Korean Films Hit Box Office Slump as Hollywood Movies Surge

This year has been troubling for the recently buoyant Korean film industry. Overall box office is down 1.5%, but, as Hollywood movies surge, the market share for local films has plunged to its lowest percentage since 2009.

While the summer and the second half of the year hold hope of recovery for Korean filmmakers, some of the problems may be systemic.

Total admissions slipped from 96.6 million in the first six months of 2014 to 95.1 million this year, according to Korean Film Council data. Moviegoing took a beating in June, when the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome dampened audiences’ desire to sit in close proximity to their neighbors. Successful public health measures means the MERS scare is now contained, and cinema totals seems to be recovering.

Local films saw their numbers down by 2.7% to 40.4 million tickets sold in the first six months. That meant they took only 42.7% of the box office, compared with 50.1% for the full 2014, and 60% in 2013.

Hollywood titles dominated, accounting for all but 2% of the 57% market share grabbed by foreign films. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opened on 1,843 of the country’s 2,300 screens and amassed $78.3 million from 10.5 million admissions. Behind it came “Kingsman: The Secret Service” ($44.5 million), “Jurassic World” ($41 million), “Mad Max: Fury Road” ($29.1 million) and “Furious 7” ($23.4 million).

Hollywood studios raked in even more revenue thanks to higher ticket prices from 3D and Imax screenings, something that Korean filmmakers shun.

In an unusual development, only four Korean films were in the top 10, with the still-in-release “Northern Limit Line” the local champion at $31.5 million to date; “Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island” ($26.93 million), “Twenty” ($20.83 million) and “Classified” ($19.51 million) were the other three.

What’s missing so far in 2015 are the middle-ranking successes, those films that sell between 3 million and 8 million tickets, which points to the growing polarization between Korea’s recent megahits, such as “Ode to My Father” and “Roaring Currents,” and everything else.

At least part of the problem lies with a huge supply of films that outstrips demand. In the first half year, some 486 films received theatrical releases (of which 96 were Korean), a 19-film-per-week rate that is more than the annual release total in most countries. With that crush, smaller films are rapidly pushed offscreen before they have the chance to find an audience.

Korea’s vertically integrated exhibition giants were penalized last year for favoring the films from their own distribution companies, but it is also clear that the vast number of releases, which has swelled as VoD and IPTV have begun to take off in Korea, simply outstrips nationwide screen capacity. Smaller and indie films often have to make do with partial runs made up of early morning or midnight slots.

Seasonal releasing patterns also make a difference. Korea’s homegrown blockbusters typically dominate the peak markets of summer and the national holidays. Hollywood tentpoles are given a freer rein the rest of the year. Small and mid-sized Korean film are thus forced to compete against blockbusters throughout the year.

In previous years the summer has been a time for the local horror niche to come to the fore – literally intended to give cold sweats in the hot season – though in recent years they have given way to nostalgic trips down memory lane or easy to consume popcorn fare. These have included period action blockbuster “War of the Arrows” in 2011; Joseon dynasty comedy “The Grand Heist” in 2012; and “Roaring Currents” and comic period adventure “The Pirates” in July and August last year.

The second half of 2015 continues that riff. Ryu Seung-ryong-starring fantasy “The Piper,” which opened on July 9, is the summer’s only significant local horror release. Instead, championing the Korean cause is a string of variations on the nostalgia, comedy and patriotic action themes.

These include the nationalistic “NLL,” still performing strongly; Showbox’s star-studded – and critically well received — period movie “Assassination”; and CJ Entertainment’s comedy-tinged contemporary crimer “Veteran,” set for an Aug. 5 outing. Another period action drama, “Memories of the Sword,” starring veteran actors Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Do-yeon and rookie Kim Go-eun, is expected to be a massive summer hit for Lotte this year.

If Korea’s most commercial filmmakers and their conglomerate backers can avoid the trap of genre exhaustion that they previously fell into in 2007-09, then there is a fair chance that their full year market share will be an improvement on the first half. But the outlook for smaller movies and indie fare looks just as dim.

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