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(Yonhap Feature) Celebrations aside, Pusan film festival shadowed by marketability
By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- As Asia's largest cinema festival drew to a close in Busan this week, filmmakers, promoters and critics from around the world gleefully mingled at a night party relishing cocktails, luscious desserts and camaraderie.

   But there was one question that had to be deliberately avoided not to ruin the mood: How is your film doing in the market?

   Apart from the festive mood in town, participants in this year's Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) had one common concern as filmmakers around the world were finding it increasingly difficult to sell their work. Quality films go to international film festivals, get awards, but most virtually have no chance of making it to the big screen.

   "I think all these festival networks play a very important role, presenting films that otherwise would not be seen by audience. On the other hand, we have to be aware of certain danger, which is that films are circulating from festival to festival," Maciej Karpinski, deputy director of international relations at the Polish Film Institute, said during the Polish Night organized to promote the country's films at PIFF.

Spanish director Carlos Saura (center) holds an open talk at the Haeundae Beach during the Pusan International Film Festival, which closed on Oct. 15. (Yonhap)

The film market at the 15th PIFF reported a sizable growth in size and sales activities, but that does not directly lead to deals for films from outside major production companies. Apart from films given awards at Cannes Film Festival, such as Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry" and Hong Sang-soo's "Hahaha," few non-mainstream movies clinched sales at the market.

   So far, 26 Korean and foreign films have been sold to 39 distributors, while negotiations are still underway for others.

   "Some movies presented in the Pusan film festival are straightforwardly commercial projects, but a lot of films we have here are low-budget and art films. Most of the deals made here are for commercial films," Nam Dong-chul, general manager of the Asian Film Market, said.

   South Korea is one of the few countries where homegrown films are in close competition with Hollywood blockbusters, but the balance has been tilting in recent years. Over the January-August period, domestic films held 42 percent of theater admissions, nearly 20 percent down from the same period last year, while the share for foreign films, mostly from Hollywood, shot up to 58 percent.

   Korea has the third-largest cinema market in Asia worth US$1.27 billion, following Japan with $11.06 billion and India with $1.89 billion. China comes after South Korea with $1.2 billion, according to this year's report by PwC, a London-based global services firm.

   Jeon Kyu-hwan, director of "Dance Town," a North Korean defector story that was screened at PIFF, has won several awards in international film festivals with his realistic portraits of urban lives, but his movie has little hope of being seen in theaters. He knows investors and distributors look for films that cater to audience tastes with nice-looking stars and dramatic effects.

   "They want directors who can abide by box office statistics," Jeon said.

   Giada Colagrande, Italian director of small-budget thriller "A Woman," agreed, saying finding distribution was getting harder due to the economic gloom. Even though her third feature stars her husband and Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe, she expected its release would be more difficult than her previous works.

   "Distributors don't come knocking on your door, asking you to show (them) the movie," Colagrande said during a PIFF press conference with Dafoe.

   "There's much more competition than there used to be, and I guess the crisis that's felt all through the cinema market, in small-budget, independent cinema, it's really a killer."

   Festival organizers are aware many of the strong films they invite will have no chance of reaching the audience beyond the festivals. Even those that are shown in theaters find market success elusive, as audience opt for Hollywood blockbusters, said Lukasz Bulka, the communication director of the Off Plus Camera International Festival of Independent Cinema held in Krakow, Poland. In the European country, where about 50 feature films are produced a year, few are successful in theaters, he noted.

   "Polish people in general want to see American films, and this is where you make money. I go to a lot of festivals and I watch beautiful films from all over Europe, and they will never be shown in theaters," he said.

   "It's the same with France," he added. "If you see George Clooney and Julia Roberts, I don't know they are good films, but they think they'd be entertaining."

   The growing challenge in finding a distributor also compelled the festival jury to see films on a more market wise basis. Freshness in vision or humanity used to be the criteria in judging a winner, but there was a new element to consider this year: market prospects.

   "Raw talent is very important, but we also have to think, especially in the cinema that isn't produced within a major film industry context, it needs to have support not only of the jury of the festival but also of the audience," said Thomas Elsaesser, a German film historian who was a jury member for the PIFF's Flash Forward competition section for non-Asian films.

   "It used to be said that it is difficult to make a film. Nowadays, I think the most difficult thing for films is to get distribution and find an audience."