The Korean film industry has a funny way to make money.
Unlike other markets where production companies reap sizable revenues from DVDs and other auxiliary channels, Korean films skip the potentially lucrative post-screening market and fall into a black hole of illegal online downloads once screening at theaters is over.
Leading filmmakers and actors continue to complain that rampant circulation of pirated movie files on the Web has virtually choked off DVD and rental markets, labeling illegal downloaders as major culprits for undercutting the already shaky income base of Korean movies.
The blame game, however, is not working at all. To reverse the trend -- or rather ride the wave of illegal online movie downloads -- might offer a solution. At least, that's the logic behind a new "legal" download service launched by Cine21i, an online unit of a leading weekly film magazine.
Cine21i's approach is not to block illegal downloads altogether, which is practically and logistically impossible. Instead, it attempts to force users to pay more, almost to the level of a fee for a legal download, when the movie in question is available at the company's online movie library.
Cine21i said it has developed a file-tracking technology that identifies illegally copied movie files and then hikes the download price for the pirated file to as much as 3,000 won -- an average price for a legal one.
The raised price, the company argued, would discourage consumers to download illegal files and switch their attention to the legal ones. Currently, Korean online users pay about 300 won for downloading a single illegally copied film file.
The novel strategy, in fact, reflects the Korean online download environment. Peer-to-peer file-sharing is also available, but the majority of users prefer using the so-called "web hard disk" services. These websites provide a vast amount of virtual hard disk for users in the form of communities, and any member who wants to download a file should pay a set fee. Other companies such as Clubbox, one of the biggest web hard disk firms, allow users to download files for free as long as the transmission speed is at a snail pace, but charges about 20,000 won per month for a broadband-level download.
Cine21i wisely chose to work together with such online download companies. It struck partnerships with 20-odd web hard disk firms for its new legal download service, which allows the users to watch a film for 30 days, or as many as five times. The price is set between 500 won and 3,000 won, depending on the release date.
To maximize the publicity effect, Cine21i began its service with "The Chaser"
, the biggest Korean hit in the first half of this year. The small-budget movie, armed with breathtaking chase scenes, sent both critics and moviegoers praising its heart-pumping pace, which translated into a huge box-office success.
What's interesting, though, is that a new download service for "The Chaser"
precedes the release of the film's DVD version. This faster online availability signals that the existing rules and conventions about the distribution of domestic films might go through a material change.
Traditionally, a movie gets screened at offline theaters and then enters a secondary distribution channel that starts from DVD and then moves through cable and satellite TV networks, landline TV networks and online downloads in a strict order.
Cine21i's drastic decision to go directly to online downloads, even before a DVD edition comes out, is based on the nature of online piracy. Despite software-based locks and other protective measures, online users manage to unlock DVDs and upload the pirated files on web hard disk sites, effectively killing off any motivation to buy a DVD version for many movie watchers.
Signs for a crumbling distribution order already began to surface a couple of years ago. Paid cable TV operators rushed to put out new movies on their platforms shortly after offline theater screening, and even local TV stations aired relatively new movies in less than six months. Previously, major TV stations waited for at least one year before airing a new movie on their networks.
Cine21i's new service, though innovative in its own right, is sparking concerns among filmmakers and distributors alike. Cine21i is teaming up with web hard disk firms, which are widely accused of have knowingly turned a blind eye to the illegal circulation of pirated movie files, but previous ventures for legal downloads collapsed because related web hard service companies did not cooperate fully.
One encouraging sign is that a growing number of online communities that share illegal movie files are being shut down, thanks to the aggressive crackdown by government authorities.
Cine21i is pinning its hope on "The Chaser"
to pull of a meaningful first step toward a legitimate download service, but it remains to be seen whether the movie's breathtaking chase scenes will be powerful enough to help online users kick their addiction to illegal downloads.
By Yang Sung-jin