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COVID-19 worsens existing problems in film industry

Panelists discuss the Korean film industry in the COVID-19 era at a forum at the National Assembly on Aug. 7. (Lim Jang-won/The Korea Herald)
Panelists discuss the Korean film industry in the COVID-19 era at a forum at the National Assembly on Aug. 7. (Lim Jang-won/The Korea Herald)

The South Korean film industry faces an unprecedented crisis with COVID-19, but at a forum earlier this month some industry representatives argued that the pandemic only amplified a preexisting problem.

The forum, held at the National Assembly on Aug. 7, was hosted by Rep. Lim O-kyeong and organized by the Korean Film Council. It was the first such opportunity for movie industry personnel to speak with legislators about the issues the industry faces and discuss possible solutions.

Barunson Entertainment & Arts Corp. CEO Kwak Sin-ae, who produced the Oscar-winning “Parasite,” was among those who spoke at the forum. Others included director Min Kyu-dong and actor Kim Yeo-jin.

During the limited time the participants were given to speak, the dire financial situation of the movie industry emerged as the central problem.

Addressing the lack of funding for the film industry, experts pointed to the perception that movies are a form of leisure rather than a necessity.

“There are still lots of people, some even here, that think, ‘Everyone is about to starve, who cares about movies?’” said Choi Jung-hwa, head of the Producers Guild of Korea.

“Although people watch movies in their leisure time, from an industry perspective, it is not a leisure industry. It needs to be viewed as a productive content industry.”

According to a report from the Export-Import Bank of Korea, Korean cultural content exports amounted to $7.5 billion in 2019 and generated ripple effects that brought 40.2 trillion won ($33.95 billion) into the national economy. This figure includes revenue from merchandise and tourism.

The widespread view that the film industry is a frill is why the Ministry of Economy and Finance won’t allow KOFIC to proceed with direct funding plans, according to Choi.

“We felt that we are not up to the level of countries like France and Sweden in systematic structure in the culture area,” said Kim Young-jin, vice chairman of KOFIC. “I was most surprised to find out while working on the COVID-19 emergency response team that there is nothing KOFIC can do without the ministry’s approval.”

Funding for films is routinely denied even when KOFIC proposes detailed funding plans to the ministry, Kim said.

Another problem that COVID-19 has intensified is that new producers and actors are experiencing financial difficulties because opportunities are scarce.

Government support to counteract the impact of COVID-19 centers on movie theaters and entertainment agencies, but individuals involved in making movies are rarely eligible for funding.

“Since the financial situation of production is challenging, the industry is shutting down creative projects and only producing the most standard and obvious movies,” said producer Kwak. “If only experienced directors can make movies, talented rookie directors and screenwriters will lose opportunities to debut.”

Kwak said the best strength of Korean films is that they provide both entertainment value and artistic value. But that too is threatened by the COVID-19 crisis, she fears.

Director Min Kyu-dong and actor Kim Yeo-jin offered similar takes on the crisis in Korea’s film industry.

Even before the pandemic, they said, actors and directors who were just starting out or who relied on bit parts barely earned a living and had to take on multiple jobs. Without a set minimum wage, their incomes fluctuate, often reaching zero in a given month.

“Many people say we are experiencing a crisis because of COVID-19, but for movie directors not much has changed because we were already in a crisis situation,” said Min.

Min proposed guaranteeing royalty rights for film directors so they would earn a percentage when their movies were shown on any platform. The industry norm is for directors to be paid only in “incentives” upon a film’s release, not for every subsequent screening.

Kim said she hoped a system is put in place to help new actors financially.

Just 10 years ago, there used to be a genre of Korean drama that dealt with Korean history and featured many actors in supporting roles, but the genre is almost nonexistent today, Kim said.

“The first actors to be cut from work are female supporting actors in their 30s and 40s,” she said. “I wish young actors who are just starting out didn’t have to worry about getting by day by day and hope that they can harbor lasting dreams and careers.”

Many movie industry insiders said the success of “Parasite” will remain a one-time victory if the industry continues to have these financial problems, which COVID-19 has made worse.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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