SEOUL — In South Korea, you can buy a movie ticket almost anywhere: on your mobile phone, through numerous sites on the Internet, in selected cash machines, at convenience stores, even at the occasional cafe. For customers, it’s not only convenient to show up to the theater with an electronic ticket, it makes good sense. In densely populated cities such as Seoul, weekend screenings of popular films often sell out hours in advance. Not only that, auds are assigned seats at Korean theaters, so the sooner a ticket is bought, the better the seat will be.
Distributors, of course, have been eager to promote such foresightedness, and numerous online reservation sites now compete for customers’ business. Korea’s position as a leader in mobile technology and broadband Internet have only helped the practice spread. But over the past few years, the electronic ticket has proved to have a surprisingly large impact on the marketing and distribution of both large- and small-scale films, and it has stirred controversy in unexpected places.
On the most basic level, data about electronic ticket sales can be used as a marketing tool. As far back as 2001, it was common to encounter press reports stating that films such “Friend” or “My Sassy Girl” had notched a record number of advanced ticket sales. Beginning three to four years ago, advanced ticket sales came to be considered a key aspect of film marketing. Internet portals, daily newspapers and film-related television shows now publish top-10 rankings of the weekend’s scheduled releases by the number of advance reservations (typically the charts are released each Wednesday). This makes it easier for customers to identify the next “it” film and helps buzz to spread. A place at the top of the chart is sure to be trumpeted by marketers in newspaper and online ads.
However, the marketers are targeting more than just regular viewers. The ultimate size of any release is determined by exhibitors’ confidence in a film, and high levels of advanced ticket sales may encourage theater owners to make a late change in strategy.
“Internet reservations are an indication of how the week’s new films are likely to compete with each other, and so the rankings can have an effect on the number of screens a film secures,” says Kang Kyung-ho of CJ Entertainment’s distribution team.
With so much potentially riding on electronic tickets, distributors and film marketing departments have done everything in their power to give their films a leg up on the competition. In some cases, companies have resorted to reserving tickets themselves en masse in the hopes of pushing a film into the No. 1 slot. One marketer claims that despite the costs involved, the scale of such efforts has ranged from smaller cases of 2,000 to 3,000 tickets up to 50,000 tickets for the biggest releases. Although some ticket reservation sites have limited the number of purchases each user can make in an effort to stem the practice, smaller vendors have even approached film companies directly in the hopes of drawing more business.
Some firms distribute coupons to customers, offering steep discounts on selected films provided a reservation is made by a certain date. One major distributor was embarrassed last December when an internal email urging all the firm’s employees to book advanced tickets for an upcoming release was mailed to the press instead.
Campaigns such as these may explain the fact that different vendors often report vastly divergent rankings on each week’s films. Yet a No. 1 rating at even one vendor is sufficient to provide copy for an advertisement. The Korean Film Council, seeking to filter out some of the confusion, has introduced a combined ranking from a wide range of vendors that is posted in real time on its website. However, the organization has yet to secure the participation of the two biggest vendors, Internet portal Naver.com and reservations site Maxmovie.com, so some question how useful the new chart will be.
“Given the current situation, it’s hard to make any accurate predictions of a film’s opening score simply from online reservations,” says Kang. “But with many films in Korea now opening on a Thursday, it’s possible to get further information from the first day’s returns and to adjust the number of screens accordingly.”
Despite these problems, the spread of electronic ticketing has introduced a vast amount of data that can be used by distributors. They can also publicly access the gender and age of each film’s audience, allowing them to more carefully target ad campaigns.
As more reliable figures become available, e-tickets’ influence on the distribution sector is sure to grow.