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'Hand sanitizer is the only support we get'

Seen are the seats of a movie theater in Seoul. Courtesy of CGV
Seen are the seats of a movie theater in Seoul. Courtesy of CGV

Indie filmmakers, cinemas lament meager policy support

By Park Ji-won

For independent filmmakers, getting their films screened in major commercial theaters is virtually impossible.

Every year, some 1,000 indie films are made here. But only 10 percent are screened at 76 theaters that specialize in screening indie or documentary films.

Shooting indie films is a passion-driven task. Few filmmakers make money. So the vast majority of them juggle two to three jobs to finance their dreams.

With the lingering coronavirus pandemic showing few signs of ending in the near future, some indie filmmakers feel that their patience is wearing thin.

Indie filmmakers and theaters are the hardest hit in the film industry. Some theater owners are seriously mulling closing down. Their theaters have become money-losing businesses.

"What we received from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) is only hand sanitizer and financial support for disinfection of our facilities," a staff member of an independent cinema in Seoul told The Korea Times, asking for anonymity.

He made the remarks regarding the 54 billion won plan from the state-funded KOFIC, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, to help save indie films and the related industry.

But those in the industry say the plan is unrealistic.

They say many of the filmmakers and people involved in the industry are freelancers or part-timers and no insurance payment or other social benefits are given to them.

So, they say, they find it tough to make ends meet and that measures that can help them meet their basic needs, such as support for living expenses, are more helpful.

Goh Young-jae, president of the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video
Goh Young-jae, president of the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video
"Very few people can make a living with independent films. That's the reality," said Goh Young-jae, president of the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video and producer of mega-hit 2009 independent film "Old Partner."

"Many directors spend more than three years to create a commercial film. It's tough for staff to make ends meet. So is the case for actors."

He said the government would do its best to look into other measures to provide unemployment benefits for them.

Recently, the National Assembly and government have passed schemes to help artists fight job insecurity amid the difficulties created by the coronavirus. The law on unemployment benefits stipulates that artists can receive unemployment compensation if they have paid unemployment insurance for at least nine out of the last 24 months before the end of their most recent job.

Industry officials assume that about 20,000 to 27,000 people work for the independent film industry, which includes people who work in production, distribution, theaters, film festivals, cinema education and critics. Last year, approximately 121 Korean independent films were released through theaters, according to KOFIC data, while about 1,000 films were made. Backed by the success of a few independent films such as "Breathless" (2009) with some 125,000 viewers and "House of Hummingbird" (2019) with 145,000 viewers and the patrons of the arts, the industry has barely survived.

A recent survey between February and April on 52 freelancers and 23 distributors, theaters and relevant institutions by the "joint action for independent film industry amid COVID-19" showed that all industry sectors are facing difficulties on all fronts.

About 42 percent of the freelancers said they had no income during the period. Most distributors and independent movies suffered from cancellations and delays of releases. Some theaters temporarily stopped their operations between February and April, meaning they had no income during the period. Some of them had to face sales decreases of up to 20 million won, or declines of 50 percent to 80 percent between February and April. Seven percent of the respondents in the production sector said they lost almost 100 million won because of delays in production schedules.

"My company has put off the production of a film, which was supposed to be released in October, to next year because we couldn't secure enough staff due to the coronavirus …. Our previous piece was released in 16 theaters, but one we recently released was only able to be released in eight theaters," an assistant producer for independent films, surnamed Hwang, told The Korea Times.

Goh criticized the government's recent measure to distribute discount tickets, while urging the government to carry out exact surveys on the industry and come up with "realistic" measures in the upcoming adjustments of the budget so that workers for the independent film industry can keep working.

"What on Earth can the industry can get from the discount tickets? The film industry has been polarized in terms of sales for many years; the big production companies have their own distribution and investment channels. So-called 10 million hit films only can get attention while there are no 100,000-hit films, (meaning that the schemes are supportive for those megahit films only)… There have been no changes in welfare schemes for industry workers and many of those working for independent films are excluded," he added.

Stressing that the government already made up its mind to boost the independent film industry last year, Goh said, "I hope the government could come up with pump-priming measures so that the independent film industry can start working again… Some countries already have living wage schemes. In Korea, the industry workers need living expenses worth at least 2.1 million won on average."

Park Han-sol contributed to this story.


Seen are the seats of a movie theater in Seoul. Courtesy of CGV
Seen are the seats of a movie theater in Seoul. Courtesy of CGV

Indie filmmakers, cinemas lament meager policy support

By Park Ji-won

For independent filmmakers, getting their films screened in major commercial theaters is virtually impossible.

Every year, some 1,000 indie films are made here. But only 10 percent are screened at 76 theaters that specialize in screening indie or documentary films.

Shooting indie films is a passion-driven task. Few filmmakers make money. So the vast majority of them juggle two to three jobs to finance their dreams.

With the lingering coronavirus pandemic showing few signs of ending in the near future, some indie filmmakers feel that their patience is wearing thin.

Indie filmmakers and theaters are the hardest hit in the film industry. Some theater owners are seriously mulling closing down. Their theaters have become money-losing businesses.

"What we received from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) is only hand sanitizer and financial support for disinfection of our facilities," a staff member of an independent cinema in Seoul told The Korea Times, asking for anonymity.

He made the remarks regarding the 54 billion won plan from the state-funded KOFIC, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, to help save indie films and the related industry.

But those in the industry say the plan is unrealistic.

They say many of the filmmakers and people involved in the industry are freelancers or part-timers and no insurance payment or other social benefits are given to them.

So, they say, they find it tough to make ends meet and that measures that can help them meet their basic needs, such as support for living expenses, are more helpful.

Goh Young-jae, president of the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video
Goh Young-jae, president of the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video
"Very few people can make a living with independent films. That's the reality," said Goh Young-jae, president of the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video and producer of mega-hit 2009 independent film "Old Partner."

"Many directors spend more than three years to create a commercial film. It's tough for staff to make ends meet. So is the case for actors."

He said the government would do its best to look into other measures to provide unemployment benefits for them.

Recently, the National Assembly and government have passed schemes to help artists fight job insecurity amid the difficulties created by the coronavirus. The law on unemployment benefits stipulates that artists can receive unemployment compensation if they have paid unemployment insurance for at least nine out of the last 24 months before the end of their most recent job.

Industry officials assume that about 20,000 to 27,000 people work for the independent film industry, which includes people who work in production, distribution, theaters, film festivals, cinema education and critics. Last year, approximately 121 Korean independent films were released through theaters, according to KOFIC data, while about 1,000 films were made. Backed by the success of a few independent films such as "Breathless" (2009) with some 125,000 viewers and "House of Hummingbird" (2019) with 145,000 viewers and the patrons of the arts, the industry has barely survived.

A recent survey between February and April on 52 freelancers and 23 distributors, theaters and relevant institutions by the "joint action for independent film industry amid COVID-19" showed that all industry sectors are facing difficulties on all fronts.

About 42 percent of the freelancers said they had no income during the period. Most distributors and independent movies suffered from cancellations and delays of releases. Some theaters temporarily stopped their operations between February and April, meaning they had no income during the period. Some of them had to face sales decreases of up to 20 million won, or declines of 50 percent to 80 percent between February and April. Seven percent of the respondents in the production sector said they lost almost 100 million won because of delays in production schedules.

"My company has put off the production of a film, which was supposed to be released in October, to next year because we couldn't secure enough staff due to the coronavirus …. Our previous piece was released in 16 theaters, but one we recently released was only able to be released in eight theaters," an assistant producer for independent films, surnamed Hwang, told The Korea Times.

Goh criticized the government's recent measure to distribute discount tickets, while urging the government to carry out exact surveys on the industry and come up with "realistic" measures in the upcoming adjustments of the budget so that workers for the independent film industry can keep working.

"What on Earth can the industry can get from the discount tickets? The film industry has been polarized in terms of sales for many years; the big production companies have their own distribution and investment channels. So-called 10 million hit films only can get attention while there are no 100,000-hit films, (meaning that the schemes are supportive for those megahit films only)… There have been no changes in welfare schemes for industry workers and many of those working for independent films are excluded," he added.

Stressing that the government already made up its mind to boost the independent film industry last year, Goh said, "I hope the government could come up with pump-priming measures so that the independent film industry can start working again… Some countries already have living wage schemes. In Korea, the industry workers need living expenses worth at least 2.1 million won on average."

Park Han-sol contributed to this story.


Park Ji-won jwpark@koreatimes.co.kr

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