad tasted the bitters in theaters. Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (Si), which won the Best Screenplay Award at the 63rd Cannes, only brought in 220 thousand admissions at home, throwing the Korean film community, to say nothing of its production company, Pinehouse Film, into despair. Hong Sang-soo, another auteur who won the Un Certain Regard Award at the 63rd Cannes, released his 11th movie Oki’s Movie (Okhŭi ŭi yŏnghwa) in September 2010. However, it was only able to secure 20 screens across the country for four to eight weeks, and attracted just around 40,000 admissions. Ascribing this exhibition problem to the financial and distribution control by an oligopoly, Hong is said to have decided to keep the major investors/distributors at a distance. Kim Ki-duk who won Best Director Award at Berlin and Venice also tasted a bitter experience a few years ago. His films, including 3-Iron (Pin chip), Samaritan Girl (Samaria) and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winterand Spring (Pom yŏrŭm kaŭl kyŏul kŭrigo pom), have impressed many Western viewers with their exotic themes and shocking images. Considered a bore, however, his film Time (Sigan) flopped badly at home in 2006. Shocked, Kim announced that he was quitting filmmaking, although he made a comeback afterwards with Breath (2007) and Dream (2008). In his new film Arirang, which was screened at Cannes in May 2011, Kim strongly criticized the corporate-controlled film industry. Meanwhile, it is reported that the film’s exhibition in Korea is not yet decided upon because few if any distributors have an interest in this film (Min, “Director Kim.”).

    On the other hand, The Man from Nowhere (Ajŏssi) became the most commercially successful Korean film in 2010 by selling 6.22 million tickets at home. Many critics and popular opinion uniformly attribute The Man’s success to two factors. Firstly, The Man followed the recent trend of the thriller genre. Secondly, it cast a heartthrob Won Bin who has massive loyal female fan bases (Kim, “Kim Hyeong-ho’s movie.”). These factors are important points to start a discussion. According to veteran actor Park Joong-hoon, “There is an epidemic in Chungmuro.3 When a certain movie hits, then all the ensuing movies follow its style and genre” (“Sisa Gihoek.”). In 2010, local theaters were flooded with more than 10 thrillers includingThe Man from Nowhere, Bedeviled (Kim Pongnam sarin sagŏn ŭi chŏnmal), Bloody Innocent (Sarin ŭi kang), I Saw the Devil (Angma rŭl poatta), and Man of Vendetta (P’agoedoen sanai), to name a few. This thriller trend started with the success of Chaser (Ch’ugyŏkcha) which pulled in around seven million admissions in 2008. Since then, many Korean movies are being made to compete to provide audiences with shocking, destructive, and sensational scenes, featuring stars with sex-appeal. In order to understand this strange divide forming in the theaters, we need to examine the industry-wide changes of Korean film in the past two decades.

    3A street in Seoul, Chungmuro refers to the Korean film industry. Chungmuro used to host hundreds of film production-related companies in the period of 1950s and 1990s, although many film companies have since moved to the Kangnam area in Seoul.

    CHANGES AND CHANCES

    Up until the early 1990s the average Korean film cost less than a million dollars. Film producers were satisfied with “low risk, OK return” projects like romance stories and adult films instead of venturing on epic films. One of the reasons leading to this situation was that their films were financed, not by banks, but by film distributors and usurers who lent money at excessive rates of interest on a short-term loan, around three to five months, so that filmmakers had to make puny films within a short period of time.

    The Gingko Bed (Ŭnhaengnamu ch’imdae. 1996) was the first film financed by a legitimate financial institution, Ilshin Investment. It ended up a huge hit, with 452,000 admissions in Seoul alone, becoming the second most successful Korean film of the year. Not only Chungmuro, but also the Korean press and the Ministry of Culture were excited over the success of The Gingko Bed when the cultural industry development was the buzzword of the era (Bae, “Young film.”; Bae, “Large corporations.”). Since then, the new financing system took root in the Korean film industry, improving transparency of cash flow in film production, and therefore attracting more legitimate financiers (Shim, “South Korean.”).

    The Asian economic crisis in 1997 worked favorably for some Korean film companies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) ordered sprawling chaebŏl to focus on core businesses, and Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai, which were more concerned with selling VCRs and importing foreign films than making quality films, largely withdrew from the industry. With weak companies already out of business in the midst of the financial upheaval, the remaining film companies found they had much less competition. In addition, Kim Dae-jung, inaugurated as president of South Korea in early 1998, was fully supportive of the film industry. By introducing new film laws, the government provided tax relief and other incentives to film production (Shim, “Hybridity.”). The government also facilitated the creation of a number of fully-fledged investment funds dedicated to the entertainment and film industries.

    This propitious condition promoted young, aspiring filmmakers’ debuts with ease. Between 1996 and 2000, modern Korean cinema’s most important directors including Kang Je-gyu, Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sangsoo and Kim Jee-woon released their first films. This new generation of filmmakers produced creative potential that had not existed in the local scene. The Asian economic crisis further created favorable conditions for film business. As millions of people lost jobs, they wanted to forget their predicament and have fun by going to the cinema. In addition, as the local people called the crisis an “IMF Crisis,” anti-foreign sentiments were formed, and they ardently supported homegrown goods and services including movies (Shim, “South Korean.”). Therefore, when Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri (Swiri. 1999) broke the admissions record previously set by a U.S. film, Titanic, the local press buzzed with excitement with headlines such as “Shiri sank the Titanic” (Kim, “A small fish.”).

    From Shiri which pulled in 6.2 million admissions, the Korean film industry started to produce blockbusters spectacularly almost every year. JSA (Kongdong kyŏngbi kuyŏk. 2000) pulled in 5.8 million admissions, Friend (Ch’in’gu. 2001) broke the admissions record with 8.18 million, Silmido (2003) reset it with 11.1 million, Taegukgi (T’aegŭkki hwinallimyŏ. 2004) did the same with 11.7 million, The King and the Clown (Wang ŭi namja. 2005) again broke the record with 12.3 million, and The Host (Koemul. 2006) became the most successful film in Korean history by topping 13.02 million admissions. This domestic success also saw the rise of Korean movies abroad, as noted above. After all, this great era of Korean film was built on the creativity and fine business sense of the new generation of filmmakers.

    BUBBLE BUSTED

    The trend of yearly appearing record-setting films has not, however, continued since 2007, although Haeundae (Tidal Wave) topped 11.31 million admissions in 2009. In addition, the total number of local movie-goers decreased from 97.91 million in 2006 to 68.29 million in 2010 (see Graph 1 below).

    In the same vein, the local market share of Korean films also dropped to 42.1 percent in 2008, after hitting 63.8 percent in 2006 (see Graph 2 below).

    In a sense, the bubble in the early and mid 2000s spoilt the film industry, before it fizzled. At that time, a lot of foreign investors were willing to gamble very much on the local entertainment industries. Accordingly, many film projects began to focus on international financing, casting big-name actors, not using solid storytelling (see Graph 3 below).

    Gradually, investors and distributors had the final say, and Korean films were made, not by directors but by number crunchers. We also need to pay attention to the “backdoor listings” boom. In the early and mid 2000s, many film production and distribution companies went public, although they did not have solid financial foundations. In fact, they teamed up with more stable partners, such as high-tech companies and manufacturers, and cranked out movies to improve their bottom line. When the owners raised money and the share prices ran into trouble, some of them skipped town taking all the money with them. This explains the fact that Korean theaters were flooded by many terrible and messy movies in the mid 2000s. A glut of mediocre and poor movies eventually deflected audiences, investors and importers away from Korean films. In the end, from 2006 the exports took a nosedive (see Table 1 below).

    AN OLIGOPOLY OF KOREAN FILM

    An industrial restructuring took place in this period. As noted, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s turned out to be a significant boon for the remaining film companies. In the early 2000s, Cinema Service, founded on traditional Chungmuro manpower and capital, and CJ Entertainment, a late-comer in the 1990s, ruled local film distribution. Then, from the mid-2000s, telcos expanded into the film industry in order to find synergy between content and pipe. For example, Korea Telecom (KT) and SK Telecom saw film production companies as supply lines for their smart phone, Internet Protocol television (IPTV), and digital mobile broadcasting (DMB) businesses. Telcos’ expansion was, however, stalled as they found film business too risky. Since 2007, an oligopoly comprising three majors including CJ Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment, and Showbox/Mediaplex has secured the command of distribution (see Graph 4 below).

    CJ’s and Lotte’s distribution power is based on their grip on exhibition. As of 2011, CJ Entertainment’s multiplex franchise, CJ CGV, is the largest theater chain in Korea, with around 40 percent of the nation’s 2,000-plus screens. Lotte Entertainment’s franchise Lotte Cinema chain comes second, with around 25 percent of the nation’s screens. From around 2009, CJ and Lotte have become more vertically integrated, by expanding into film productions, much to the consternation of the small and mid-sized production companies. Yi Yu-jin, CEO of Jip Film, points out the implication of this concentration:

    Producers also point out the problems in profit distribution ratio currently practiced in the Korean film industry. The scheme is being enforced in the following way. Firstly, proceeds from ticket sales are divided evenly between exhibitors and investors/distributors. Secondly, when a movie goes over the break-even point, investors/distributors share their portion of profits with production companies by the ratio of six to four. On the other hand, if a movie does not reach the break-even point, the ratio is reset to eight to two in further favor of investors/distributors (Ji, “Interview with Kim.”). As such, currently when just around 10 percent of all Korean movies released exceed the break-even point, those small and mid-sized producers have difficulty surviving. On the other hand, considering that the major distributors control investment and exhibition, they have nothing to lose in this game.

    While many filmmakers worry that the majors would use their leverage to bully the rest of the industry, different views exist (Kim Hyeon-min, “Interview with Jo.”). According to Kang Hye-jeong, CEO of Oeyunaegang Film,

    Kang, however, feels sorry for the situation in which the pre-existing, delicate balance between producers, investors, distributors, and exhibitors has collapsed in favor of vertically integrated majors. Kim Mi-hi, a veteran producer who is also a CEO of Studio Dream Capture put it: “When two Korean films topped one million admissions in 1996, everyone in the industry was excited. However, when they knew that 5 million, or even 10 million, were possible, Korean filmmakers were not satisfied with modest hits, and focused on money-making” (Ji, “Interview with Kim.”). Going through this trajectory, she regrets that solid stories are rarely found in the movie world.

    WRITERS OUT AND DATERS IN

    In this section, we shall discuss two factors (poor rewarding of screenwriters and a unique audience culture) that would lead to the thriller genre dominance in Korean theaters. As noted, one of the reasons for Korean film to have come this far was the rise of a new, creative generation of filmmakers. However, those screenwriters-turned-directors including Kang Je-gyu, Park Chan-wook, Yoon Je-gyun, Lee Chang-dong and Bong Joon-ho are still writing for their own film projects (Kim Hyeon-min, “Interview with Jo.”). It is because of a scant supply of quality screenplays in the market. In this vein, director Park Chan-wook says that “it is my sincere wish to get behind a camera with a screenplay written by others” (“Sisa Gihoek.”). There are in fact many young, aspiring screenwriters in Korea. However, after finding that writers are poorly rewarded in the film industry, they would leave for the television industry (Ji, “Interview with Kim.”). This situation of scant quality screenplays partly explains the recent trend of Japanese manga adaptation for Korean films.

    That the cinema-goers in Korea are largely comprised of daters in their twenties and early thirties is worthy of attention. As the main aim of their cinema-going is to kill time and have fun, they tend to shun serious movies, genre films, and those displaying aesthetic challenges. Instead, they would rather watch thriller films. These two factors (poor rewarding of screenwriters and a unique audience culture) are associated with the profit-making structure of the Korean film industry. As is different from the U.S. film industry, of which revenue sources are evenly divided between theatrical releases and the secondary market, 80 percent of the revenues of the Korean film industry come from theaters. Therefore, whether a Korean film is successful or not is decided in theaters. Further, as is different from the heyday of Korean film in the early 2000s, fewer numbers of movies break even these days, leading to the scale of film investment diminishing. In this situation, filmmakers tend to follow a recipe for success, depending on popular genres like thriller, and casting big-name actors and getting famous directors. In this process, other elements in film production are neglected, and film companies cannot afford to pay the screenwriters adequately.

    According to director Jang Hang-joon, seven of his film projects folded in the past several years because he could not secure enough investment, without all-star casts in his films. He adds that the Korean film industry is morphing into an enterprise in which only a small number of directors and actors prospers (“Sisa Gihoek.”). According to Moon Seong-ju, head of the investment division at Cidus FNH Film, the best way to break this vicious cycle of stalled or decreasing profitability and trimming production costs is to develop the secondary market. He argues that the government should develop stronger measures to protect copyrighted materials, and widespread illegal downloading should be stopped (Jang, “Interview with Moon.”).

    CONCLUSION

    In this paper, we have examined various reasons behind the commercial film genres and styles being dominant in the current Korean film industry, with a focus on implications from vertical integration and concentration.

    As of 2011, Korean filmmakers are making every effort to expand abroad. But, this time their strategy is different from that of a decade ago when collaborations and co-productions with Japan and China were the norm. Its reasoning was as follows: By producing something which was both “Chinese” and “Korean,” the target audience would immediately increase. According to Park Deok-ho, head of the international business center at the Korea Film Council, such sanitized projects, however, did not attract either of the two intended national audiences (Ji, “Interview with Park.”). After experiencing many failures from co-productions with Japan and China, Korean filmmakers now try bolder projects. For example, Yoon Je-gyun is currently working on a film, Temple Stay (T’empŭl sŭt’ei). With its screenplay written in English, it cast American actors to target the U.S. market. Yoon argues that South Korea, with a population of just around 50 million, is too small a market and the only way to significantly grow is to expand abroad. He adds, “Today’s Korean economy has been built on exports. Why not movies?” (Im, “Cheongryong.”; “Sisa Gihoek.”; Lee, “Interview with Yoon.”). Kang Je-gyu, who has chanted “I want to make Korean movies popular in the United States” (Russell, 2008, 72) for many years, is currently working on a war movie, My Way (Mai wei), of which most lines are in English. In March 2011, CJ Entertainment merged with its sister companies including CJ Media, CJ Internet, and On Media to form CJ E&M. According to Park Cheol-soo, head of the business strategy division at CJ Entertainment, this move is to make CJ Entertainment the hub and gateway of Asian films in global markets (Jang, “Interview with Park.”).

    The thriller trend noted above can also be understood in that that genre tends to succeed in global markets. Action and suspense being universal, the thriller genre has a lower rate of cultural discount than has drama or comedy. In fact, Park Chan-wook’s thriller Oldboy (Oldŭboi) received much praise (winning Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004) and did fairly well at global theaters. Bong Joon-ho’s thriller Memories of Murder (Sarin ŭi ch’uŏk) did the same, also being recognized from Tokyo to San Sebastian in 2003. However, filmmakers and investors should be reminded that Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winterand Spring was the biggest Korean box-office hit in the West until 2007. Considered a bore, it made only around $300,000 at home, but earned over $9.5 million globally (Russell, 69). After all, what matters is not a genre, but a good content.

    As well, the Korean film industry needs to find a lesson from the Hong Kong film industry, which used to be an Asian film powerhouse. Its annual film production in recent years is just around 50, a major nosedive from around 300 films in its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hong Kong’s domestic film market share dropped from around 70 percent to 30 percent during this transitional period. Critics and popular opinion uniformly pronounce that the Hong Kong film industry was caught in its own trap; endlessly casting the same stars in similar films eventually drove away audiences.

    The screen quota system has contributed to the growth of Korean film, by forcing local theaters to screen Korean movies for 146 days per year, helping to increase the range and diversity of Korean films. In 2006, however, the Korean government decided to reduce the screen quotas to 73 days as a precondition for negotiations on the free trade agreement with the United States (Shim, “The growth,” 31). Korean film, more than 80 percent of profits for which come from theaters, is now desperate to diversify its profit sources. In particular, the rampant illegal downloading of movie files has virtually destroyed the DVD and rental markets. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as of 2009 the amount of damage from illegal downloading was rated at 508.9 billion Korean won while the size of the legal film market was 1.5 trillion Korean won.4 The good news is that the National Assembly passed a bill in April 2011 to force web hard disk companies to register with the Korea Communications Commission (Min, “Stop on illegal.”). By this, it is expected that the government authorities are going to aggressively crack down on online communities that share illegal movie files.

    About a decade ago, scholars, filmmakers and journalists alike praised the growing trend toward transparency and openness with respect to high-risk, high-return entrepreneurialism in the Korean film industry (Segers; Shim, “South Korean.”). This line of appraisal still may be valid, in that big business is the means of stable cash flow (Han, “Interview with Kim.”). In recent years, however, more people worry that this entrepreneurial environment alone does not make films (Kim Hyeon-min, “Interview with Jo.”). It needs talented filmmakers, solid screenplays, and the principle of diversity to push the industry to the next level. Again, no-one knows what Korea’s film industry will look like a decade later.

    4US$1 is rated around 1,100 Korean won as of 2011.

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  • [Graph 1.] Admissions for Korean Films
    Admissions for Korean Films
  • [Graph 2.] Korean Films' Local Market Share in the past 5 Years
    Korean Films' Local Market Share in the past 5 Years
  • [Graph 3.] Average Korean Film Production Cost (in Korean Won)
    Average Korean Film Production Cost (in Korean Won)
  • [Table 1.] Korean Film Export Amount (in USD)
    Korean Film Export Amount (in USD)
  • [Graph 4.] Share of Korean Distributors in 2010
    Share of Korean Distributors in 2010