U.S. ambassador to Korea Christopher Hill said at a lecture on the roadmap to a free trade agreement (FTA) at Korea University on Monday that the Korean government and people had to choose between an FTA and Korea's screen quota system. Ambassador Hill said the U.S. considered Korea’s screen quota system devoting 40 percent of annual screening time at movie theaters to local movies unnecessary when the Korean movie industry was booming. Korea could not have the screen quota system and FTA at the same time, said the ambassador.
As South Korea works towards FTAs all over the place (Singapore, Chile…) Washington is holding up Korea’s notorious screen quota as a stumbling block (like Hollywood is having trouble making money…). South Korean cinema – movies, television shows – has been catching on around Asia, the so-called Korean Wave effect (see the Korean Culture and Contents Agency for a full dose of Koreanistic stuff) . But Korean movies are barely making a dent in the U.S. market (heck, I just finally saw “Attack the Gas Station” make it into the local Blockbuster, before that, it was only Shiri and 301/302, the latter of which is not exactly what I consider the crowning achievement in recent Korean cinema (though there is a case to be made for Gas Station…).
Interestingly, while Korean flicks did wonderful at the domestic box office in recent years (eight of the top ten best selling films of 2003, five of the top ten best selling films in 2002, six of the ten best selling in 2001, and five of the ten best selling in 2000), this year, as of mid-October, Korean films took only four of the top ten best selling film spots in Korea (See KoreanFilm.org 2004 Report). Forty percent of the positions. Hmmm, didn’t Hill say forty percent reserved for domestic films was too high?
Korean films were particularly great in recent years, rising up in 1999 and moving through last year, but there has been another slowing in the movies put out there, and they are unable to compete well with American and other foreign films. While I am no big supporter of the quota system, the idea that Hollywood needs Washington to go to bat for it in the Korean market seems somewhat ludicrous. American films will always be popular in Korea, and most other countries in the world, for that matter, and the intervention of American politicians seems a little excessive and somewhat culturally imperialistic (maybe the North Koreans are right on that one).
Free trade and open markets is nice, but there should be some support for domestic industries and culture – let Koreans shape Korean pop-culture. And anyway, Hollywood movies are always available near any subway stop or open-air market in Korea for like two bucks. Now there is free enterprise and trade…