Suddenly, local pix hit slowdown at wickets

Hollywood takes Seoul by storm

SEOUL — After posting an all-time high 50% market share last year, Korean films have hit a rut, barely making it into the top 10 at the box office during the last few weeks.

According to the latest local B.O. figures, the top six movies of the week ending March 17 in Seoul were, in order: “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Don’t Say a Word,” “Spy Game,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “John Q” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

“No Blood, No Tears” (opened March 1) and “Public Enemy” (opened Jan. 25), both distributed by Cinema Service, were the only Korean films in the top 10, at seventh and ninth slots, respectively.

“This is the first time that a local film hasn’t been in the top five at the box office since the week of April 14-15 last year,” notes Hee-yong Lee, a film journalist at Yonhap News Agency. Results were similar March 9-10, too, when seven out of 10 were Hollywood films.

That homegrown films are being slighted is obvious from the wide gap in ticket sales. While “Ocean’s Eleven” drew 54,400 in Seoul on 38 screens and “Don’t,” “Spy” and “Beautiful” were all in the 30,000-range last week, “No Blood, No Tears” sold 14,900 and “Bus, Station” (CJ Entertainment), opened March 9, did not even make it on the top 10.

“Public Enemy,” a violent cop story featuring Korea’s top actor Gyeong-gyu Seol, is the only steady seller, running for eight weeks now. But it still has not broken the 3 million mark, putting it well behind last year’s hits “My Wife Is a Gangster” and “Hi Dharma.”

Many say that the slow performance by local films is due to the featured genres: “Bus, Station” is a drama about an unusual romance between a 30-something man and a teenager, and “No Blood, No Tears” is a highly stylized action film about dog fighting.

“These are not the trendy fantastical romance or comical gangster films that did so well last year. They’re a bit darker, and I don’t think Koreans want to see serious movies right now when reality itself is so grim,” explains film critic Young-seop Shim.

In fact, critics’ favorite last year, “Take Care of My Cat,” a drama about six young girlfriends who struggle to find their place in society, drew a mere 45,000 across the nation.

The more optimistic industry watchers, on the other hand, interpret all this as a good sign, saying the film industry is finally producing diverse movies regardless of audience response, and that Korean auds just have not caught up with the new types of movies yet.

Of course, the local films’ slowdown may have more to do with Hollywood’s unusually strong lineup, including the star-studded “Ocean’s Eleven” or “A Beautiful Mind.”

If this is the reason though, Korea is not likely to emerge from the slump soon, as more powerful blockbusters like “E.T.” (opening in Seoul May 5) are due from Hollywood.

On the other hand, the legend of the Korean film industry last year continues to grow. The Korean Film Commission (KOFIC) announced March 19 that Korea exported a total of $11.2 million worth of local movies last year (based on contracts completed), a 59.6 percent increase from the previous year and a record-high for the sector.

The license fees paid for 2001 blockbusters “Friend” and “My Wife Is a Gangster” from Japan alone make up 34% of total export volume, according to the film commission.

“One of the most interesting facts about last year is that Korea began spending more on marketing films than ever before. Our study shows that marketing costs rose 43.1%, while production costs grew by 23.3%,” Hyun-soo Kim, a researcher at KOFIC, says.

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