Is the ‘Screen Quota’ System Really Relevant?
Cho Hee-moon

Professor of Cinema Studies, Dean of College of Arts
Sangmyung University

Controversy is again raging over the “screen quota” system, under which movie theaters are required to show Korean films for up to 146 days a year, in an effort to protect the domestic film industry from foreign competition, particularly U.S.-produced films. Moreover, the screen quota system has emerged as a serious stumbling block of the ongoing Korea-U.S. negotiations over a proposed bilateral investment treaty (BIT). In addition, Korean government agencies are sharply divided over this issue as well. Thus, while certain government officials support the screen quota system as a last resort and necessary measure to protect Korean movies from an onslaught of foreign-made films, there are others who contend that the quota system has since lost its effectiveness in promoting the domestic film industry.

Resurgence of Korean Films

In regard to this matter, I believe the following question is relevant: “Does the screen quota system really contribute to the development of Korea’s film industry today?” The domestic film industry was gripped by a sense of crisis in 1998 when the direct distribution of foreign-made movies got underway in accordance with the easing of previous restrictions on film production and the import of movies from abroad. Ironically, these deregulation measures have actually helped to bolster the competitiveness of Korea’s film industry. It seems clear that this positive development came about due to the fact that domestic film producers were forced to anguish over what types of films would appeal to Korean audiences, while desperately searching for ways to counter the intensified foreign competition.

Korea’s concerns and apprehensions about lifting the ban on Japanese films have proven to be unfounded as well. As such, the notion that the screen quota system has contributed to the advancement of Korea’s film industry and that it remains a useful tool toward this end is fallacious. In fact, the opposite is true, as evidenced by the remarkably expanded market share of domestically produced films of late.

The domestic film industry was teetering on the verge of virtual collapse before the blockbuster “Swiri” arrived on the scene in 1999. The recent successes of Korean movies have in large part been attributable to a combination of factors, including the innovative ideas advanced by film producers, advent of theaters that offer quality-enhanced experiences for moviegoers with state-of-the-art facilities and plush accommodations, and a multitude of avid fans of Korean films. This being the case, it would be difficult to say that the screen quota system has played a central role in this impressive turnaround of the domestic film industry.

Ever since the Motion Picture Act was enacted in 1962, the government’s policy approach to films has been centered on restrictive measures, such as a production quota system for Korean movies and imposition of restrictions against foreign-made films. During the Yusin (Revitalization) period of authoritarian rule, films featuring such themes as Saemaul Undong (New Village Movement), anti-communism, and state policy initiatives were examples of how the government authorities used film for public relations and propaganda purposes. As the number of these movies mushroomed, the government sought to assure that a certain number of these movies would be screened at movie theaters for a certain period of time, which led to the establishment of the quota system in 1962. At that time, movie theaters were required to show at least six Korean movies a year over a period of not less than 90 days.

The existing quota system, which requires cinemas to show Korean movies for at least 40 percent of their days of operation (up to 146 days per year), has been in effect since 1985. The quota system was primarily enforced as a means of mitigating the negative consequences resulting from the liberalization of the import of foreign-made films. After having used movies as a propaganda tool, government officials forced movie theaters to be at the forefront of protecting the domestic movie industry, when trade pressure necessitated liberalization of the import of foreign films.

From the onset, this quota system created a serious clash between domestic film producers and movie theaters. Thus, while theater owners argued for a reduction in the amount of mandatory days for Korean movies, film producers staunchly opposed any move in this direction. Before the import restrictions on foreign-made films were eased, many Korean film-production firms were also importers and distributors of foreign films. Consequently, the ranks of those who strongly advocated the need for a screen quota system were insignificant. However, the quota system again emerged as a sensitive and highly controversial issue in 1988, when direct distribution of film imports was allowed, thus bypassing domestic production firms. Accordingly, these local film production firms, which were now excluded from the handling of foreign films, shifted their focus to the support of domestic movies and the screen quota system.

Avoid Blind Patriotism

Controversy over the quota system appears to be irrelevant as it has been demonstrated that U.S. films will not automatically dominate the Korean movie market, while Korean-produced films have been successful in attracting growing numbers of viewers. In light of these developments, it is important to avoid a situation in which this issue takes on patriotic or nationalistic overtones. Various alternatives should be duly considered for promoting Korea’s film industry; however, if a narrow-minded approach is pursued that insists the screen quota system is the only means of assuring the survival of Korea’s film industry, then the debate process will tend to be overly emotional, without regard for the factual circumstances involved.

While it may be beyond reason for the quota system to represent a critical obstacle standing in the way of concluding the BIT negotiations, it is also an exaggeration to say that its continued maintenance is essential for the protection and promotion of Korea’s film industry. As I see it, the quota system should be just one of several measures intended to protect and promote Korean films, and certainly not an end in itself. Thus, if the ultimate goal of the screen quota system is to strengthen the self-reliance of domestic film production, it is necessary to appreciate the Korean film industry’s recent success and remarkable growth, well beyond everyone’s expectations.

[The Dong-A Ilbo, June 14, 2003]