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AFM: Korean Film Biz Bounces Back

This has been a year of local domestic success stories. All that’s missing is an international blockbuster

Things are looking up for Korean cinema, which has emerged stronger and more energetic after a weak patch that lasted from 2007 to 2010. In those four years, local films lost ground at the Korean box office and exports tumbled.

Some filmmakers were quick to blame the halving of South Korea’s “screen quotas” scheme. But with hindsight, the protective system that regulated the number of days Korean films must be shown in cinemas seems less to blame than the fact that directors risked too much on high budgets and paid too little attention to understanding their auds.

The problem reached its peak in 2010-11 when too many Korean films attempted to outgun Hollywood vfx movies and flopped at the box office, while at the same time several more modestly budgeted local stories surpassed the 2 million ticket sales that generally defines a hit in South Korea.

That lesson appears to have been learned and the results have been on-screen in 2013. This year has seen a succession of local stories that emerged from indie roots (“The Terror: Live”), films made by first- or second-time directors (“Hide and Seek”) and pics that became hits without recognizable stars.

Historical dramas, notably “The Face Reader,” (pictured) with a $61 million B.O., and last year’s “Masquerade” defied their familiar genre credentials through production quality and bravura scripting and performances.

While nobody has yet topped mighty CJ Entertainment, the vertically integrated group that’s the market’s distribution leader, the new order has caused a shake-up.

Hollywood studios and their movies were pushed into deep second place, taking a 39% B.O. share. That figure falls to only 24% when the Hollywood films sub-distributed, acquired or co-financed by CJ and its biggest rival Lotte are stripped out.

And 6-year-old distributor Next Entertainment World, which unlike Lotte and CJ can’t lean on an exhibition chain, confirmed its status as the smartest kid on the block. Not only is it this year’s No. 2 distributor, but it also achieved that status with films by new directors and budgets that were mostly kept under $5 million.

Success, however, has its limits.

International sales, for example, have yet to return to the bonanza heights enjoyed by the first Korean wave in the past decade. When Korean movies — especially star-driven melodramas — were a new taste for foreign audiences, Japanese distribs were known to pay as much for single territory rights as the film’s production budget. Similarly, distributors in the big European territories swept up films that they thought could do theatrical biz. But when mass audiences failed to respond sales slipped and are only now recovering.

In other ways too, the Korean film industry is trying to redefine itself as an international player. Top filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon have each now delivered debut films in English — with different degrees of success.

The film production and exhibition divisions of CJ and Lotte are playing corporate catch-up with their parent companies’ pre-existing overseas forays. The two are already the No. 1 and No. 2 exhibitors in Vietnam, and both have their sights set firmly on Indonesia. And China exhibition expansion is on the cards for Lotte and Megabox following CJ-CGV’s substantial outreach.

CJ and Showbox are both producing in China, expanding on the popularity of Korean talent and accessing a far larger market than small, saturated South Korea. It’s still early, but “Wedding Invitation” has met with success; results are uneven for “Mr. Go.”

All eyes are now on “Snowpiercer.” It may be too much to expect that it will succeed in every market, but one thing that would help define South Korea’s new era is a genuine global blockbuster.

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