By Yi Chang-ho
Sponge Ent. opened two non-mainstream Sponge Houses _ in Chongno and Apkujong _ for screening foreign and domestic films early this year. When sitting down with Sponge's president Sungkyu (David) Cho, he'll talk enthusiastically about the films programmed or to be programmed at Sponge. He is very taken with Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" and talks animatedly about the screening of the film and the audience's enthusiastic responses at the Berlin Film Festival, making it clear that he isn't just working in the film industry, but really loves cinema.
Sponge Houses and Sponge films are for similar people. "We release well-made foreign films and Koreans can find new worlds here", Cho said.
The Sponge Houses reflect a different approach to cinema culture. They don't advertise heavily, attracting mostly people who "regard films as more than just entertainment, the ones who like to think about what they saw and talk about it".
He illustrates his point by saying, "In regular multiplexes the lights go on right after the last scene and people immediately start leaving. In Sponge Houses we turn on the lights after the credits are finished", Cho said.
Sponge House Apkujong has a more distinctive audience. "The location is away from the main street and it's small. Not an easy accessible place like the Sponge House in Chongno in the former Cinecore Cinema. The people in the two Sponge Houses differ accordingly", he said. Another trait of the Sponge audience is that they are mostly between 25 and 35 years old, and eighty percent of them are female. "Sometimes I search the crowd for a male viewer, but can't find one", Cho says jokingly.
Cho likes to stress that in general films released in Korea by Sponge are not independent films, but often major and popular releases in their home countries, like Spain and Japan. Mr. Cho explained: "I dislike using the terms 'independent' and 'art house', because of the different meaning in Korea. In Korea its meaning is not positive as it is in America and Europe".
Cho is a little critical of Korea's taste in cinema, saying that Koreans follow the mainstream and the popular films are nowadays Korean films, with a major market share, ignoring the diverse and good movies from other cultures. He therefore can understand the criticism of his friend director Kim Ki-duk
about monopolizing screens with popular blockbusters such as Bong Joon-ho
's "The Host"
. "I think he was critical of the Korean cinema audience that follows the majority and ignores other choices".
Sponge also screens independent Korean films. At the moment Kim Ki-duk
can be seen at Sponge Houses with English subtitles. "We receive many requests from Korean film companies and we select the best. Usually we release one or two Korean films in our cinemas every month", Cho said. Since 2005 the company has also produced independent Korean films. "Sponge Ent. is a vertical integrated company modeled after American and Japanese independent film companies".
There is a strong debate in Korea about the diversity of Korean cinema and government regulations towards cinema. Cho says, "I disagree with government regulations. They can have good effects too, but they treat all cinemas the same, while there is a big difference between a Sponge House and other smaller film houses, and the big multiplexes. A measure like the screen quota should be flexible towards different kinds of cinemas", he added. "If the screen quota hadn't been reduced, we wouldn't have opened the Sponge Houses. For Sponge Houses it would have been too difficult to show Korean films 146 days a year", referring to the boom in popular mainstream films in Korea, and the much smaller number of selections from Korean independent cinema.
Cho is skeptical about the suggested "minimum quota", a regulation that demands Korean independent/art films be shown for a minimum number of days. "Korean independent cinema and its audiences are small. The minimum quota won't work. People won't go to see the films". However, he believes that the Korean independent cinema can grow from its current five percent to 10 percent of the market in the future.
One of the new developments is that big Korean film companies are starting to develop sister companies for independent films. "Like the Hollywood studios, Fox Searchlight of 20th Century Fox is an example", Cho said. He said Sponge will have to prepare for their entrance.
Cho is not worried about the sister companies of major Korean film companies entering the Korean independent film market and looking to distribute foreign films in Korea. "Sponge is now the biggest with good relationships with foreign distributors, directors and actors. In Korea we have a first-option deal with many foreign distributors. They offer their films first to Sponge". Sponge has confidence in its position as a Korean independent cinema exhibitor, "We have our style. We work well with low-budgets. We start with low expectations and the films usually perform better and make a profit. Kim Ki-duk
is satisfied with this small approach and how it works for his film "Time"
. Our viewers are well-informed audiences, so we don't need to spend much on advertising".
Cho looks towards the future with confidence. "We are a small company. Our name is Sponge and like a sponge, we change, we are not fixed. Because we are a small company we can be flexible". One of Cho's plans is to combine a film house and club in Hongdae. "After the last film screening we remove the chairs and make it ready for clubbing. In Hongdae there are two kinds of crowds, the popular mainstream crowd, and an underground artistic crowd. The Sponge film house/club would be aimed at the underground artistic people", he said. Right now, it's just an idea. He says that he'll first go to the Pusan International Film Festival. "This year we haven't invited guests to Pusan", he said. "I can just go to enjoy films". And he starts talking animatedly about the films he wants to see at the Pusan International Film festival.