Korean Blockbusters Conquer the Competition

A series of record-breaking blockbusters have dominated South Korean screens in recent weeks, a trend that began last year when six locally produced pics drew 33.57 million moviegoers.

This summer, four of South Korea’s major distribution companies each released a monster hit within the space of days. As the drama unfolded onscreen, industry watchers were gripped by their changing scores.

Showbox started off the race of maritime actioners, releasing “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” on July 23. Its $23.7 million was the biggest opening of 2014 up until that point. In a country where a 2 million ticket sales mark is considered to be a decent hit, “Kundo” brought in 3.10 million on its opening weekend. Its initial performance was short-lived.

Seven days later, on July 30, CJ Entertainment released “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” on 1,159 screens, instantly pushing “Kundo” down to third place. Lotte’s “The Pirates” came on Aug. 6; as of Sept. 17, its cumulative B.O. is $62.26 million. “Sea Fog,” produced by Bong Joon-ho, opened on Aug. 13 and as of Sept. 17, the Korean Oscar entry has brought $11.29 million for New.

“Roaring Currents” was the definitive winner, becoming the first film in South Korea to surpass 17 million admissions. As of Sept. 17, it had earned distributor
CJ $130.6 million.

CGV, South Korea’s largest chain of multiplexes and a subsidiary of CJ Group, says the huge success of these films is due to the changing attitudes of Koreans.
“Until recently, Koreans would wait for domestic titles to be televised,” says Cho Sung-jin, senior manager at CGV, “but now they know the quality of Korean blockbusters is on par with Hollywood titles, with the extra Korean sensibilities thrown in. It helps that Koreans are avid moviegoers, each watching 4.1 films a year.”

Producer-helmer Lee Ji-seung (2009’s hit “Haeundae” with 11.9 million admissions) says, “This trend is a culmination of advancements in Korea’s film technology and enhanced viewership.”

He also cited casting several bankable stars in one single film as a reason for the continuing blockbuster trend. “It adds to the whole spectacle of the film with a different star in almost every scene.”

The trend toward box office blockbusters hasn’t met with universal acclaim, sparking fevered debate about the perceived monopoly of major hits. Jeremy Oh, director of content investment division at Timewise Investment, which financed hits such as “Miracle in Cell Number 7” and “The Attorney,” insists for one film to gross so much is detrimental to the industry.

“Blockbusters that bring in 5 million (admissions) would serve as a long-term backbone to the industry. There has to be a more varied range of genres for the industry to stay heathy,” he says.

Jung Sang-jin, CEO of independent theater Artnine and distribution company Atnine, reflects the Korean film business’s ambivalence. Jung says the recent spate of blockbusters brought in people who don’t normally frequent cinemas, and boosted profits for his theater.

Asked if his distribution business was affected, though, he admits, “It was tough for smaller movies. But had they been given more screens, would they have done better? You can’t stop the tipping effect.”

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