South Korea reduces U.S. film quota

South Korea is opening its cinemas to more foreign films, announcing Thursday it would halve a quota on domestic movies after strong pressure from the United States to remove a key obstacle to negotiations on a free-trade agreement between the two countries. Seoul believes a free-trade agreement with the U.S. will accelerate its economic growth, and Finance Minister Han Duck-soo said such talks are expected to begin in early February. Washington had denounced the screen quota as an unfair trade practice and major hurdle to the talks.

Under the screen quota system, introduced in 1966, local theaters were required to show South Korean movies for 146 days a year to protect the local film industry. As of July 1, the quota will be reduced to 73 days, the Finance Ministry said.

Authorities expressed confidence that South Korean movies can withstand more competition from Hollywood, pointing out that the market share for domestic films has grown to nearly 60 percent last year from 50 percent in 2001. South Korean movies have received wide acclaim across Asia, where South Korean TV actors and musicians also have many fans outside their home country.

"Korean films have grown enough to receive widespread international recognition, with the export of Korean movies reaching US$76 million (euro62 million) in 2005," the ministry said in a statement. Washington welcomed the decision.

The planned reduction "will help level the playing field and increase movie choices for Koreans," U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said in a statement distributed by the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. "Now is the right time to give Korean cinemas more flexibility regarding what they can and cannot show," Portman said.

Korean films account for 59 percent of the nation's annual 900 billion won (US$925 million; euro752.4 million) film market, according to the Korean Film Council, a government agency. When video and DVD markets are combined, the movie market is estimated at 1.5 trillion won (US$1.54 billion; euro1.25 billion), the council said. The four top-grossing movies last year in Seoul, the capital, were Korean-made, with the most popular being "Welcome to Dongmakgol," a drama about the Korean War, according to the council. Seven of the top 10 grossing movies were Korean, and the other three were American films. The most popular U.S. movie on Seoul screens last year was "The Island," distributed by DreamWorks SKG Inc. and starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, about human cloning.

The ministry said while the quota system played a role in helping the Korean film industry grow, the country's dependence on overseas trade required some sacrifice. "The current situation is that we cannot survive unless joining the worldwide free trade trend and that has frequently demanded our screen quota system be changed," the ministry said.

But South Korean filmmakers and actors lashed out at the government, pledging to fight the decision "through all possible methods." "South Korean movies will now walk the path toward collapse without measures to guard against Hollywood's dominance," veteran film actor Ahn Sung-ki told reporters in Seoul. "Even if we make competitive movies, what's the use if they can't be shown on screens and can't reach audiences", reports the AP. N.U.

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