By YOUKYUNG LEE
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has an answer to where the controversy over the theatrical releases of Netflix movies started: his cinematic ambition.
Bong said last week that Netflix never pushed for the theatrical release of his “Okja,” but he did so himself so people could see it on the big screen. The controversy has hit home in South Korea where the top three movie chains are refusing the film’s simultaneous theatrical and Netflix debuts.
“Okja” by the internationally acclaimed director of “The Host” and “Snowpiercer” was one of two Netflix titles that competed at the Cannes Film Festival last month for the first time, along with Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” But after an outcry from French exhibitors, Cannes changed its rules to require that films in competition be distributed in French movie theaters.
The debate over Netflix movie’s theatrical release was renewed in South Korea after Cannes closed.
South Korea’s top three largest movie chains, which control 90 percent of screens in the country, refused to release “Okja” unless Netflix holds off streaming for three weeks. In South Korea, movies are offered on online or other platform about two to three weeks after their big-screen debuts.
“Usually Netflix movies have not pushed ahead with theatrical releases in other countries,” he told reporters in Seoul. “It was a controversy that started because of me. As a director, it’s natural to have a desire to show the movie both on streaming and movie screens.”
Bong said Cannes should have sorted out the rule before inviting “Okja” and that it was “unexpected” to see an international film festival adopt domestic law in France. Directors are too busy making films to study French law, he said.
“It would have been preferred if Cannes would have put the rules in order before inviting us. Inviting us and then creating a controversy was an embarrassment to us,” he said.
Produced by Brad Pitt on Netflix’s $50 million budget, “Okja” features Tilda Swinton as a scion of a multinational food corporation and Jake Gyllenhaal as a zoologist. Their world in Manhattan stands in stark contrast to a farmer girl’s who lives on remote mountains in South Korea with a genetically engineered animal named Okja. Part family movie and part political fantasy about the relationship between human and animals in capitalist society, the movie was well received among critics.
Netflix said it continues to work hard with a local distributor to give more opportunities and choices to South Korean viewers to watch “Okja.” Its Netflix streaming starts on June 28, or June 29 local time in South Korea.
But no breakthrough with multiplex movie chains is in sight unless Netflix delays the streaming debut.
“It is against the rules of movie distribution system,” said an official at CJ CGV, the biggest multiplex movie chain in South Korea. The person was not authorized to speak to media about a deal under negotiation and asked to be anonymous.
While big movie theater operators may boycott, independent movie theaters have agreed to screen Bong’s political fantasy on June 29 giving “Okja” screening time, but on few screens.
Bong said he is generally happy the movie will appear in movie theaters that have been eclipsed by the multiplex chains.
“It’s a good chance to revisit movie theaters that we have forgotten for a while,” he said. “I’m satisfied with the current situations.”
For Netflix, it’s got little to lose.
The noise created by the film industry could benefit the service, which isn’t a popular brand yet in the South Korean streaming market, now dominated by big mobile carriers.
Bong, a household name in South Korea and one of the few movie directors to have achieved both critical and commercial success with nearly all of his previous works, could prompt viewers here to join the online streaming service, rather than traveling to watch “Okja” on a big screen.