SEOUL — The rage in South Korea in the past few years has been multiscreen theaters surrounded by other services like shopping centers and restaurants, but the boom mainly stayed inside Seoul.
Not anymore. The multiplex craze is spreading fast to regional cities, changing the Koreans’ moviegoing habits while also influencing national B.O. and distribution patterns.
According to statistics by CGV, Megabox and Lotte Cinema — the top three builders of multiplexes — the number of moviegoers visiting their theaters last year totaled 40 million, which was about 40% of the total audience.
Most expect the growth to continue. Lotte Cinema marketing manager Lee Dong-ho believes that the number of screens in South Korea will shoot up to 1,500 by 2005, most of them multiplexes. There are 1,100 screens at present, 50% of them at multiplexes.
“It’s mostly competition, everybody is going multiplex and the consumers are now demanding it because they like the one-stop service,” Lee says. “In fact, we fear depletion of the multiplex market by 2006, given the current rate of growth.”
Lotte, of the Lotte Department Store chain, is the fastest-growing multiplex operation, owning 71 screens in nine regional cities. It plans to have 200 screens in 35 multiplexes by 2005, including a theater in Seoul. Megabox also runs more than 50 screens nationwide, and CGV has been expanding aggressively in regional cities like Puchon.
The growth is timed well with South Korea’s recent adoption of the five-day workweek, which will give Koreans more time to enjoy leisure activities like shopping and watching movies, giving a further boost to the already prosperous cinema business.
The multiplexes have already changed habits in regional cities. Kang Kyung-ho, distribution manager at CJ Entertainment, one of the country’s top two distribs, notes that more families are going to theaters, whereas traditionally movies in Korea were enjoyed mostly among friends and daters.
“Families who go out to eat or shopping often end up seeing a movie as well since it is right there in the same venue. This has greatly boosted ticket sales for family movies and animation, particularly in regional cities,” he says.
CJ, for instance, released a greater number of prints of “Sinbad” (dubbed in Korean) to the regional cities.
Distributors also are keeping more specific notes on the needs of different regions. While the nation prefers comedies, Seoul residents like human drama and science fiction, while viewers in Busan and Incheon like action and Daegu auds go for comedies and love stories.
“It also appears that those in regional cities are more likely to choose a movie, particularly foreign ones, based on the actors than the moviegoers in Seoul,” says Kim Dong-hyun, assistant manager of distribution at Cinema Service.
B.O. potential outside of Seoul is substantial. Comedy “Marrying the Mafia,” last year’s top grosser, drew 1.6 million people in Seoul, while regional theaters attracted 3.5 million.
Accordingly, the distributors are growing serious about correctly tallying the ticket sales in the regional cities, as their performance there could drastically affect their ranking in the B.O. chart. Unfortunately, Korea does not have an advanced system for keeping track of admissions, leaving the industry to rely on Seoul figures released by the Korean Film Commission.
The commission and companies like LG are working on a high-tech system for ticket-counting that will likely be released at the end of this year or early next.
Meanwhile, not everyone is welcoming the multiplex fad, saying their preference for highly commercial films is lowering audience standards. Much as in the U.S, art films are often quickly removed if they don’t perform in the first week.
To counter the mushrooming multiplexes, 12 art theaters across the nation recently formed an art movie network, hoping to create synergy while giving Koreans an alternative to the pop fare shown in megatheaters.