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All ready, but nowhere to show

Finding distributors is a challenge for directors; some are taking matters into their own hands

An independent movie theater in KT&G Sangsang Madang in Hongdae, Seoul, which is currently under renovation (KT&G)
An independent movie theater in KT&G Sangsang Madang in Hongdae, Seoul, which is currently under renovation (KT&G)

Director Park Hong-min decided to take a different route with his third independent feature, “Beyond You”: He will distribute the film himself instead of joining hands with a distributor.

His past two experiences working with local independent film distributors had left him keenly aware of the limitations of such partnerships.

“Independent movie distributors seem to have a hard time finding theaters. Also, there were financial issues. … Very little was left for the directors,” Park said. “There are certain processes that they took care of (as a distributor), but I felt that there were shortcomings.”

Park recently received a contact list of local independent movie theaters from Indie Ground, an independent movie retail and distribution hub created by the Korean Film Council, and is preparing to start the distribution process.

“There are not many previous cases (of directors distributing their films). Most recently director Park So-hyun did it. Her movie did not attract a large audience but she was able to have more opportunities to communicate with the audience and that seemed meaningful,” Park said. Park So-hyun’s award-winning documentary “Like a Rolling Stone” was released in 2018.

Park Hong-min added that he sees the process as an important opportunity to learn about how local distribution works.

More and more directors are taking promotion and distribution into his own hands.

“Local distributors cannot work for all independent feature films that come out that year. So I have a few director friends who decided to do it on their own,” said Kang Da-yeon, a director whose debut feature, “Hunger,” premiered recently at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival.

KT&G Sangsang Madang in Hongdae, Seoul (KT&G)
KT&G Sangsang Madang in Hongdae, Seoul (KT&G)

How are indie films distributed?

Although it is not easy for directors to assume responsibility for their film’s distribution, movie industry insiders say that many consider this option because of the local independent film distribution environment.

“Only films that have won prizes and have tangible results can readily find distributors and get a chance at theatrical release,” Kim Dong-hyun, director of the Seoul Independent Film Festival’s executive committee, told The Korea Herald. She added that many filmmakers fail to find distributors and end up presenting their work only during film festivals.

She also added that directors do not have sufficient information on how to get their films distributed.

“Many directors say they are not sure what they should do after they present the films through film festivals,” Kim added.

Kang, the director of “Hunger,” who has some experience releasing short indie films, agreed that there is no system to help them.

“For short independent movies, there are a few well-known short film distributors, the few distributors whose logos we often see at the beginning of films at film festivals. Directors usually try contacting them,” Kang said.

Kang added that with her recent indie feature, she met with a few local distributors that approached her but could not sign a deal.

“I was not sure if it was a company that I could trust,” she said.

Impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 has not made things easier.

“Film festivals are an opportunity to present films but they are also an opportunity to meet and connect with people from the movie industry. But this year, there was nothing like that,” Kang said about the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, which was held in a hybrid form with both in-person events and online events.

“I could not even invite some of the actors that appeared in my movie to watch the film because only a limited number of tickets were provided to us.”

On top of the quiet festivals, rumors spread in October about local conglomerate KT&G giving up its independent film supporting business, which was part of the company’s corporate social responsibility project.

KT&G denied the rumor after 18 local independent directors released a statement asking the company to save the division. The directors at the time emphasized that the conglomerate’s independent theaters are an important channel connecting them with independent movie fans.

According to data from the Korean Film Council, the number of screens that show independent and art films exclusively dropped to 74 this year from 77 in 2019.

Despite the dark clouds over the indie film scene, a long list of indie films are waiting to find distributors.

More than 1,433 applied to be shown at the Seoul Independent Film Festival, which is set to take place at CGV Arthouse Apgujeong from Nov. 26 to Dec. 4 -- a record for the festival, which was launched in 2002. This year 108 films will be shown during the festival, which is to be held in person.

A poster for the Seoul Independent Film Festival’s new program for directors, Next Link (SIFF)
A poster for the Seoul Independent Film Festival’s new program for directors, Next Link (SIFF)

Can Next Link save the day?

This year, SIFF is launching a program called “Next Link” to connect movie creators with distributors.

Organized jointly with Indie Ground, the event will be held Dec. 1-2.

“Many independent movie creators are suffering. Of course, there are difficulties in creating films but we focus more on the hardships that moviemakers face when distributing movies,” Indie Ground General Manager Lee Ji-yeon told The Korea Herald. “Based on the awareness of this hardship, KOFIC discussed the problems starting in 2018. Indie Ground was established as a result.”

Lee added that Indie Ground’s projects mainly focus on promoting the value of independent movies, directly supporting the distribution of films and providing networking opportunities, which is what Next Link also aims to do.

Kim of SIFF said she had received plenty of positive feedback about the program from both directors and distributors.

“This year, many film festivals arranged matching programs through the online channel. But we are different. Because we present Korean independent movies, local distributors will be able to meet the directors in person and discuss deals. We see this as our competitiveness,” Kim said.

Along with the matching program, the festival organizer also hopes to provide brief education sessions in the future.

“If films are selected for our festival, it means they are qualified movies, but even directors of those movies find it difficult to conduct meetings with distributors,” Kim said. “They say that they do not know what to say in the meeting.”

The Indie Ground official said in March, the organization will launch a program called “First Link,” primarily to support short film directors who have just started making films, and will offer film distribution 101 classes and workshops.

As a long-term goal, Kim said, Next Link aims to support Korean independent films in finding global distributors so that local films can expand their presence outside of Korea.

“We have to do this step by step. This is the first time that we are organizing a program to support directors with distribution. We do see that it will not be easy with COVID-19, but it is our first step,” Kim said.

By Song Seung-hyun (