In a reversal of position that hasstunned the local film industry, South Korea's Ministry of Culture and Tourismhas announced that it will now support the reduction of the nation's embattledScreen Quota System. TheMinistry's acquiescence makes it almost certain that the Screen Quota will beweakened in the near to mid-future.

In a meeting onJune 11 with film industry representatives, Minister of Culture and Tourism LeeChang-dong - himself a filmmaker and a formerly ardent supporter of the ScreenQuota - argued that "for that sake of the film industry's future, we needto examine, adjust and reduce the Screen Quota."

The Ministrynoted, however, that if the local film industry suffered a sharp contractionafter the reduction of the quota, it would re-introduce the system at fullstrength. Other measures tosupport arthouse and low-budget cinema are also to be pursued and perhaps evenworked in to a separate quota system of its own.

Spokesman Kim Chansaid that the film industry would be consulted before any changes aremade. "We expect thereduction to be somewhere between the current level of 40% (146 days per year)and the 20% requested by the U.S," he said.

The Ministry'spronouncement has shocked the local film industry, with many vowing to stronglydefend against any reduction in the system.

The Screen Quotahas become an issue of great contention in recent years, with the U.S. refusingto sign an otherwise-completed Bilateral Investment Treaty with South Koreaunless the quota is weakened. Thestrength of local cinema - market share topped 50% in 2003 and is at a stunning68.1% in the year to May - has turned public opinion in favour of weakening thesystem.

The Ministry hasemphasised that it came to this decision independently, and that it does notsupport the inclusion of cultural products in international tradenegotiations.

Some observershave questioned the timing of the announcement, with a cabinet reshufflingexpected by the end of June which is expected to see Lee replaced as Minister.

The Screen Quotasystem stipulates that local theatres must screen Korean films for 146 days peryear, with various built-in reductions that can lower the required number to106.