South Korea, the world’s sixth-largest box office territory, roughly on par with France, saw a slow year in 2017. Though it still managed to exceed 200 million admissions for the fifth consecutive year, the growth was not significant: box office revenue was an almost unchanged 1.76 million won ($1.46 billion) earned from some 220 million tickets sold. Compared to the year before, that was slightly up by 3 million.
Over the past few years, a dearth of films managing 2 million-5 million admissions has been an endemic problem. According to the Korean Film Council’s tracking service, Kobis, there were six films in 2017 that hit the 2 million admissions point: “The Prison” (2.93 million); “Memoir of a Murderer” (2.65 million); “The Sheriff in Town” (2.58 million); “Fabricated City” (2.51 million); “New Trial” (2.42 million); and “The Anarchist From Colony” (2.35 million).
That’s an increase from 2016’s four films that managed 2 million or more admissions. “The Fortress” and “I Can Speak” scooped up 3.84 million and 3.27 million admissions, respectively. But that was a decrease from the previous year. Two films, “The King” and “Midnight Runners,” crossed 5 million admissions.
Another issue: higher-budget films that are supposed to garner more tickets are failing to do so, while the number of mid-budget films are not showing growth.
“[In addition to these issues], the number of weeks that hit films stay on top of the box office has continuously decreased, as well as the period that a film takes to reach 70% of its total score,” says Lee Seung-won, head of research center at exhibition chain CJ-CGV. That means whether a film is a success tends to be decided in a shorter amount of time than before.
An analysis of the box office shows that Korean films failed to attract as many audiences as they did in the previous years during the first 11 months of the year, while foreign films did as fine as they normally do. In 2016, the top 20 Korean films attracted almost 85.7 million admissions, while in 2017 films in the same top 20 chart only managed about 77 million admissions.
CJ-CGV’s infographic shows that the key audience group’s purchasing power is decreasing and that they are growing bored with too many crime actioners. Crime dramas accounted for 55% of the top 20 homegrown films, up from 30% in 2016.
“Audiences aged between 30 and 34 dropped to just 14% of visitors, from 15% in 2016, while teenagers fell from 4.3% to 2017’s 2.8%,” says Lee. “Our data shows that the key audience group shows high interest in crime action films, but finds them less satisfying after actually watching them, while audiences in their 50s are growing, and are also showing higher support for trendy crime dramas. But they do not yet compensate for declines in the traditional core group.”
Is lack of diversity in genre terms the only factor that caused the almost-flat box office? Or have other factors, such as streaming services like Netflix, which financed and serviced South Korea’s top director Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” last year, had an impact on the phenomenon? Netflix did not provide an exact number of subscribers in South Korea, but the competition between the streaming giant and the country’s leading multiplexes makes it reasonable to assume that such non-physical screens growth is sure to threaten the traditional exhibition market.
“Of course it is necessary to consider diverse platforms, but before that, I believe what we are in a more urgent need of, at this moment, is a collective effort to maintain and even improve the physical screen-centric exhibition market,” says Jay Choi of Warner Bros.’ local production unit in South Korea.
“Leisure activities such as restaurants and cafes are growing, while visiting a movie theater is not considered a special activity anymore. New methodology will be needed for the audience to come to cinemas in the near future,” Lee says.
(Pictured above: Hyeon Na’s crime drama “The Prison,” one of only six films to manage more than 2 million admissions in Korea in 2017.)