Blockbusters Dominate Korea’s Box Office

Smaller films struggles to find their place in the marketplace

With some 217 million tickets sold last year, South Korea set a new box office and admissions record. Homegrown titles accounted for 113 million, making 2015 the fourth year in a row that they have exceeded 100 million ticket sales.

Three local films, “Assassination,” “Veteran” and December 2014 release “Ode to My Father” each accounted for more than 10 million admissions.

With such figures, Korean cinema looks to be flourishing. However, within the industry, the emphasis on such megahits is controversial. The 2015 box office was characterized by a few megahits and by several weak pics.

Only two films, “Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island” and “Twenty,” managed to sell 3 million-5 million tickets.

Many point to a huge supply of films outstripping demand and to vertically integrated exhibition giants that dominate the industry as a reason for such box office polarization.

In 2015, 1,199 films received theatrical releases (of which 256 were Korean), a 22-film-per-week rate that is higher than the yearly release total in many countries. With such a crush, smaller films are rapidly pushed off the screen and have to make do with partial runs of midnight and early morning slots.

Meanwhile, the streaming and VOD markets are growing.

“As the term between theatrical releases and (VOD) shortens, audiences set a line between those movies that are worth watching on big screens and the rest, which they would rather watch at home,” says Kwon Ji-won, CEO of indie distribution company Little Big Pictures. “Films with lower production values and weaker casts tend to sag in that race.”

A November release, “Inside Men” was the only non-tentpole, adult-oriented film that was successful, and it needed star players such as Lee Byung-hun and Cho Seung-woo. It was handled by major distributor Showbox.

“In this Korean film industry that is increasingly being led by conglomerates, it is becoming harder for screenwriters to create something entirely unprecedented,” said a scribe who spoke to Variety on the condition of anonymity. “Big companies have statistics for their previous films and formulas for films that sell. Scripts not written in such formulas are turned down by major companies and go to smaller handlers to receive small distribution, which leads to fewer admissions.”

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