Korean megahit film producer says ban on censorship is key to success

Korean megahit film producer says ban on censorship is key to success
Film producer Jonathan Kim —PHOTO BY BOY VILLASANTA

With the worldwide success of the “Korean wave” or hallyu, the Korean entertainment industry is now regarded as one of the most prominent, productive and moneymaking enterprises on the planet. 

Korean cinema already conquered the world market in 2016, when “Train to Busan” made a killing at global box offices.

In 2019, “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes international Film Festival and garnered the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Oscars.

Megahit film producer Jonathan Kim attributes the success of Korean cinema to the ban on censorship in his country in 1996.

Kim was born in Seoul in 1980, according to the Fantastic Film School guide book of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, where he has taught a course in film co-production for the past years. 

In 1993, his work in “The Man with Breasts” was judged Best Scenario at the Paeksang Arts Awards. He coproduced “A Promise,” starring Jeon Do-youn and Park Sun-yang, and “Lies,” directed by Jang Sun-woo. His production credits include “Ditto,” “To Catch a Virgin Ghost” and “Ring.” 

In 2004, he earned a reputation as a prominent producer when he won the Planning Award and Jury Grand Prix at the 41st Annual Daejong Film Awards and the Best Feature Film award at the 25th Blue Dragon Film Awards with “Silmido.”

‘Virgin Snow’ —IMDB PHOTO

He served as the director of operation and director of the organizing committee of the Busan International Film Festival, the Gwangju International Film Festival and the Daejong Film Awards. He was the head of Dyne Films, which produced “Fly Daddy,” “Virgin Snow” and “Wedding Palace.” 

Kim was an advisor at the Film Division, CJ E&M, a South Korean entertainment conglomerate where he played an integral part in the success of the films “Masquerade” and “Wedding Invitation.”

According to the Korean Film Council website, Kim is a member of the Korea/Japan Culture Exchange Committee and an international advisor to the Hong Kong Asia Financing Forum. He is an advocate of Intra-Asian coproductions.

He now heads the indie producer HanMac.

Here is my online interview with Kim:

$200M in seed funds

Boy Villasanta (BV): To what do you attribute the success of Korean cinema?

Jonathan Kim (JK): It has a lot to do with audiences demanding fun and exciting stories. Of course, up to the early ‘90s, Korea was dominated by Hollywood movies.

However, with the constitutional court ruling of censorship being illegal in 1996, many subjects poured out that we could not deal with before.

In 1997, a local movie, “Shiri,” broke the record of “Titanic,” and everyone started to believe that Korean movies have the potential to be lived by their people.

And this gave hope to the government, and it decided to support the film industry by investing $200 million in seed funds to finance Local movies.

BV: As part of the Korean Film Council and as a former president of the Korean Film Producers Association, what was your role in the redirection/reinvigoration of Korean cinema in the millennium?

JK: My role as the chairman of the KFPA was mostly about creating solutions for unfairness in the industry—i.e., improving poor working conditions for the crew (actors received overwhelming amounts of guarantee), preventing vertical integration of the conglomerates, and transparent budget spending and accounting by production companies.

BV: As an individual film producer, what was your participation in the development of Korean cinema on the micro level? On the macro level, like your interrelationship with other national producers, how would you describe your participation in the growth and progress of Korean cinema?

JK: The biggest achievement was probably starting nationwide direct distribution where films were sold off outright to the provincial distributor and we did not know how much revenue was incurring in those places. Also, I started the online box-office reporting, which became the basis for the current nationwide integrated box office network. Also, I standardized the forms for the budget and distribution report.

BV: As a film producer, how did you project the success of Korean cinema?

JK: I thought it would be quite successful in Asia, but I did not think that it would have worldwide appeal.

BV: Korean cinema has already invaded and ruled Hollywood in the box office and in awards. How do you assess its sustainability?

JK: I don’t know about the Hollywood box office yet, but accolades, yes. I think that once more people in the US get used to subtitles, we have a fairly good chance.

The more, the merrier

BV: Do you, or the Korean cinema in general, encourage coproduction with foreign capitalists?

JK: Yes, the more, the merrier. But Korean investors/distributors are quite exclusive, and foreign capitalists are not sure of the box-office success of Korean films outside Korean territory yet. But it would be nice to spread the risk as the Korean production budget is increasing every day.

BV: You once did a remake of the “The Ring.” How was it on the production level in terms of adapting foreign standards? How did your market, Asian and otherwise, react to your interpretation?

JK: At the time, we could not import Japanese movies in general, so we had to remake them. And we were under contract not to export to other countries. I do not know other reactions.

BV: Do we expect more adaptations of Hollywood blockbusters or simple films from your company in the next seasons?

JK: I do not do Hollywood adaptations, but I’ll be working on more series and on simple films.

BV: How liberal are you as a film producer in relation to the artistic freedom of your colleagues/fellow artists, like the director, scriptwriter, actors etc.?

JK: Very liberal and open to any suggestion anyone would have, as long as it helps the film.

BV: How do you streamline the employment of creatives in your production?

JK: Hard question. By trying to find more effective and diligent people?

BV: Is/Are there distinct feature/s or distinguishing factor/s between TV and cinema in Korea in terms of quality? If so, why?

JK: There used to be differences in cameras and lighting and production schedule, as TV productions were much smaller than cinema. So, the TV directors only directed series and film directors would direct only films. However, with the introduction of OTT (over the top services), that boundary has been torn down. No constraint on running time per episode and no set number of episodes give content makers more freedom. Also, most of the TV production was shot a week or two before the episode was broadcast, but now an entire episode has to be completed before the season starts.

BV: The Korean entertainment industry is giving the world an impression that you have a clear-cut vision, and rigid training, preparation for your visual productions. Please comment.

JK: Now that they have experience through making a few K-Pop idols a worldwide hit, I think having a clear-cut vision may come naturally. Rigid training applies mostly for the idol groups. That is mainly because of the fierce competition among young people who want to become a star.

Talent that’s born with

Kim and the author

BV: It is a common observation among Filipinos that Korean actors, not only but mostly on TV because of its reach in the Philippines and films, undergo rigorous training before being publicly exposed. Please comment.

JK: I think it mostly applies to idol groups. Actors do go through training, but not as rigorous as the singers. Because acting is a talent that you have to be born with.

BV: Do you also have a stable of Korean film stars or, to some extent, TV stars?

JK: Of course. Ask any Filipino “Korean wave” fan.

BV: Is it true that TV stars in Korea are discriminated against by film artists for their kind of soapy screen projects and performances? If so, why?

JK: Not really, but for some strange reason, some stars don’t work too well in the cinema. But I think this is also an old story. OTT changed everything.

BV: It must be tough for Korean TV creatives when most of their shows are creatively polished, globally appreciated and are hits, yet there is an observation that they are below par; on the other side of the fence, quality output is highly expected of Korean film artists. How true is this?

JK: I’m not capable of answering that since I’m not a TV creative.

BV: It’s obviously uniform in most parts of the world, but still I want to ask you because I might miss significant observations or benchmarks: What were the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on Korean cinema?

JK: Although nothing was locked down, cinemas were only allowed to accept 30% of the full capacity. Naturally, the income for both investor/distributor and exhibitor decreased as much. Therefore, many companies withheld releases of their blockbuster movies. This meant they had hardly any income for the past three years or so. This means no money to invest either. 

Also, they recently raised the price of tickets so audiences will go to the cinema for only big films since they think they can see the smaller ones on the OTT platforms. So, you can say the film industry in Korea is suffering.


 BV: How are Korean cinema and yourself as a producer bouncing back from the doldrums caused by the pandemic?

JK: I’ll have to watch and see. We don’t know yet since it is not over yet.

BV: As a film producer or artist or arts manager, how do/did you survive the pandemic?

JK: Working with other countries and developing projects and production services for foreign films.

BV: What do you project for Korean cinema in 2023?

JK: Hard to say. I do know the plans for our four major investor/distribution companies. Already, two of them—Showbix and Lotte Entertainment—turned into production companies instead of investors/distributors.

BV: In terms of quantity, please describe the Korean cinema output in the last three years.

JK: In 2019: 609 titles produced, 199 titles released in cinema. In 2020: 807 titles produced, 165 titles released in cinema. In 2021: 804 titles produced, 224 titles released in cinema.

(Produced titles include low-budget and AV movies for VOD, or video on demand.)

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