Korean Film Industry Struggles to Balance ‘New Normal’ and Social Distancing

Cj CGV cinemas adopt contact free measures
Courtesy of CJ-CGV

Hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the Korean film industry, which celebrated its centenary with Bong Joon-ho’s history-making Academy awards for “Parasite” earlier this year, has been in an unprecedented crisis since February.

Since the South Korean government adopted tough social distancing measures in late February, when the coronavirus was at its peak, cinema business has been largely affected due to local audiences’ growing fear of physical contact with strangers, including cinema staff and other audience members.

Major Korean films that were set for theatrical release in March and April had to push their schedules. Cinemas tried to fill up their screening slots with re-runs, which have lower marketing costs. Films that delayed their release include “Time to Hunt,” which premiered in Berlinale right before the coronavirus crisis; Lee Chung-hyun’s feature debut “Call”; novelist-turned-director Son Won-pyung’s thriller “Intruder”; and mother-daughter drama “Innocence.”

Not being able to release films in physical cinemas, independent companies turned to new things in order to stay afloat. Little Big Pictures, the local distributor behind “Time to Hunt,” decided to give up on the film’s theatrical release and licensed it directly to Netflix instead.

In response to the film industry’s demand for a rescue measure, the Korean government distributed discount vouchers for movie tickets through Korean Film Council, as part of its $3.8 million (KRW 17 billion) fund to support the coronavirus-hit film industry. Even if the project seems to be helping out the box office, it is also facing criticisms that attracting audiences to theaters is against the general social distancing policy.

In the private sector, cinema operators have adopted new technologies that help minimize activities that cause physical contacts in theaters.

“At our Yongsan branch, we changed the entrance route so that it is a must for all our audiences to go through a desk to have their body temperature checked, with their masks on, before entering screening rooms,” says CJ CGV’s strategy support director Cho Sung-jin.

With such combined efforts to establish a “new normal,” mainstream films started returning to theaters in early June, and the box office is recovering, though very slowly.

However, tentpole films that had been targeting the summer season are still hesitating setting 2020 dates. Distributor Merry Christmas’ sci-fi drama “Space Sweepers,” CJ Entertainment’s musical drama “Hero” and Lotte Cultureworks’ drama “Mogadishu” are all postponed until the second half of the year with no specific dates set.

Circumstances are worse for big-budget feature film productions that are set overseas, either entirely or partly. Many of them had to interrupt and cancel productions due to travel bans that followed the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration in March. Some of the country’s biggest financier-distributors such as CJ Entertainment, Showbox, and Megabox had to cancel or delay filming of such films as Vietnam-set “The Roundup,” Morocco-set “Kidnapping” and “Bogota,” which is almost entirely set in Colombia, respectively.

Some of them have started filming segments that can be shot without going overseas, while some of them had to cancel production indefinitely. Starring pan-Asian star Song Joong-ki (“The Battleship Island”), “Bogota” was the only Korean feature film production that was in the middle of filming on a foreign location when the travel ban was implemented. The team had to stop production and return to Korea in April.

“We were initially planning to resume filming in Colombia in the coming summer. But since the coronavirus is still rampant in South America, we decided to wait until next year,” says a spokesperson from the film’s distributor Megabox. “It is impossible to predict when the current situation will get better, and therefore to keep the stars and staff in such an unclear circumstance.”

With productions stopped or cancelled, film crews, most of whom are freelancers, are in reduced circumstances.

“According to Korean Film Council’s report, the number of film productions has reduced by almost 50% [since the early phase of coronavirus], because many of them have been canceled and delayed. That means cast and staff are put between jobs,” says director Kang Yun-sung, who helmed 2017 hit “The Outlaws.” “I had also been preparing to start production of a new film [“Hip Daddy”] in March, but had to halt the product because of the virus situation. Many of my staff have no income and are having financial difficulties.”

TV and digital content is moving ahead. The majority of them are set in Korea, sets are adopting safety measures and have adopted kits including masks, hand sanitizers and temperature checks.

In May, the Korean Film Council set up a special committee for safety management on film sets and cinemas that includes health and medical experts. The committee is planning to dispatch safety management crew to all film sets.