There’s a national drive in Korea to make documentaries the next Korean international content success. Korea made a national project out of becoming the world’s biggest music producer through K-Pop. Pretty ambitious project for a country of 50 million people. But they’re now the fastest growing music industry in Asia, with a massive presence in Japan and inroads into China too. Psy’s Gangnam Style with its retro and knowing dance routine (2 billion views and counting for the video) was K-Pop’s breakthrough moment, though not really typical of what Korea generally makes – choreographed pop hits, auto tuned to within an inch of their lives.
Now the government has looked at Documentaries and decided that they are another form of international content that can be given a government boost and conquer the international market. So Docs Port Incheon, which ran at the beginning of November, benefited not only from healthy government funding, but also the industry focus that this provides. I was an advisor, with the lovely Karolina Lidin of Sheffield Doc/fest and Nordisk Film and TV Fund fame, and this was the first proper year of the event after a try-out last year. At the public pitching were representatives of investment funds that normally do movies, alongside public agencies, Korean broadcasters, and international commissioners, distributors and funds – all promising cash to some challenging documentaries. Catherine Olsen from CBC, John Lee from Tribeca, Esther van Messel from First Hand Films, Catherine Le Clef from Cat and Docs, Rudy Buttignol from Knowledge Network, Fiona Lawson-Baker from Al Jazeera English, Claire Aguilar from ITVS and Nihotpal Majumdar from DocEdge all attended.
The event was held in the Paradise hotel in the gritty port city of Incheon – enormous cargo ships full of the cars, TVs, microwaves and all manner of stuff that comes from Korea. The hotel TV showed Japanese baseball every morning (another sort of pitching).
There were many winners amongst the 22 Korean and other Asian projects pitched. The money that companies got in cash prizes, as well as post-production support – $500,000 USD – is a very large sum by any standards. It wouldn’t pay for entire productions but would go a long way. Several of the projects were then going to be pitched at a Korean pitching event at IDFA in Amsterdam next week – all paid for by one of the content promotion agencies.
The challenge for content producers and funders though is that the Asian market is pretty fragmented for factual. There’s China, which is huge but somewhat unfathomable for other Asian countries. Japan, which can be quite introverted and dominated by NHK. And then the rest, where independently produced content is something of an unknown quantity.
I’m hoping to do some consultancy in Korea to help the indie production sector. I was on a panel about independent production and international coproduction, (thanks to Wonjung Bae for organising it and IJ for moderating with aplomb. He made us all have a proper stretch after the first hour and a half).
I also gave a lecture to the pitching teams called Changing the Narrative about why documentaries matter to a country like Korea (download the Changing the Narrative presentation if you like). The UK’s indie story is a good one, and the big numbers that UK indies have generated make sense in government circles. Factual and entertainment formats are the driver in Britain, and could be in Korea – feature length docs don’t have the cash-generating potential they’re looking for.
And I’m sure they can come up with the right ideas to make use of all that lovely public development support – as a country they seem to be able to do a lot when they put their mind to it. UK indies as ever have spotted an opportunity in the country. There are already good links between some companies like OSF – their new BBC/Terra Mater series Wild Weather with Richard Hammond is coproduced with Paan Media Holdings of Korea, and goes out in ten days time in the UK. Amanda Groom of The Bridge, part of Argonon, runs a consultancy which specialises in setting up projects with Korea, and is very active there.
The companies I met at Docs Port are quite filmmaker-led – they could all do with spending more time and money on ideas development I’d say. The money is being spent developing a project, rather than helping them come up with ideas in the first place. The mixed ecology of docs and fact ent of many UK companies would be a good model for them – if they can get the scale in factual. For that, they need broadcasters to invest in indie production rather than their own in-house production, and that looks like a long way away. But with a determined government behind them, who knows?
Plus, there’s a channel called SBS in Korea – there’s got to be an SBS-SBS Korean-Australian coproduction, surely?
Korean producers have been active in factual events like Sheffield Doc Fest, IDFA, and will no doubt be present at the Asian Side of the Doc in Xiamen, China, next March. A couple like Ha Sinhae of Boda Media – who’s just brought back a prize from a festival in Sao Paolo for Here Comes Uncle Joe
– and Gary Kam who produced with Min-Jul Kim and director Seungjun Yi the multi-award winning Planet of Snail, are well travelled on the doc circuit. What they might need to do now is to build scale with something more TV-focussed like a factual series, perhaps for the Asian market in the first instance
Thanks to Seokpil Kang, Wooyoung Choi and Gary Kam for bringing me to Docs Port and introducing me to Korea. They were excellent organisers, so friendly and welcoming, and know how to have a good party without spending a fortune. I’ll be back.