By Kim Tae-jong
There was once a time when people had to buy pirated video tapes on the black market to see art films because theaters would not screen them.
In the early 1990s when domestic import restrictions were relaxed, specialized distribution companies started to provide movie classics and art films by renowned directors to moviegoers.
But theaters screening art films have had a difficult time attracting them in the face of competition from foreign and domestic blockbusters. Although there is always a demand for art films, they are still not quite profitable.
Seoul Art Cinema, which specializes in independent art films, will move out of its current location because it was unable to renew its lease. It will take up one of Hollywood Theater's three screens starting in April"The government should come up with a long-term plan to support the maintenance of our theater",
Seoul Art Cinema managing director Enkay Kim said".This is more like running a museum or art gallery than a for-profit business". Although the government temporarily subsidized their rent, they lacked financial resources making it impossible to secure space to screen their movies.
Run by Cinematheque Seoul, the art house first opened in the basement of Art Sonje Center in Chongno-gu in 2002, and has since drawn film connoisseurs from around Seoul.
The competition with other commercial films is fierce because art films have limited marketing budgets and face difficulties finding available screens whereas blockbusters easily dominate theaters nationwide when they open.
"When we screened our first movie 'The Sacrifice' by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1995 for the first time, it was quite a sensation given the number of people it attracted", said Joan Kim, executive director of Baekdudaegan, a distributing company of art films.
Over 30,000 people saw the movie, which is the largest number the movie ever attracted in a single country.
Starting with "The Sacrifice", the distributing company has introduced 69 movies attracting around 1.1 million people over 10 years. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, the company will re-introduce its earlier screenings, including "The Sacrifice" from March 18 at its own theater, Cinecube, in Kwanghwamun, Seoul.
Since most theaters only screened Hollywood movies, action films from Hong Kong or local melodramas, it was hardly surprising that people wanted to see a different variety of films, especially movies by renowned directors, Kim said.
"But it is still difficult for us to promote our movies because we have to compete against Hollywood as well as big-budget domestic films", Kim said. Although art film distributors are now working together and have theaters specifically designated for art films, the still-limited number of screens and small marketing budgets are huge obstacles.
To prevent quality movies from failing to find screens even for a short time, the Korea Film Council (KOFIC) began a promotional network for small domestic theaters that specialize in art films in late 2003.
The measure came after many quality movies such as "Take Care of My Cat
" and "Flower Island" failed to reach local moviegoers because of the domination of mainstream movies.
The Artplus Cinema Network now consists of four theaters in Seoul, including Hypertheque Nada, Cinecube, Lumiere and Theater 2.0, and five theaters outside the capital. The theaters receive funds from the council and cut the cost of promotion and marketing by working together.
"To better promote art films, we plan to increase the number of theaters that will provide moviegoers more opportunities to watch independent art films", KOFIC staff Kim Hyounsoo said.
The council will open a new theater at the old Seoul Station building in October to screen art films focusing on independent Asian movies and will distribute more movies to local theaters, Kim said.