Org tries to track B.O.

Some exhibs slow to join tracking system

SEOUL — Despite the rapid modernization of South Korean cinema in recent years, box office data is still collected the old-fashioned way here. Distribs send footmen out to theaters to count the heads as viewers file in and take their seats.

The method is slow, inaccurate and estimated to cost the local film industry $4-12 million each year. It has also led to occasional charges that distribs may be inflating their box office figures for marketing purposes. The media, too, has had no choice but to rely on the declarations of distribs despite a lack of objective verification.

The Korean Film Commission, a government-supported org, has been trying for ages to establish a nationwide computerized network for B.O. receipts, but the effort has met resistance as theaters have balked.

If the commission had its way, all of the nation’s screens would be hooked up to a tracking system that would transmit real-time ticket sales data to a central server. Once up and running, it would deliver timely, reliable box office reports that would then be made available to the public.

So far, the major multiplex chains in South Korea have been persuaded to sign up for the network. CGV is the latest to join the project, while Megabox, Lotte and Primus have already come aboard. The network now covers 397 screens, accounting for 41% of the nation’s total.

Obstacles remain daunting, however. The Seoul Theater Association, with 256 screens under its umbrella, announced last month that it would not provide real-time ticket sales data, offering only to divulge receipts after a film has completed its run at a theater.

“There is no legal reason why private businesses should have to make public its business numbers,” says a representative of the Seoul Theater Association. “We’re willing to cooperate as long as the rights of theaters are also respected.”

The difficulty of coaxing theaters to sign up for the network has been compounded by the recent strength of South Korean cinema.

The Korean Film Commission has dangled a relaxation of the quota requiring theaters to devote 40% of screen time to local pics as an incentive join the project. That carrot has lost much of its appeal as homegrown fare routinely outperforms Hollywood imports.

Now the idea of giving tax breaks to theaters that come aboard is being explored, but new legislation would require both time and government cooperation. Meanwhile, the commission has begun releasing box office reports culled from the incomplete computerized network this month, in addition to the business numbers provided by distribs as before.