In a business where the one language everyone speaks is money, Hollywood is searching for its creative Seoul.
Once a backwater of international cinema, South Korea has become one of the world’s hottest film centers, churning out box-office hits and critical favorites that have studio executives and agents scrambling for remake rights, distribution deals and talent relationships.
This week in Santa Monica, 21 South Korean companies sent about 100 representatives to the annual American Film Market movie bazaar, one of the largest contingents from any country. Distribution rights to more than 100 South Korean movies are being offered.
Friday night, in Hollywood, the AFI Fest movie festival was set to screen the Los Angeles debut of the much-anticipated horror flick “The Host,” about a mutant creature that emerges from Seoul’s Han River to devour humans. Scheduled to be released next year in U.S. theaters, the movie has already been seen by more than a quarter of South Korea’s 49 million people.
For Hollywood studios, South Korea is now the second-most significant Asian market after Japan. Smelling opportunity, South Korea’s government last week announced it would commit more than $500 million toward its film industry’s goal of doubling its share of the world movie market by 2011.
“It is now a strong national cinema and can be talked about in the same breath as, for example, French, Spanish or Japanese cinema,” said Tony Safford, senior vice president of acquisitions for 20th Century Fox.
The first major remake of a South Korean film to hit U.S. screens, the romantic drama “The Lake House” starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, became a sleeper hit this summer for Warner Bros., grossing more than $100 million worldwide.
Universal Pictures is planning a version of the thriller “Oldboy” and this week bought the remake rights to “The Host.” Paramount Pictures’ DreamWorks SKG will release a remake of the horror drama “A Tale of Two Sisters” in 2008.
What changed in South Korea was the emergence of a generation of filmmakers who cut their creative teeth studying Hollywood movies.
At the same time, deep-pocketed multinational corporations bankrolled the modernization of South Korean cinemas, whose audiences hungry for quality films have made moviegoing a vibrant business, with admissions soaring 29% in the last year.
In South Korea, movies are social events. Patrons pay as much as $30 a ticket, often spending an entire evening in the theater complex, eating and mingling.
On a recent Friday night in Seoul, moviegoers at a multiplex were surprised by a visit from the director and two stars of a new hit film “The Great Family Tree.”
“Oh, feel free to alter my picture all you like,” joked actor Jung Jae-young as star-struck fans flashed their digital cameras. “If possible, please make the body a bare muscular chest that clearly shows the abdominal muscles.”
One key entrepreneur in South Korea’s movie boom is a woman who successfully leveraged her ties to three of Hollywood’s most powerful players.
A decade ago, Lee Mie-kyung, known as Miky Lee, granddaughter of the founder of the Samsung Corp. electronics empire, provided $300 million in much-needed seed money to DreamWorks SKG, the studio launched by moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.
It was more than a passive investment. Gaining exclusive South Korean distribution rights to such DreamWorks titles as “The Peacemaker” and “What Lies Beneath,” Lee built the foundation of a movie powerhouse. In 1998, Lee’s CJ Entertainment, a division of CJ Group, opened the country’s first state-of-the-art multiplex.
“She was incredibly passionate about the business and about her interest in building an industry in Korea,” Katzenberg said.
CJ Entertainment and other corporations such as Lotte Group began erecting multiplexes in South Korean cities and suburbs with digital sound, air conditioning, stadium seating and, in some cases, adjoining bars and restaurants.
Samsung, CJ Entertainment and South Korean confectioner Orion Group, meanwhile, built production divisions to supply theaters with movies. Since the mid-1990s, the number of South Korean movie screens has jumped more than threefold to 1,634 at the end of last year.
A breakthrough came in 1999 when the $8.5-million movie “Shiri,” financed by Samsung, became South Korea’s first true blockbuster. It took in $34 million at the box office, eclipsing South Korean receipts for Hollywood’s all-time box-office champion, “Titanic.”
In 2001, the drama “Friend” grossed about $45 million. And, in 2003, the action thriller “Silmido” raised the stakes, grossing more than $60 million. Currently, “The Host” has grossed nearly $100 million.
“We believe our moviemaking has truly come a long way,” Lee said. “We hope we continue to push the envelope of creativity with the films that come out of Korea.”
It’s not just flashy cinemas that are fueling South Korea’s movie business. Filmmakers are developing contemporary, relevant entertainment for a country that was long starved for quality homegrown fare.
Some film officials are comparing the current renaissance to one of Hollywood’s creative high points 30 years ago when such maverick filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby first flourished.
“In Korea, what happened creatively is similar to what was happening in Hollywood in the ‘70s where the filmmakers were saying, ‘Let’s go make great movies and see how they do,’ ” said Ted Kim, executive vice president of CJ Entertainment America.
Homemaker Kim Eun-ryong, who lives in Ilsan on the outskirts of Seoul, tries to schedule a movie night every other month with three of her friends.
“I think we are watching Korean films more these days,” she said. “It’s a kind of mob psychology. When the masses say a film is fun, other people hearing the rumor go to see it.”
Andrew Cripps, president of United International Pictures, remembers a different environment when the company, the foreign distribution arm of Paramount and Universal, opened its South Korean office in 1987.
“The pictures told small, parochial stories,” Cripps said. “Now Korean filmmakers are telling stories that are far more accessible to young people.”
South Korean filmmakers defy easy description, said Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing “The Host” in the U.S.
“They’re exceptionally stylish without being a slave to style,” he said. “They embrace all aspects of cinema -- the camera, the ensemble, the narrative. ‘The Host’ is thrilling but it devotes equal time to the family struggle.”
The recent “The King and the Clown” -- dubbed the Korean “Brokeback Mountain” -- deals with a gay theme that not long ago would have been taboo in the country.
Roy Lee, whose L.A.-based Vertigo Entertainment produced the remakes of the Japanese horror films “The Grudge” and “The Ring,” believes that South Korean filmmakers have become trendsetters but that it may be hard for Hollywood to harness them.
Vertigo is remaking four South Korean movies for U.S. studios. He would love to see the original directors try their hands at the remakes and make Hollywood movies, he said, but it might be difficult to woo them.
“Sometimes the Hollywood studio development process results in movies losing their individuality and uniqueness,” he said. “Over there, they are not stifled.”
Still, the growth in South Korea’s film industry has heightened tensions with Hollywood over rules that limit the number of days a theater can show foreign films.
South Koreans are notoriously protective of their own films. In 1988, people going to see the first Hollywood release in South Korea, the Glenn Close-Michael Douglas thriller “Fatal Attraction,” were rattled by snakes that had been released in theaters in what was seen as a guerrilla strike to protect Korean culture from American movies.
U.S. trade officials and the Motion Picture Assn. of America have long criticized any film quota as an impediment to free trade. But South Koreans see their system as a necessary measure to protect the country’s native film industry.
“The Korean screen quota system has been the driving force behind reviving Korean culture,” director Lee Jun-ik said.
Nonetheless, South Korean officials bowed to U.S. pressure and relaxed quotas by half earlier this year amid noisy protests from local filmmakers.
“The Host” will be the next big test of South Korea as an exporter of films in an international movie market that can be brutal. In June, CJ Entertainment distributed the South Korean action thriller “Typhoon” in the U.S., but it flopped, grossing just $139,000 here.
Still, CJ Entertainment America believes the U.S. is ready for South Korean films, especially in the Los Angeles area, home to more than 250,000 Korean Americans. The company is planning a multiplex in Koreatown to broaden the reach of South Korean and other Asian films and also aims to distribute its own films.
“We believe these films should be seen outside of Korea,” CJ Entertainment’s Kim said. “We see ourselves as Korean film evangelists.”
Times staff writer Bruce Wallace and researcher Jinna Park in Seoul contributed to this article.