Korean films pump booming tuner biz

Musicals often less risky than film production

SEOUL — South Korea’s film industry may be struggling through a painful downturn, but its stage musicals biz is on the upswing. And a flood of new tuners adapted from local movies is accelerating that growth.

Musicals have been a part of Korea’s entertainment culture since “The Phantom of the Opera” became a huge success in 2000. At that time, the tuner market was worth less than $30 million a year. But in 2002, almost 100 musicals were presented, expanding the market to an estimated $110 million — or half the country’s entire live performance grosses.

“I’ve been working for the film industry my whole life,” says Kim Mi-hee, co-prexy of pic company Sidus FNH. “But these days, audiences are responding much better to musicals than films. The musical industry has huge possibilities insofar as it attracts talent and money.”

High-visibility foreign musicals such as “Mamma Mia!” “Miss Saigon,” “Aida” and “Beauty and the Beast” have all played to long runs, attracting more than 200,000 admissions each.

Investors began paying attention to musicals when it became clear that tuners often involved less risk and faster cash circulation than film production. The musical market passed the $200 million mark in 2006, according to industry estimates, making it one of the most profitable forms of popular entertainment in Korea.

Initially, the Korean musical boom was focused primarily on licensed import properties. But those are now dwarfed by the number of homegrown works, exceeding 100 per year. More than 20 musicals are bowing each month in Seoul alone, with a market share for original works of 56%.

Construction is under way on several permanent theater venues across the country, with seven being built in Seoul alone. Some of the capital’s oldest movie theaters, dating back a half-century, are being converted into live musical houses.

“Big multiplex chains have a monopoly on the profitable movies, and the old theaters like us can’t compete,” says one theater owner. “That’s why we decided to shift to musical theater.”

One of the most salient features of Korean musicals is the number of properties based on local film titles — dubbed “movicals” in national media.

Hit releases like “Waikiki Brothers,” “Dancing Princess,” “Radio Star” and “Singles” have made the leap from screen to stage. Later this year, blockbuster “The Harmonium in My Memory,” “200 Pounds Beauty” and recently released drama “Beastie Boys” (aka “The Moonlight of Seoul”) will get musical makeovers.

Not surprisingly, several film companies have taken the plunge into musicals. Movie major CJ Entertainment has been a key investor in stage tuners from the beginning. Among more recent converts is Cineline 2 (“My Father”), which is producing an original musical concept called “Falling in Love.”

The most active film company, however, is Sidus, which holds rights to film-based movicals such as “Singles” and “My Scary Girl.”

Sidus directly collaborated with talent from the legit sector last year to produce well-received local musical “Shine.” This year, the company has increased cross-pollination between its divisions by simultaneously developing a new project, “The Sword of No Name,” by pic helmer Kim Yong-kyun, for both screen and stage.

Based on the same historical story of original musical hit “The Last Empress,” the film is being watched closely by industry observers due to the attachment of actor Cho Seung-woo, who acquired heartthrob status in Korean stage versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Man of La Mancha.”

With the growth of the industry, investment funds specifically geared to musicals have emerged. In 2007, the number of musical-related funds increased to 21 from five the previous year, with available coin climbing from $28 million to $50 million, according to asset management sources. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced the launch of a $10 million investment fund for live performances, as a collaboration with venture capital firm IMM Investment.

Increased stage activity has helped offset the employment crisis for Korea’s actors, many of them idled by the film sector slump.

However, not all musicals are profitable.

“Most investment is usually focused on big-budget imported musicals,” an industry source says. “The best theaters compete to attract those works. Meanwhile, original musicals on a smaller scale have to struggle to make ends meet.”

And of course even the big shows can flop. “We need various efforts to improve the currently inflated industry,” continues the source. “We should start with rules concerning ticket prices and the theater rental system. The Korean musical industry needs a reliable infrastructure.”

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