Local movies lost their overwhelming hold on the South Korean box office in 2014, making last year a more even contest than in recent times as the territory completed its fifth consecutive year of growth.
The overall market grew by a slender 1% in terms of admissions from 213 million in 2013 to 215 million in 2014. But in local currency terms it powered ahead by 7% from KRW 1.55 trillion to KRW1.66 trillion.
Despite the weakening of the Korean won against the U.S. dollar, that still represented 3% growth in dollar terms, with the gross box office expanding from $1.47 billion to $1.52 billion.
The growth came from a continuing surge in the number of films receiving a theatrical release, with the total up 23% from an already high 907 in 2013 to an unprecedented 1,114 in 2014, according to data from the Korean Film Council’s KOBIS box office data service.
Korean-made films grabbed end-of-year headlines by achieving 50.1% market share in terms of admissions, the fourth consecutive year that ticket sales for local pictures topped foreign movies.
But in purely financial terms imported movies, which include more titles enjoying a “3D premium,” took the crown with a 50.7% of the cash box office.
Korean movies saw their ticket sales total slump by 15% from 123 million in 2013 to 108 million in 2014. Thanks to ticket price increases, the cumulative gross for Korean movies dropped by a more manageable 10% to KRW821 billion ($749 million). The number of Korean films released increased from 183 to 231.
Foreign films enjoyed a 22% increase in ticket sales as admission surged from 86.1 million in 2013 to 107 million in 2014 as the number released grew 22% from 724 in 2013 to 883 in 2014. That propelled a 31% increase in their box office receipts to KRW844 billion ($770 million).
Hollywood accounted for four films in the top 10, headed by “Frozen” and “Interstellar” in second and third places of the full year chart, both qualifying as smash hits with more than 10 million admissions. “Transformers 4” and “Edge of Tomorrow” ranked eighth and tenth.
Although Korean films filled six of the top 10 places in the annual chart, 2014 was an unusual one for the local industry. As expected “Roaring Currents” was one of the biggest films of the year, but the scale of its victory with more than 17 million tickets sold put it far ahead of any previous film, including “Avatar.”
There were blockbuster performances too for “The Pirates,” “Miss Granny” and December 2013 release “The Attorney.” And December 2014 release “Ode to My Father” has already clocked up over 6 million admissions. But there were fewer films achieving ticket sales of 3 million-5 million, which in earlier years had meant that the Korean industry’s success was more widely shared.
And 2014 was the year that the two leading entertainment conglomerates, CJ and Lotte, were fined by the country’s anti-monopoly regulator for allowing their exhibition arms to favor films from their own distribution affiliates.
But according to the definition of “independent” used by the Ministry of Culture, Korean indie films turned around a four year down cycle and achieved 14.1 million admissions. Indie successes included “Han Gong-Ju” and “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window,” as well as still-on-release documentary “My Love, Don’t Cross That River,” which has sold more than 4 million tickets to date.
CJ Entertainment retained its dominant position as the country’s top distributor with 25% admissions market share (up from 21.4%), while Lotte was in second spot with a market share of 12.4%, down from a third-placed 18.4% in 2013. Next Entertainment World, which floated on the stock market last month, saw its market share plummet from a second-placed 18% in 2013 to a seventh-ranked 7.8%.
In another contradiction, despite the rebound for foreign movies in 2014, Sony announced in November that it was to end its stand-alone distribution activities in the country. Its reasoning was not explained publicly, though was widely interpreted as the Hollywood studio effectively admitting that it was too weak to compete against the ongoing strength of local Korean studios and Korean titles. It is expected to join forces with Universal Pictures International, which in 2014 had just 2.7% of the Korean market.