U.S. Films Troubled by New Sabotage in South Korea Theater

Times Staff Writer

South Koreans, who during last year’s Olympic Games released nonpoisonous snakes in theaters to sabotage the filming of movies distributed directly by an American firm, have escalated their campaign by placing deadly vipers in a movie house here.

Two salmosa, a Korean variety of viper, were released May 27 into a movie theater in Seoul at which “Rain Man,” distributed by Universal International Pictures, was playing. An additional 19 snakes, seven of them vipers, were left inside a bag in the theater.

Attendants also discovered four bottles of hydrochloric acid planted in the aisles, apparently with the idea that departing patrons would knock them over and suffer burns to their clothes, shoes and possibly flesh, Mike S. Pae, the film distributor’s manager here, said in an interview.


Although no one was injured in the incident, which followed the release May 3 of nonpoisonous snakes in a theater in Pusan, it precipitated a stern protest from the U.S. Embassy.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and Information and security authorities were told: ‘Something has to be done,’ ” a U.S. official said.

On May 29 the government announced that it would crack down on violence against directly distributed American films, and since then no incident has occurred.

But four years after the two governments worked out what was supposed to be a settlement to U.S. complaints about restrictions on distribution of American films here, distrust and bad blood continue.

Repeating the pattern of last fall’s violence, no one has been arrested for releasing the vipers.

Other American movie firms continue to postpone the launching of direct distribution of their films here.


Anti-American students, who believe the presence of U.S. troops prevents reunification of North and South Korea, have offered to join forces with the segments of the movie industry that demand that Korean middlemen be given the exclusive distribution rights to American films they had until the 1985 governmental agreement.

And Korean artists continue to insist that Americans hold off a full-fledged entry until they recover from the suppression they suffered under authoritarian regimes that ruled from 1961 to 1988.

Pae said developments earlier this year had encouraged him to believe that troubles were dying down. But the viper incident changed his view, he said.

Now, private guards have been employed in all theaters showing films distributed directly by United International. The guards check moviegoers’ bags and sit in the audience to watch out for acts of sabotage.

When movie theaters in South Korea started showing “Fatal Attraction,” the first film distributed directly by United International during the Olympics last fall, Korean distributors staged demonstrations, tore up screens in movie theaters and released non-poisonous snakes in the aisles. Korean newspapers cooperated with the sabotage attempts by refusing to accept United International advertisements.

Only 162,000 Koreans, as a result, viewed the movie by the time it closed at theaters nationwide, Pae said. The sabotage, he said, deprived United International of “potential profits of $1 million” above its actual net profit of $537,000.

Since then, United International’s second film here, “Living Daylights,” a James Bond thriller that opened Feb. 19, reaped a net of $1.4 million and is still playing in regional theaters. “Rain Man,” which opened May 4, also has taken in a net of $1.4 million and is expected to continue for at least another 30 days in first-run movie houses, Pae said.

To Pae and his opponents among Korean distributors, who also produce many of the low-budget, pornographic films that dominate the Korean movie industry, the issue is money.

If “Rain Man” had been sold outright to a Korean distributor, instead of placed directly with Korean theaters, Pae said, United International would have earned only $750,000, or half of its present net profit.

But to artists like Lee Il Mok, chairman of the Korean Scenario Writers Assn., the issue is the survival of Korean movies.

Lee shared critics’ disdain for established Korean distributors cum producers. Under the old rules that prevailed until the U.S.-Korea governmental agreement, the distributors were given the right to import one foreign film for every four Korean movies they produced.

The idea was to enable the producers-distributors to use the profits from showing foreign films--mostly American--to underwrite the costs of producing Korean movies. Instead, they plowed the bulk of their profit into real estate investments and churned out cheap Korean potboilers to fill the 4-for-1 quota.

In addition, under the censorship that prevailed until President Roh Tae Woo took office in February, 1988, movie makers had little opportunity to produce high-quality films, Lee said. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency, he said, screened all scenarios and checked the final version of every movie.

Now, with new freedom under Roh, “all we want is time to clean up the mess that (former Presidents) Park (Chung Hee) and Chun (Doo Hwan) made,” Lee said. “At the maximum, not more than five years will be needed--at which time we’ll welcome anyone.”

American authorities view the Korean movie industry as possessing immense growth potential against the background of the country’s strong economic showing.

But Lee said United International had established a reputation for destroying local industries in other countries in which it distributed films directly. Brazil, for example, went from producing 300 films a year to only three after United International started operating there, he charged.

Movie leaders also fear the company because of enactment of the new U.S. Omnibus Trade Law with its retaliatory Section 301, Lee said. Eventually, U.S. distributors, who have now accepted a 146-day limit on foreign showings in any single theater, will persuade the U.S. government to threaten retaliation against South Korea to get the limit lifted, he predicted.

Ironically, Lee’s association of scenario writers is turning to the government, which it blames for the troubles of the past, to seek a future for itself. It is demanding subsidies and government-financed construction of movie theaters that would be devoted exclusively to showing Korean films.

A bill submitted by opposition parties to provide subsidies is now being debated in the National Assembly.

The U.S. official said it appeared that “the biggest problems lie behind us.” Referring to Korean producers-distributors who have caused most of the trouble, he said: “Their heart is not in it anymore.”

“UIP may not have broken into the 1,000-seat movie houses but it has made it into 500-seat theaters,” he added. Perhaps most significantly, six major Korean newspapers started accepting United International advertisements.

The diplomat added a note of caution, however, saying that the record of U.S. trade negotiations with Seoul shows that South Korea “never upholds an agreement unless it is forced to.”

Moreover, the end of the newspaper boycott came at the price of a United International agreement to run half-page advertisements--far larger than normal--three times with each of the newspapers for each movie its brings in.

In any event, Pae said he was proceeding with plans to bring in more United International films at a stepped-up pace.

Later this month, theaters that have signed up with United International will begin showing “The Accused” with Academy Award winner Jodie Foster. Between July and September, the firm will bring in “Twins,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “License to Kill” and will reissue “Fatal Attraction,” Pae said.