Song Kang-ho in "Snowpiercer"

China’s Wanda Group may have made headlines in 2012 with its $2.3 billion acquisition of U.S. exhib AMC Entertainment, but South Korea’s CJ-CGV might be Asia’s most ambitious cinema operator, with stakes in China and Vietnam, and eyes on Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar — all fast-growing economies in underscreened markets.

In 2013, CGV’s 106 theaters and 833 screens in South Korea accounted for 101 million tickets (worth a gross of $751 million) of the record-breaking 213 million admissions sold nationwide, putting it in the company of AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Cinepolis in terms of scope. Only CGV says it got to the 100 million mark with far fewer theaters.

“Now that we’ve become the fifth company to hit the 100 million ticket sales mark, we are more confident that we’ve got the formula right and can live up to our ambitions,” says Yun Ik-jun, CGV’s executive VP.

CGV was started in 1996 as a joint venture between South Korean conglom CheilJedang, Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and Australia’s Village Roadshow at a time when the Korean firm was near the beginning of its expansion into entertainment. The joint venture opened South Korea’s first multiplex in Gangbyeon in 1998. Now South Korea’s dominant force in entertainment, CJ long ago bought out its partner companies, but kept the initials, intending CGV to stand for Cultural, Great and Vital.

That vitality is particularly apparent in the chain’s ability to deliver a high level of per-capita visits among Korean filmgoers, thanks to its early adoption of Imax screens, Sony 4K projectors and top-of-the-line 3D equipment.

The company’s aggressive international expansion plans have taken it into Vietnam, where it is the leading cinema operator, and even the U.S., where its toehold is tiny for the moment — three screens in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood. The next phase of expansion — into Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia — is already under way.

But CGV’s biggest push has come in China where, since opening its first multiplex in Shanghai in 2006, it has grown to 24 complexes and 186 screens, making it the largest non-Chinese exhib in the fast-growing market. In 2013, those plexes delivered $69 million.

“We hope to have 100 sites (in China) by end of 2016,” says Yun. CGV recently confirmed an order for 30 more Imax screens — the second-largest order for the giant-format screens in Imax corporate history — for delivery to its new-build China sites.

To succeed on the Mainland, the company has taken a long-term approach. Where others were put off by China’s 49% cap on foreign ownership, CGV initially accepted minority positions in some complexes. But in other cases it has made use of a Hong Kong subsidiary which, under that Special Administrative Region’s Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement rules, is allowed to take stakes as high as 75%, and more recently, 100%.

In Vietnam, CGV grew through acquisitions, buying the market-leading Megastar, with seven complexes, for $73.4 million in 2011. It has since expanded to 11 sites. While CGV was criticized at the time for overpaying, odds are good that ultimately, the deal will pay off. When Megastar launched in 2006, the entire Vietnamese theatrical market was worth only $4 million-$6 million. As of last year, it had a 50% share of a market estimated to be worth $40 million, with projections of 30% expansion.

CGV and South Korean rival Lotte are both intent on breaking into Indonesia, one of the world’s last frontier markets, though one where legal barriers erected by the government keep foreign firms at bay. An upcoming IPO by No. 2 Indonesian exhib Blitz Megaplex may allow CGV a foothold.

In Malaysia, CGV has identified its first multiplex site in Kuala Lumpur in a partnership with local firm Empire, and in Myanmar, it has a memo of understanding with an undisclosed local firm.

“In Malaysia, Myanmar and Indonesia, it is clear that we first have to cooperate with local partners,” Yun says. “Long-term, the plan is to implant our philosophy, translate best practices, and increase our Korean content.”

CGV likes to promote its cinemas as “cultureplexes” that integrate lifestyle and food into the mix. While similar claims are made by other chains worldwide, few can boast the amenities offered by CJ theaters, which include home shopping and offline communications in the mix.

Yun plays down suggestions that CJ-CGV (and Lotte) are driven to export because of saturation in the Korean market. But it’s undeniable that the growth of South Korea’s box office has been part of a virtuous cycle of quality Korean films and improvements in cinemas themselves.

“Attendance per head is still growing, because we are improving access, and because of well-made Korean movies,” Yun says.

CGV’s proprietary 4D hardware kit — controlled by software tailored to a movie that adds motion and other
physical effects to the filmgoing experience — has been a success with younger audiences. It’s also been a surprising export sensation, installed in 15,000 seats by exhibitors in 24 countries. Last year, the technology was used for 56 movies worldwide.

CJ and CGV are well aware of local criticism that they form part of an oligopoly of vertically integrated giants that crush independent cinema — charges it attempts to deflect by pointing to its Movie Collage program that dedicates screens to indie and arthouse films, in what it describes as “cultural therapy,” and CGV’s acquisition of up to 150 arthouse movies per year.

In any event, CGV has no intention of slowing down. “By 2020, we aim to become the world’s top multiplex,” says company CEO Jung Seo, “expanding our theater business, including 4DX, to 60 countries worldwide.”

Adds Yun: “We are trying to increase our holdings wherever possible.”

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