South Korean cinema last year squeezed out a gain of 14% compared with 2020, but 2021’s major box office honors went to foreign movies, not the normally dominant local film sector.
Aggregate gross revenues hit KRW584 billion ($488 million) in 2021, earned from 60.5 million ticket sales, according to Kobis, the data service operated by the Korean Film Council (Kofic). In 2020, revenues were KRW510 million ($426 million), earned from 59.5 million spectators.
In pre-COVID times, South Korea was the world’s fourth largest box office market, behind only North America, China and Japan, due to Koreans’ high per capita cinema attendance rate. But Korea has failed to enjoy the same strength of theatrical recovery seen in many other major markets, and both 2021 and 2021 figures are substantially lower than the pre-COVID era.
The Korean film industry’s woes at home also stand in sharp contrast to the growing overseas success of Korean music and TV drama overseas.)
The 2021 gross total was 70% down on 2019, the busiest year on record for box office in Korea. The ticket sales figure represented a 73% decline compared with 2019.
In market share terms, 2021 turned out even worse for Korean producers, who for the past ten years have commanded a majority of the business. Korean films’ share of the box office in 2021, however, dropped to just 30.1%, the lowest figure since 2004 when Kobis began operations.
By scaling back the releases of Korean titles, Korean distributors not only handed the advantage to foreign movies, they also saw their own aggregate gross revenues crash to KRW173 million ($149 million), just half of an already lowly 2020 figure. In ticket sales terms only 18.2 million were sold for Korean films.
Foreign films accounted for eight of the top ten grossing film, comprising seven Hollywood movies and one Japanese animation (“Demon Slayer: The Movie Mugen Train”). And for the first time in a decade a foreign film (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”) was the highest ranked film of the year. It earned $46.5 million from 5.56 million ticket sales. The last Hollywood title to achieve that feat was “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” in 2011.
The only two Korean film in the top ten were Ryoo Sung-wan-directed actioner “Escape From Mogadishu” with a $28.9 million haul and disaster actioner “Sinkhole.” Both were released in late summer, a period of brief respite between Korea’s prolonged health-mandated cinema capacity restrictions.