When Kini Kim, the longest standing executive at CJ Entertainment, began his career at the newly hatched firm, Korean film was in the doldrums and the company was in search of a strategy.
CJ’s first stuttering moves into distribution and production were born of necessity.
In 1995, CJ became DreamWorks’ second-largest shareholder (behind Paul Allen), but it took until 1997 for DreamWorks to release a film, “The Peacemaker.” “And while we had rights across Asia,” recounts Kim, “we only had the capacity to handle Korea.” In pre-multiplex-era South Korea, however, distribution was typically handled by production companies themselves. “The first independent titles we acquired, ‘Secrets and Lies,’ and ‘Shine,’ served as test runs for the later DreamWorks titles,” he says.
Similarly, CJ’s entry to film production was hesitant. Market share for Korean film in the late 1990s was less than 30%, but the country’s cultural-protective screen quotas required cinemas to give the majority of space to local films. So by 1999 CJ decided to pay more serious attention to production.
Times were tough, however. South Korea was severely rocked by the late 1990s Asian financial crisis, and rival conglomerates Daewoo and SK pulled out of the fledgling movie sector. So too did Samsung, to which CJ’s founders are related. Still, CJ was bold.
“We wanted to be vertically integrated from the beginning,” Kim says.
Successes helped cement the strategy. The 1999 title “Happy End” scored 1 million admissions, a big number in those days. Only a year later “JSA” sold 5.8 million tickets. Kim describes it as having a “firecracker” effect that brought profitability and new competitors.
Kim was reassigned to be a key part of the company’s IPO in 2000, and for a year afterward he headed investor relations. Only in 2003 did he officially join the international team that he now heads.
Japan quickly became a key export market, leading CJ to establish its own entity in that country. But in 2006-07 the bottom dropped out of the Japanese market for imported titles. So CJ refocused its attention elsewhere. CJ America opened in 2006 and the slow buildup to becoming implanted in China began.
“We’ve had to learn how to make money in China. With our remakes and multi-territory exploitation, we are now on the right way,” says Kim.