“The challenge we have set ourselves over the last 20 years was to become the number one Asian film studio,” says Jeong Tae-sung, CEO of CJ Entertainment. “This means that we want to be Asia-wide, while also being truly localized.”
It’s a bold statement, but it comes from a company that has helped remake the Korean cinema industry.
When CJ Entertainment entered the fray 20 years ago, Korean audiences had turned their backs on cinema and filmmakers were struggling to find the funds needed to make their films.
How times have changed. Today, CJ is the largest film conglomerate in South Korea. It dominates the scene with a 25% share of the theatrical distribution market and is South Korea’s leading film financier and producer.
Over two decades CJ has been one of the few international companies to have come close to replicating the model provided by Hollywood’s “dream factories,” with a reach extending across all media platforms both at home and abroad.
Eyebrows were raised when scions of the Samsung dynasty — brother and sister Jay and Miky Lee — established the company.
CJ Entertainment came into being when the Lees, previously unknown to the film industry, paid $300 million for an 11% equity stake in the fledgling DreamWorks studio.
As part of the original deal, CJ acquired Asian distribution rights to DreamWorks’ slate, excluding Japan rights. With the DreamWorks rights as a platform, CJ then launched a distribution business in South Korea handling Hollywood, imported independent fare and Korean titles. The move into exhibition soon followed, structured as an equal partnership with Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and Australia’s Village Roadshow. CJ’s and South Korea’s first CGV-branded multiplex opened in 1998, when the local industry was still in a slump. The then-new multiplex screened a wide range of films and had the immediate effect of attracting audiences back to cinemas.
Critic Oh Dong-jin says CJ deserves credit for investing in the local film industry and for setting up a modern distribution business in South Korea, though he adds that vertical integration has become a problem. (CGV was fined by South Korea’s competition regulators for favoring CJ-handled titles).
In 2000, the year after the success of Korean blockbuster “Swiri,” CJ rushed into financing and production, striking alliances with several production houses. CJ has partnered with the era’s key filmmakers and their defining works. These include Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” and two of Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.”
Nam Dong-chul, Busan Intl. Film Festival’s Korean selector, says CJ’s creative audacity was clearly proven when it made the then-struggling “Snowpiercer” (pictured) happen.
“The daring global project that jumped out of the stereotypes of Korean commercial films in many terms-so unprecedented that no European or American investors dared to touch-could not have been possible without CJ’s audacious initiative,” says Nam.
With the expansion of the Korean industry and its market, CJ has been able to push vertical integration to its limits with holdings spanning ticket sales, distribution and equity investment.
As it reached the limits of the Korean industry and market, CJ has increasingly looked overseas for growth, especially within Asia.
CJ has laid the ground for its China expansion for many years before actually advancing to the market. The biennial festival of Chinese films it has organized since 2006, often with China Film Bureau key personnel in attendance, was part of that.
“We aim to be present as investor, producer and distributor in South Korea, Japan, China and throughout Southeast Asia,” Jeong says. “We are less than half way, but will keep going towards this ambition. As a company we could have set a lesser goal, but why not aim high.”