October 29, 2014 – 3:33 pm

In the last 20 years, film funding has stood itself on its head. This was perhaps inevitable, as very few film studio systems remained active. Thus, it fell on the shoulders of individuals to raise their own funding in every which way they could. Philip Cheah discusses how Korean film schools have changed the funding system and refreshed the studio system.

In the histories of every national cinema, the conflict between private and public enterprise has ensued, causing a see-saw of ambitions swinging between commercial dictates and state enterprise. This can be seen in how early or how late the state’s presence is felt in the industry. For example, it was early in the case of Vietnam in 1953 and late for the Philippines in 1981. This determined the level of control over creative expression. There is always a consequence from whom you take your money from.

Then in 1988, the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film Festival was launched. Intrinsic to its funding source was a combination of state funds, non-governmental organization (NGO) money, charitable foundations and broadcasting networks. Here, you can discern the various interests at play and while the fund has been instrumental in many cinematic breakthroughs, it has also over the years inspired many other film festivals to adopt this funding model. In many cases, festivals realized that such funding initiatives ensured a steady influx of new films for their film programmes. In short, it evolved into a kind of farming system.

In farming, we choose between cash-cropping and food farming, one geared towards profit, the latter towards nutrition and sustenance. That battle of conscience over markets and culture has been fought quietly in funding selection meetings over the years.

In 2006, another game changer entered the arena. It was the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) and its dean was film director Park Ki-yong. Beginning in 1984, KAFA was a post-graduate school for students with filmmaking experience.

So how do you raise the profile of a young filmmaker and teach him as well? That experiential element was what Park Ki-yong wanted to impart on each filmmaking cohort. The logic was excellent. If the teachers were all experienced filmmakers and since the students had access to film equipment plus post-production facilities, why bother with just doing short film exercises? Why not just take the leap into the frontlines of feature filmmaking?

Since the entire student cohort was already in various departments of film expertise from producing to cinematography, the whole school could function as the film crew. The experience actually went very well. KAFA student features were selected in many film festivals and started to win awards. KAFA became a brand where film programmers would sit up and take notice if they knew that the film came from that school.

Three years ago, Park Ki-yong joined Dankook University’s Graduate School of Cinematic Content. The dean is Kim Dong-ho, former festival director of the Pusan International Film Festival who personally recruited Park into the school. In similar fashion, Dankook also embarked on a student feature filmmaking programme, this time with funding from the Lotte Entertainment Company. Lee Yong-seung’s 10 Minutes, about a young office worker having his first taste of the working world’s cruelty, was first off the mark in 2013. It quickly went to festivals and won awards.

As Kim Dong-Ho said: “One reason I think we were able to see results during a short period of time is due to our programme which enables filmmakers to just focus on production without distraction for an entire year.”

The four projects that came out during the programme’s first year each received KRW50 million (about US$49,000), an insignificant amount to many for making an independent digital feature film, but not to a school.

Besides 10 Minutes, other first batch features were Jang Woo-jin’s A Fresh Start (2014), Lee Kyung-sub’s Miss The Train (2014) as well as No Jae-hyun’s Wake Up Chun-ja (2014).

The latest project is Kim Dae-hwan’s The End Of Winter (2014) that has just been shown at this year’s Busan International Film Festival.

Other Korean film schools have noticed the trend and at least two others have procured similar corporate funding for their student feature programmes.

However, Dankook has moved one step ahead with its current launch of its global talent incubating programme with Australia’s Brisbane-based Griffith University and China’s Beijing Film Academy that will result in an international co-production feature.

In many ways, the environment for film production has come full circle. If you discount the star system and the publicity corps, the film school manages to look like an academic film studio with its various production and post-production departments. The school’s dean becomes the studio mogul. The school’s name becomes a brand like that of a famous film studio. The level and extent of film production won’t stand up to the old film studio days but it’s a good enough riff from a classic tune. At least for now.

Note: The above essay was first published for the Korean Film Showcase catalogue at the Griffith Film School, Australia. The screening showcase took place on October 20-24, 2014.

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