By Joon Soh
In a sudden and unexpected change of position, Culture and Tourism Minister Lee Chang-dong
announced that the time has come to "examine a reduction, alteration and change" in the current screen quota system that has protected the domestic film industry.
At a meeting late Friday afternoon in Seoul with the Film People for Alternative Measures, a civic group composed of members of the film industry, Lee said his ministry will examine changing or reducing the current quota system, which mandates theaters to screen domestic films 40 percent of the time.
But Lee, who is also a noted filmmaker, made it clear that if the changes result in damaging the local film industry, the original quota can be restored. Lee then asked the film world to come up with suggestions and help in changing the system.
The six representatives at the meeting, however, strongly protested the sudden change in the culture ministry's stance on the screen quota, hinting at possible conflicts in the future between the ministry and the film world on the sensitive issue.
Immediately after the meeting, the ministry held a news conference to clarify its position. Ministry official and spokesperson Kim Chan said that the culture ministry's decision to consider altering the screen quota was made independent of Chong Wa Dae and is not connected to a potential Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) being negotiated between South Korea and the United States. The U.S. has long demanded a reduction in the number of quota days for local films as a condition for the treaty, which the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has strongly rejected up to now.
Kim, however, said the ministry remains firm in its position that films are not items to be negotiated in such a treaty, as specified by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The ministry's considered changes instead come from the need to promote diversity in the local film world, he said.
"This change in the quota system should not be thought of as just an increase in the number of foreign films screened", Kim said. He added that a separate quota system for our nation's experimental and art films, which, compared to mainstream films, are lagging far behind in popularity and support, can even be considered, which would be a position similar to the one endorsed by civic groups in support of the screen quota.
But the ministry has yet to make any concrete decisions regarding any change or reduction, Kim said.
Yesterday's meeting with Minister Lee took place at the request of the film world representatives, who felt President Roh Moo-hyun was being critical of the screen quota at a formal dinner with international cultural organizations at Chong Wa Dae last week.
"If the government bows under the pressure of the U.S. and doesn't maintain the current screen quota, then we will fight the decision by any means possible", Yang Ki-hwan of the Film People for Alternative Measures said prior to the group's meeting with Lee.