One of Korea's leading independent distributors tells Jean Noh how he is transforming the local market and why he considers himself a partner, not simply a buyer.
A familiar figure on the international festival and market circuit with his horn-rimmed glasses, shaggy looks and easy-going, earnest attitude, David Cho is a prolific buyer of international arthouse titles for Korea. Through his distribution company Sponge, Cho has been garnering attention for successfully marketing and releasing small films to targeted audiences.
A regular at the market offices of Focus Features, Celluloid Dreams, HanWay and more recently The Weinstein Company, Cho's recent acquisitions include Grindhouse, Lights In The Dusk, The Science Of Sleep, Three Times and Glastonbury.
'We're not just buyers and sellers but long-term partners,' says Cho. 'I have friends in Korea who I see less often than my market circuit friends. And we see each other in Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, all over the world. Markets aren't just about buying and selling, the circuit is also a kind of community.'
Sponge releases most of its titles on two to three prints, sometimes for a run of up to several months, unusual in a territory where a film lives or dies by its opening weekend. For bigger releases, Sponge has started working with local partners. Earlier this year, it teamed up with MK Pictures to release Babel on 48 screens and is working with MK again on the release of Grindhouse.
'The market for foreign films in Korea is changing,' says Cho, of increasing local appetites for independent film.
Sponge's release of the Japanese film La Maison De Himiko garnered around 92,000 admissions from four screens and ran for five months. Until recently an arthouse release would have been considered successful with just 20,000 admissions. Kim Ki-duk last year threatened to quit Korean films if his latest film Time did not clock up 200,000 admissions, but declared himself satisfied when Sponge's release of his film sold around 30,000 tickets.
'If we started aiming for higher than 1 million admissions per film, we'd start moving away from what we ourselves know and like - trying to anticipate what the larger mainstream audience would go for, and that's not what we do best,' says Cho. The majority of Sponge's slate are pre-buys and the company is building up entire libraries of work from film-makers such as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Takeshi Kitano.
'Once we start working with a top-class director, we stick with them,' says Cho. 'We buy all their films. We don't buy this one and then say: 'No, that one's not so strong.' I don't think that's proper courtesy to a master. I think they look at us as partners in a way, too. How many other companies in the world own the entire oeuvre of Wim Wenders, for example''
In March, Sponge held a retrospective of the German director's films, which Wenders attended. 'And then there are films that just fit our profile,' says Cho of the Sponge brand. 'Raoul Ruiz'sKlimt, for instance - we saw it announced in Screen and said: 'John Malkovich in that' That's it, we're buying it.'
'A good deal is a simple deal,' he explains. 'We don't talk about asking prices. We talk about history - what we did with previous films, how they turned out, and what the new ones are reasonably worth. It's total profit, not income per film that's important. We do small films, but several of them, and good ones.'
Cho is co-chief executive officer of Sponge with Eunun Cho (no relation), who heads the company's marketing and local film development affairs. The company also runs a chain of arthouse theatres dubbed Sponge House. It directly operates two in Seoul and outside of the capital it programmes Sponge House films into third-party theatres.
Sponge also pre-buys Korean rights to local films, acting as co-producer. These include Kim's Time and Kim Tae-yong's documentary On The Road 2. Of the 60 films Cho plans to release this year, around seven will be local titles. Two - Kim Ki-duk's Breath and Hwang Qu-duk's For Eternal Hearts - are premiering at Cannes, with Breath in Competition.