Special Report

To Protect or Not to Protect the Screen Quota

During the last five months, many people have crowded around the Kyobo Building intersection in Seoul. Why did this congestion happen? This reason is that famous actors such as Jang Dong-gun, Ahn Sung-kee, Park Joong-hoon, and Lee Jun-ki and directors demonstrated against the government's plan to halve the screen quota. The Korean government announced the reduction of the screen quota on January 26. The screen quota is that theaters should show Korean movies for a designated number of days. In Korea, the screen quota has been carried out since 1967 and has been 146 days since 1985. Han Duk-soo, who is the deputy prime minister and the Ministry of Finance and Economy’s minister, said that the screen quota will be reduced from 146 days to 73 on July 1. There are pros and cons about a reduction of the screen quota.

The reduction of the screen quota is related to the free trade agreement (FTA) with the USA. The FTA is a negotiation to abolish trade barriers, including customs, for free trade among the nations in the FTA. In 2000, when Korea negotiated the FTA with America, America asked for an abolition of the screen quota. At that time, we rejected the demand, and we couldn’t reach an agreement on the FTA. In order to negotiate the FTA with America again, Korea made reducing the screen quota a compromise plan instead of abolishing the screen quota. The government said what we can gain by the FTA is to have the biggest foreign market of America, and the export of cars and textiles will increase because of the abolition of customs. Moreover, many industries’ competitive power will improve and the structure of industry will develop more highly. The government said, “We have to reduce the screen quota because the FTA negotiations are a chance to increase all fields’ exports, and the impact on our movies will actually be small.”

However, most actors and directors oppose the government’s plan. They said, “These days, foreign fish species pour into Korean rivers, so now the tendency is that they prey on native fish species. Hollywood films will gradually choke the Korean film industry. The reduction of the screen quota is similar to removing a net that protects our native fish species from the invasion of foreign species.” Most netizens agree with the reduction of the screen quota because now they think we have competitive power. However, the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images insists that the prosperous condition of Korean movies is temporary. Early in the 1990s, when Korean movies’ theater share dropped up to 16 percent because of the economic depression, the screen quota helped Korean movies to revive. Like this, the screen quota is the only method to resist Hollywood’s films because distribution plays an important role in the movie industry. So actors and directors are demanding a retraction of the government’s plan to reduce the screen quota.

Many people who agree with the reduction of the screen quota are saying, “Now Korean movies are developing. Film directors and producers make good movies.” However, the matter of the screen quota is not making films but distributing movies. America’s movie market is huge. America makes about 500-600 movies a year, so there are big hit movies including so-called blockbusters. Just “Titanic” earned over twice our whole movie market’s scale. Like this, American movies can hold power in our theaters. If the screen quota is reduced, America will push their movies in our theaters and Korean theater owners will play more American big hit movies than Korean movies within a short period of time because they have to make money. If this case happens, our companies of film distribution will compete with each other to make many big hit movies. In addition, art movies and independent movies will fade away. Many actors said, “The government repeats like a parrot that Korean movies have competitive power, but Korea’s money and infrastructure for movies can’t be compared with Hollywood.”

Moreover, the actor Choi Min-sik said, “It is no use trying to make good movies if the screen quota disappears because the screen quota is a basic frame to protect our movies.”
Hollywood movies occupy over 85 percent of the cinema share of the whole world and over 95 percent of the cinema share of America, but Korea’s movies occupy about 1.5 percent of the cinema share of the whole world and over 50 percent of the cinema share of Korea. “America’s movie market pressures our movie market even though we make good movies. Korea has had much damage because of American movies. There was even a case that our movie couldn’t be shown because of the powerful distribution of American blockbusters, even though the theater didn’t meet the screen quota,” Jeong Ji-young, the chairperson of the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images and a director, said. Controversy over the screen quota isn’t a recent argument. America demanded doing away with Korea’s screen quota 10 years ago. Why does America demand abolition on the screen quota?

On the MBC TV program “100 Minute Debate,” Lee Si-hyeong, who is the Ministry of Finance and Economy’s chief said, “The damage of reducing the screen quota will be very small in the Korean movie industry.” On the other hand, Lee Hae-young, Division of International Relations’ professor in Hanshin University, insists that the effectiveness of the screen quota has been proved already, and the FTA negotiations are more profitable to the USA than Korea. Even if other fields’ exports increase, imports will increase about two times. Lee Si-hyeong also mentioned, “If we don’t reduce the screen quota, in fact, America won’t have a loss in economy. Because the screen quota has symbolic meaning with political, cultural, and other values, they constantly demand to abolish that.” If this is true, in other words, the screen quota really has a special meaning, should we keep our screen quota? The Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images said, “From March 6 to July 31, we will protest against the government’s plan and to keep the screen quota.”

Movie directors had the first meeting with Kim Myung-gon, who is the Minister of Culture and Tourism, on May 2. However, their conversation didn’t last for one hour. They just reaffirmed the difference of their opinions and couldn’t make an alternative plan. Korean movies have developed startlingly and audiences have increased for several years. At this point in time, the reduction of the screen quota probably can break the renaissance of Korean movies. The matter of the screen quota is very important in politics and culture. So the government and actors and directors should consider carefully what they have to do together in order to keep the renaissance of Korean movies.