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Busan Talking Points: Korean Box Office Blues; Netflix Effect & Southeast Asia Rising
It’s been far too long since I sent out an edition of Streamlined, thanks to a crazy travel schedule with trips to Manila and Jakarta, followed by back-to-back festivals. I’ve been pumping it out for Deadline, but taking a moment here to summarise some recent impressions from festivals and markets – first Busan, touching on a few trends in the East Asian film industries, then a second newsletter looking at Pingyao and mainland China.
As it’s been so long since the last newsletter (and such a busy time in the global film and streaming industries) the links round-up is crazy long, so I’m splitting it into categories across a few different newsletters. This edition includes a round-up of the biggest production, corporate and ‘cancelled’ stories, including recent Middle East festival cancellations.
We were halfway through Busan when the news about the Israel-Hamas war broke and already this tragedy is having a ripple effect across the global content industries. Everything has become politics in these troubled times, but we can only hope that culture and ‘content’, whatever that word means, will remain one way to keep communication and mutual understanding alive.
Korean Theatrical Market Continues To Suffer
It became clear during Busan International Film Festival, an event that has tirelessly supported the theatrical experience in Asia for the past three decades, that the Korean box office has still not recovered since the pandemic, especially for local films. Blockbusters released during Korea’s recent Chuseok holiday (September 28-30), including Kang Je-Gyu’s Road To Boston and Kim Jee-woon’s Cobweb, failed to perform to expectations, following the disappointment of films such as CJ ENM’s The Moon over the summer. Currently there are just three Korean films in the 2023 Top Ten, including The Roundup: No Way Out ($77m), Smugglers ($36.6m) and Concrete Utopia ($27.6m). Last weekend, the Korean box office failed to collectively earn more than $5m.
Many theories were being shared during Busan as to why this is the case, but the most obvious factors are the Korean market’s rapid transition to streaming, with audiences opting to stay at home to consume content, and the fact that cinema chains almost doubled their ticket prices when the pandemic ended. I encountered a similar situation while visiting the Philippines where audiences are also shunning local films.
Meanwhile, admissions are recovering in markets like China and Indonesia where streaming is also popular but exhibitors and online ticketing platforms are keeping ticket prices low. I also heard a theory in Busan that Korea has built one of the strongest film industries in East Asia, but the machine it has created is too large and unwieldy to react quickly to changing circumstances. Ironically, less developed markets have a better chance of turning the Titanic around.
What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Netflix
Comments I heard during Busan regarding the world’s biggest streaming disruptor in the context of the Korean film industry ran from “Netflix is going to save us all” to “Netflix has created a dictatorship”. I also heard many comments about how it’s wonderful that Korean content now has a large global audience thanks to Netflix and other streamers, but how Korean independent cinema is dying, and all the streaming shows are starting to look and sound the same. Meanwhile, issues over Korean industry working practices and non-payment of residuals continue to rumble on. However, no producers or filmmakers seem to want to go on record with international press about these issues because they’re all pitching their latest projects to the streamers.
One of the biggest issues with Netflix in the Korean market is that it just doesn’t have enough competition. Disney+ is still producing in Korea and Japan after shutting down its local-language content production in all other East Asian territories – part of a global cost-cutting strategy as it switches focus towards high ARPU markets. But as I outlined in this recent interview with Netflix Korea for Deadline, Disney remains far behind Netflix in terms of production volume in Korea, despite recent Korean hit series Moving; Paramount+ and Apple TV+ appear to be just dabbling, or at least are only getting started, and Amazon Prime Video is currently only licensing rather than producing in this territory. It’s not a healthy situation for a producer who needs negotiating leverage.
However, if we look back at film industry history, neither saviours or dictators tend to stay the course very long, so with the correct government and industry policy, the Korean market has the potential to become a more level playing field. Of course, the Korean industry has always leaned towards monopoly, even under the legacy system, so that could be one of the factors that has enabled a single streaming player to dominate.
Southeast Asian Cinema Continues Its Winning Streak
With Korean cinema struggling, and China and India beset by censorship and regulatory issues, Southeast Asia continues to be one of the cinematic hotspots in the Asia Pacific region. Busan highlighted the current strength of Indonesian cinema with a Special Program including the world premiere of Yosep Anggi Noen’s 24 Hours With Gaspar, and we’re also seeing a wave of interesting films from Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Southeast Asian titles currently working their way through the autumn festival circuit include Tiger Stripes, Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell, Dreaming & Dying, Last Shadow At First Light and Busan premieres Oasis Of Now, Doi Boy, Moro and Solids By The Seashore.
As Busan rightly identified, Indonesian cinema is flourishing due to its large audience base, investment from private equity and streamers, increasing government support, and also as mentioned above, low ticket prices that keep local audiences in theatres. Netflix is spending millions not billions in this market, which means that if local producers maintain the right balance between making streaming series and theatrical movies, Indonesian cinema can continue to develop and thrive.
Another interesting factor in some Southeast Asian markets is how mainstream studios are turning to arthouse talent to upgrade production quality after realising their audiences are increasingly consuming high-end international drama online. Examples of this include Indonesia’s Visinema Pictures bringing in arthouse director Yosep Anggi Noen to direct 24 Hours With Gaspar, and the Philippines’ ABS-CBN hiring Petersen Vargas to direct a huge star, Kathryn Bernardo, and arthouse darling Dolly de Leon in A Very Good Girl. Also in the Philippines, arthouse producers Bianca Balbuena and Soros Sukhum have been working on mainstream comedy I Am Not Big Bird for Anima and ABS-CBN.
Japan is another bright spot in the region, but Streamlined hasn’t been there recently, a glaring omission in the travel schedule considering how cheap the yen is right now, so will return to this topic when that mistake has been rectified. In the meantime, my Deadline colleague Zac Ntim is at this very moment covering Tokyo International Film Festival and I’m looking enviously at pictures of Japanese ramen, curry and sushi that industry friends are posting on Facebook.
Busan Film Festival’s Management Woes
This topic would require a whole newsletter by itself to do it justice, but the impression I got during the festival is that the older departing management made a few missteps by bringing in senior people who are not popular with the Korean film industry; that the Korean industry has more internal conflict and intrigue than a Filipino telenovela, let alone a K-drama; and that Korea’s current right-wing government is not making life easy for film festivals or indeed any cultural institutions with its funding cuts.
Busan managed to pull off a hugely successful edition this year, despite all the drama, but these are not easy times for film festivals, and many are struggling to survive financially at a time when cinema needs the platform they provide more than ever. Even Netflix needs film festivals – or at least will happily leverage the publicity of red carpet events and attendant media. All we can do as industry participants, journalists and audience is not get too stressed by the instability and continue to offer our support.
That’s all for this edition, except for one last word on what a huge loss it is to world cinema that Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien will not be making any more films due to his worsening Alzheimers Disease. A City Of Sadness and The Assassin are among the best Chinese-language films ever made, but every film he made was special. Thank you Director Hou for the gift of your cinema and we wish all love and support to you and your family in the days ahead. As Hou’s family rightly identified in the statement they made to Taiwanese press this week, we will miss his films dearly, but there are also positive things that can result from this journey.
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