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Comedy ‘Samjin’ Wins Box Office Weekend, but Korean Cinemas Have Little to Laugh About

Samjin Company English Class
Courtesy of The Lamp Ltd.

Comedy drama “Samjin Company English Class” tickled up enough laughs to score $2.1 million over its opening weekend. But the wider Korean box office remains range-bound at destructively low levels.

“Samjin,” which tells a tale of three young women determined to improve themselves, and who along the way stumble across the nefarious activities of the company they are working at, accounted for half of the nationwide total. Released on Wednesday, the film finished the weekend with a five-day cumulative of $2.72 million.

Last week’s top film “Voice of Silence” tumbled by 70% to fourth place, earning just $438,000 in its second weekend. Its 11-day cumulative is $2.7 million. Earlier winner, “Pawn” had a $512,000 weekend, enough to bounce up to second place, and to increase its cumulative to $12.0 million after a month on release.

But with the Chuseok holidays fading into the past, the Korean cinema business has now been stuck in the $3-4 million range for three successive weeks. That appears to be a reflection of newfound hesitancy on the part of audiences to return to cinemas, and a shortage of fresh-release titles with strong appeal, both local and from Hollywood.

Weekend performances through all of October compare poorly with mid-summer when “#Alive” and “Peninsula” were released, and weekend grosses repeatedly exceeded $10 million.

At current levels, cinema operations appear increasingly unsustainable. Korea’s largest cinema chain, CJ-CGV last week announced that it will seek a permanent 30% reduction of its Korean cinema operations.

It will cut the number of cinemas it directly operates from 119 at present to 80-85 within three years. It will also seek rent reductions from landlords, and halt the opening of all planned new theaters. In addition to previously announced ticket price increases, it will also reduce the number of weekday screenings. CJ-CGV revenues are down by 70% this year.

Local media reports, which have not been confirmed by the company, suggest that the parent CJ Group is now seeking ways to exit the cinema exhibition and bakery sectors in order to focus on more profitable businesses including media producer and distributor CJ ENM, food ingredients firm Cheil Jedang, and Logistics.

CGV has spent heavily, through acquisitions and investments, over the past ten years to build itself into one of the world’s largest cinema operators. It now has activities in China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Turkey, Vietnam and the U.S. Its timing could scarcely have been worse.