19 Nov 2018
South Korean Moviemakers Set Out to Conquer Global Streaming Sector
Back on track after a few years in the wilderness, attendees at the Busan International Film Festival were keen to see South Korea's movies cross the digital frontier, while talk also focused on launching a pan-Asia film promotion body.
Following a few years of political strife, the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) was firmly back on track this year. This saw its former chiefs reinstalled, an increase in visitors and the end of the Korean film industry's partial boycott of the event.
Some sectors of the Korean industry had been avoiding the festival in recent years, after its Director, Lee Yong-kwan, was ousted following the screening of a controversial documentary, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, in 2014. The film was seen as critical of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye's administration, and it wasn't until Moon Jae-in was voted in as President in 2017 that the festival's fortunes started to turn around.
In January 2018, Lee was reinstated at BIFF in the role of Chairman, while Jay Jeon, who had also been ousted from his position as BIFF Deputy Director and head of the Asian Film Market, was made festival Director. Since their return, Lee and Jeon have been talking about a return to "stability and harmony". At this year's event, Korean producers and directors returned en masse, all the major Korean studios threw celebratory parties and festival screenings, while panels and stage events were all packed.
Although foot traffic was sometimes slow, BIFF's accompanying Asian Film Market, held from 6-9 October, also appeared busier than in previous years. In total, it boasted 1,737 participants from 911 companies and 54 countries.
Somewhat unfortunately, Typhoon Kong-rey hit Busan on the first morning of the market but, while there was criticism from some attendees that the opening wasn't postponed, Asia's hardy buyers and sellers still turned up to do business. Commenting on the sentiment that characterised the opening day, Winnie Tsang, Managing Director of Hong Kong's Golden Scene said: "We were busy with back-to-back meetings throughout the market and everyone turned up on the first morning despite the typhoon."
Golden Scene was one of a growing number of Hong Kong-based companies attending the event, along with Mandarin Motion Pictures, Asian Shadows and Good Move Media. Most agreed that the market was well worth attending if you had a film showing at the festival. For its part, Mandarin is handling international sales on Yuen Woo-ping's Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, which screened as BIFF's closing film, while Golden Scene is selling Stanley Kwan's First Night Nerves, which had its world premiere as a gala screening.
Buyers from mainland China also had a strong presence at the Asian Film Market, despite the ongoing unofficial ban on Korean content in China. Speaking off the record, Chinese buyers said they were hopeful the ban would soon be lifted, but said they were also attending for the E-IP (Entertainment Intellectual Property) Market, which offers South Korean novels, webtoons, web novels and other forms of IP for adaptation into films and TV dramas. In addition to Chinese companies, E-IP attendees included Netflix, YouTube Premium and US studio Globalgate Entertainment, which specialises in local-language remakes.
Although the festival and market were busier than in recent years, BIFF Director Lee Yong-kwan believed that both could be doing better, saying: "In terms of reconciliation and normalisation, I would consider the festival to be half a success. We found potential, but we didn't manage to achieve everything completely. The first difficult for us is to establish what it means to hold an offline festival in an online era."
Outlining likely future directions for the event, Lee said he was exploring ways to give the films that are shown at BIFF exposure through online platforms, while the Asian Film Market might be expanded to cover TV content, web dramas and other formats, much in the way that Hong Kong's FILMART and Japan's TIFFCOM already do. It's a move that would make sense considering that Korean TV drama already has something of a global fanbase.
At this year's Asian Film Market, however, Korean movies continued to be the major attraction for buyers from the rest of Asia and beyond. Among the hot new Korean titles being launched were Finecut's mystery thriller Diva, starring Shin Min-a as a diving champion who starts to unravel, and a new slate from Lotte Entertainment, including Jason Kim's Divine Fury, the tale of a martial artist who becomes an exorcist, and a Korean-language remake of Mexican hit Instructions Not Included.
Showbox's action film Unstoppable, starring Don Lee (of Train To Busan) was also generating buyer interest, while sword-fighting zombie movie Rampant, sold by Contents Panda, had already sold out most territories before the market even began.
While their international sales traffic remains strong, Korean films are also having another banner year at the domestic box office. According to figures from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), local films accounted for a 46.7% share of admissions in the first half of 2018, an increase of 3.9% compared with the same period last year.
The second half of 2018 is also looking healthy, with hits including Lotte's Along With The Gods: The Last 49 Days, which grossed US$92 million over the summer, Contents Panda's The Great Battle, which took $41 million over the recent Chuseok holiday, and CJ E&M's The Spy Gone North, which grossed $38 million during the summer.
As in most other markets, however, the Korean film industry is grappling with how to maximise returns on VOD and streaming platforms, which have become the most important revenue sources after the box office.
During one Asian Film Market seminar, Chun Yoonsoo, Director of Contents at Korea's Home Choice platform, explained that movies are only successful on VOD if they've already made money at the box office, while even the biggest hits are facing increasing competition from TV dramas and other forms of content. Providing the wider statistical picture, Chun said: "In 2015, 40% of Home Choice revenues came from movies, but this year that figure is down to 30%. VOD revenue has gone up, but the ratio for movies has decreased."
Kakao Page Corp Vice President Jo Hankyoo agreed that movies are losing out to TV dramas on South Korea's popular IPTV and mobile platforms, saying: "You have to think about the format – Netflix prefers series because of the retention factor. Films are very expensive to make and if you're trying to retain viewers, series are a more viable option."
While the Korean film industry debated its internal problems, it was also exploring how to become a regional leader at an event held on the sidelines of the festival. Indeed, KOFIC, now headed by former Busan Film Commission chief Oh Seok-geun, met with several other Asian government agencies to discuss launching a pan-Asian film support organisation – the Asian Film Centre.
KOFIC is in the final stages of securing government funds of about $1 million to run the centre, which would focus on film policy research, the promotion of Asian films, educational initiatives and production funding. At present, there is no pan-Asian body that supports cinema in the same way that the European Union, say, has with such institutions as Creative Europe and the MEDIA programme.
At the opening of the round table, attended by government representatives from the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, Oh outlined the need for co-operation, saying: "We are at a point where Asian cinema is gathering global attention as it advances and expands every day. To ensure movies in Asia can grow collectively, KOFIC sees a need to discuss and plan our actions as a group."
Although no representatives from China or Japan attended the meeting, Oh said he was planning to talk to both countries, as well as to those Southeast Asian nations that had not been able to attend, to see if they were interested in joining the initiative. If all goes to plan, a prototype of the Asian Film Centre would be launched in 2019, with a more comprehensive body – the Asian Film Organisation – launched in 2025.
The 2018 Busan International Film Festival took place from 4-13 October at various venues in Busan, South Korea.
Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Busan