Indigenous hits put squeeze on field

South Korea

An investment-led boom in local production is resulting in fierce competition for screens in South Korea. The territory, although netting a record $535 million in theatrical receipts in the first half of 2006, has nonetheless been rough sailing for midsized imports.

More than 100 local pics are skedded to be released this year, up from 83 in 2005 and 74 in 2004. In August alone, 14 local films made their bow, followed by 11 in September.

With high production values, such pics can be a force at the box office: In the month of September, local market share was a record 82.7%. That compared to a paltry 5.4% for the six Hollywood films in release, including “Flight 93” and “The Lake House”; that trailed even the 7.3% from Japanese cinema.

At the same time, the ability of breakout films to dominate screens is increasing. Homegrown monster movie “The Host,” released by Showbox, played on a record 650 prints in August — more than 35% of Korea’s estimated 1,800 screens. In September, the strong performance of CJ Entertainment’s “Tazza: The High Rollers” resulted in it being widened from an initial 410 screens to 620 in its second week.

The reward for films that succeed is huge. “We made close to $100 million theatrically on ‘The Host’ before even considering its international release,” says Jeong Tae-sung, chief operating officer of Showbox. “But you also have to recognize that ancillary markets are very weak. It’s a very unbalanced market.”

At the same time, arthouse product is being boosted by an increase in specialty venues. A report by the Korean Film Council (Kofic) shows arthouse films sold 1.3 million tickets in the first half of 2006, compared with 200,000 in the same period a year earlier. Many of the venues receive Kofic coin in return for a commitment to screen arthouse films for 60% of the year.

However, midsized commercial imports are taking a beating. Hollywood branch offices are finding themselves in a particular bind, with the DVD market on life support and only the major blockbusters exhibiting real drawing power. Rumor has it some studios are even considering closing their Korean ops and inking deals with more powerful local distributors.

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