Media Market Barriers Breaking Down

By Kim Ki-tae
Staff Reporter
The fast changing media contents market is destroying longstanding barriers between filmmakers, broadcasters, talent management firms and mobile carriers.

Film companies are beginning to make television dramas, while broadcasters are producing films. Talent management companies, riding on their rising "star power", are jumping into production projects. Meanwhile, mobile communication carriers are buying up companies that traditionally provided only content.

"Television, theater, game, mobile phone and other media are converging in the name of digital technology", said Kan Han-seop, a professor at Seoul Institute of the Arts. "The entertainment market is now undergoing fundamental changes".

According to industry insiders, burgeoning new media, like digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) and satellite channels, require large, high-quality content and are therefore transforming the traditional contents market. In addition, the rising popularity of Korean pop culture in East Asia is raising demand for content.

In the eyes of traditional content makers or their neighbors, the ongoing upheaval is seen as either a "crisis or an opportunity". They are now emerging from their long-standing home turfs and making forays into neighboring territories.

Last month, Yellow Film announced that it would make a television mini-series called "Someday", deploying film director Han Ji-seung of "A Day" and "Ghost Mama", and scriptwriter Kim Hee-jae of "Silmido". They said they would begin shooting in October.

The film company Nobise Entertainment is also cooperating with a company of drama scriptwriters including Kim Yeong-hyeon of "Dae Jang Geum" for the possible production of dramas.

"Many filmmakers are interested in making television dramas", said Lee Eun, president of MK Pictures. "Investing only in movies can be risky. We are now focusing on the `one source, multi-use' concept", Lee said. MK Pictures resulted from last year's merger of two firms: Myung Film of "A Good Lawyer's Wife" and KangJeGyu Film of "Taegukgi".

Film companies are especially attracted to the stable revenue the production of dramas represent, which can guarantee a certain income to broadcasters regardless of ratings. Also, the dramas can prove to be a big hit due to the current wave of popularity of Korean products in East Asia. So far, dramas rather than films, have spearheaded the so-called "Korean wave".

For television networks, the grass is looking greener on the other side. SBS has already invested in two films, "Innocent Steps" (2005) and "A Bold Family" (2005), through its subsidiary, SBS Production. It is now co-producing a film about the friendship of a boy and a dog with an investment of 500 million won.

MBC was the first network to try its hand at filmmaking in 1997 with "A Man Who Holds Flowers", which fared poorly in the box office. Now it has joined hands with Sidus Pictures for two upcoming HD films.

KBS also got on the filmmaking bandwagon when it agreed to work with the Korea Film Council to invest around 300,000 won in selected films.

"The broadcasters want another income source", said Cho Min-choul, head of Art Pack Cinema, which cooperates with KBS for the production of director Yeo Kyun-dong's new film.

Their fresh approaches to the film industry are also due to broadcasters' needs for more content in the digital broadcasting era.

The broadcasting companies' foray into filmmaking is not unheard of in other nations, but there are few examples of foreign broadcasters producing films entirely themselves. Most overseas broadcasters just get involved in funding, not production.

The talent management agencies' expansion into the contents market has also been remarkable, especially in the past few years. Utilizing surging "star power" in and outside of the nation, they are not just managing celebrities anymore, but are getting involved in creating the content in which their celebrities are featured.

For example, the firm that manages actress Kim Hee-sun was involved in the production of her mini-series "My Fair Lady". Other dramas, such as "Sad Love Story" starring kwon Sang-woo and "Spring Days" featuring Jo In-sung, are productions of the stars' managing companies.

The recent clash between film director Kang Woo-seok and actors Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho mirrors the rising influence of the managing agencies. Kang last week blamed the managing firms for "demanding excessive profit shares" in addition to guarantees naming the two big stars. Even though the director later apologized to them, the fuss reflects the managing firms' aggressive expansion out of their traditional areas.

The last but not the least important factor in the ongoing market turmoil is the ambitions of the mobile communicators. Some believe that the terrestrial broadcasters' approach to the film industry is aimed at fending off the challenge from mobile or satellite broadcasting companies dominated by SKT and KTF.

SKT, the nation's biggest mobile carrier, has made no bones about its ambitions in the contents market. Recently, it set up a fund worth 75 billion won ($75 million) for the production of films and dramas. In February it also took over 21.7 percent of iHQ, an umbrella company for filmmaker iFilm and managing agency SidusHQ, for 14.4 billion won. In March, it bought up 60 percent of a music label, YBM Seoul Records, for 29.2 billion won. The buying spree is largely interpreted as a bid to procure contents for its satellite DMB services.

Another telecommunication giant, KT, is currently integrating the media contents departments of its sister firms KTF, KTH and KDB. Out of the integration, mobile carrier KTF plans to set up a 30 billion won fund with the film-distributing firm Showbox for investment in film and mobile contents. KT, KTF and KTH are also reported to be thinking about taking over Sidus Pictures by investing 40 billion won.

"There is a widespread fear among content providers that their products could fail to meet the needs of the fast changing digital media environment", said Jeong Ki-young, chief editor of Korean edition of monthly Premiere.

"The fear pushes content producers to expand to other sectors or merge with related firms. We cannot predict how the sector will unfold in the future", he said. "However, it will likely be that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in the end".

Kim Mee-hyun, director of the Korean Film Council, worries that the cutthroat competition and the rising influence of capital may hamper the creativeness of content providers. "The market cannot be free from capitalism. But, the current trend could suppress a creator-centered culture in the market, which will degrade the quality of content".