Berlin Daily Spotlight: Korean Cinema

In 2011, the Korean film business surprised many by bouncing back.

The industry recession, which began in 2007, appears to be over. Total sales were just over $1 billion, up 6.9% compared to a year ago. Audiences totaled 159.7 million, higher by 8.8% than in 2010.

For local films, figures have come in even healthier. The market share of domestic fare didn’t pass the 50% mark for four years, but it rose to 51.9% last year. It was the first time that local films took more than half of the market since 2006, when the industry reached a peak with a 63.6% share thanks to landmark hits such as “The Host” and “The King and the Clown.”

At that time, more than 82 million viewers chose local films, which was up 5.3% compared to the previous year.

Last year, sales of local films totaled a record-high $540 million, considerably higher than the $500 million sales number of 2006.

The successful results were produced by five surprising hits that attracted 4 million to 7 million viewers each: “Arrow, the Ultimate Weapon” ($49.1 million; Lotte Entertainment), “Sunny”($47.5 million; CJ E&M), “Punch”($33.9 million; CJ E&M), “Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow” ($31.5 million; Showbox) and “Silenced”($ 31.3 million; CJ E&M). It was a surprise that these mid-budget films would be so well received by auds.

“Punch,” “Detective K” and “Silenced” are based on novels, and this has touched off a surge in fiction-based films. The boom was also led by a children’s book-based animation “Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild” ($12.9 million; Lotte Entertainment), which was highly successful compared to other Korean feature-length animation films.

The dynamic has damaged the big blockbuster films to which distributors were attracted to more than ever last year. These included “Sector 7″ and “Quick” (both CJ E&M) and “The Frontline” (Showbox).

But these films satisfied neither financiers nor audiences. The biggest failure: “My Way,” CJ E&M’s record-high $24 million global production that opened Dec. 21 but had only grossed $14 million as of mid-January.

These results caused major investors and distributors to rethink their strategies. This year, Korean films are forecast to be more diverse in their genres and subject matters.

One conspicuous trend in the industry is led by historical dramas, including “The Concubine” (Lotte Entertainment), “The Grand Heist” (NEW), “Gabi” (Cinema Service) and the Lee Byung-hun-starring “Masquerade” (working title, CJ E&M).

The fiction-based film boom will continue with “Helpless” (CJ E&M), “Howling”(CJ E&M) and “A Muse”(Lotte Entertainment), among others.

The return of star helmers is also a phenomenon this year. They include Choi Dong-hoon (“The Thieves”), Im Sang-soo (“Taste of Money”) and Hong Sang-soo (“In Another Country”).

Two Hollywood projects by Korean stars — helmer Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” and Kim Jee-woon’s “Last Stand” — are also much anticipated by the local industry. Two other projects by star helmers will start lensing in Europe in the spring: Bong Joon-ho’s “Snow Piercer” and Ryu Seung-wan’s “The Berlin File.”

For several years, South Korea’s industry has made efforts to solidify film finance and policy. This year, insiders are pointing to tangible results.

The biggest content fund ever, the $108 million Sovik Global Contents Investment Assn., was founded in November by CJ E&M, Lotte Entertainment, new TV channel MBN, and American producer Jay Stern’s Route One Film.

“Among existing content funds, there has been no one aiming for the global market,” says Sovik president Park Hyu-tae. “Our new global fund will contribute to the production of new cultural content, which can be a worldwide success.”

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has announced policies to support an additional $149.6 million content fund in 2012.

Last but not least, it should be noted that South Korea’s film industry is undergoing a generational shift. A number of established midlevel players have underperformed of late — perhaps because they weren’t following the rapidly changing market.

Now, new producers in their early 40s are slowly beginning to assert themselves, and actors younger than 30 are seizing the initiative on the screen. The best word to accurately describe the state of the biz in South Korea is change.

Berlin Daily Spotlight: Korean Cinema
Comeback of the local business | Distribution revolution: shifting ranks | From ‘Achitect’ to zombie

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