Lotte Cinema and Megabox, South Korea’s second and third largest cinema chains, will not screen “Okja,” the Netflix fantasy drama that controversially bowed in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last month. The decision follows a similar refusal this week by CJ CGV, South Korea’s No. 1 exhibition chain, and means that native son Bong Joon-ho’s film will be shut out of 93% of the country’s screens.
Lotte and Megabox followed CJ CGV’s denial of screens on the grounds that Netflix’s plan for a day-and-date cinematic and online release flouts the usual three-week hold-back before a film becomes available for streaming. CJ CGV calls the delay “an important business practice in Korea.” The company also contends that Netflix’s simultaneous opening policy disturbs the distribution ecosystem in South Korea.
Bong, who told Variety last month that directing a Netflix-backed film did not make “much difference for me as a filmmaker,” has not responded to requests for comment.
The presence of two Netflix movies in Cannes’ official selection, “Okja” and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” outraged French theater owners, as the films are not due for any theatrical release in France. In response to the furor, the festival changed its rules and is requiring that all competition titles must be destined for French release from now on.
A significant difference is that the French hold-back of three years between theatrical and VOD releases is mandated by law, whereas the South Korean wait of three weeks is contractual.
“Okja” had been a much-anticipated summer release for Korean audiences. Made on a reported budget of $60 million, the film is distributed locally by Next Entertainment World.
The distributor said it would “look for other ways to open ‘Okja’ in physical cinemas on the scheduled date” of June 29, to ensure that Netflix could pursue its policy of simultaneous release. That means Next Entertainment World will now negotiate with independent cinema operators, who only account for 7% of South Korea’s screens.
The film’s premiere screening for press will be held next Monday in Seoul at Daehan Cinema, an independent multiplex equipped with 11 screens. Its location is no accident: Established in 1955, Daehan is situated in the heart of Chungmuro, the historic center of Korean cinema, before many companies moved to the trendy Gangnam district.
Key members of the film’s cast, including Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo-hyun, Steven Yeun, Byun Hee-bong, and Giancarlo Esposito, have been announced as attending the press conference.
CJ CGV, Lotte, and Megabox account for 39%, 31%, and 23% of the total screens in South Korea, respectively. If “Okja” plays on the majority of independent screens, it may boost those theaters’ revenues but cause other indie and art-house films to be pushed aside.