Despite Venue Closures, the South Korean Movie Industry is Thriving

It turns out empty theaters don’t matter to the bottom line

To date, movie theaters haven’t rebounded from the pandemic in South Korea. Despite the contact tracing, despite the constant promises of disinfected movie theaters, despite half of seats being forbidden for sale because of social distancing guidelines, and even despite the simple reality that no one is going to the movies, movie theaters simply can’t shirk the impression from the normally highly outgoing South Korean film audience that attendance is unsafe. This has prompted the closure of dozens of movie theaters, with some managing tepid reopenings with government support. For a sense of perspective, where Kong: Skull Island had 1.6 million admissions in 2017, Godzilla Vs. Kong has already sputtered out of box office energy with a mere 600,000 admissions.

But it turns out that empty movie theaters don’t really matter. As with other film markets, the South Korean film industry uses box office earnings to gauge success largely as a matter of convenience. Secondary revenue sources for movies, from TV rebroadcasts to international rights to streaming, now make up the bulk of a movie’s actual lifetime earnings. And the South Korean film market has done well in maximizing these revenue streams. Nearly any digital television across the country offers recent movies available on demand at highly reasonable prices. Several competing streaming services make a point of adding exclusive hits to their backlog, but the overall reality is that anyone anywhere has access to nearly any movie imaginable. A full-on renaissance of direct to video releases is underway, because these preexisting market changes have made it very easy for such films to recoup their losses.

Last year, the industry filmed Dragon Inn Parts One and Two nearly simultaneously. Despite the low-budget movies having no noteworthy leading stars, or even a particularly interesting sounding plot, it was quite easy to pique the interest of investors with an almost guaranteed promise of recouping production costs. The similarly low-budget film prison film Asurado is the recent star of South Korean VOD charts, and got made largely on King of Prison having similar staying power on demand last year.

The South Korean movie industry produced the timebending mystery thriller The Call on similar logic, albeit with a higher profile. The Call originally slated  in South Korea for a low profile release in March of 2020. An explicit genre film with starlet Park Shin-hye in the leading role, The Call was a mid-level release that, under optimistic projections, could have been expected to achieve, at the high end, around a million theatrical admissions out of a population of 50 million. 

Park Shin-hye is a sweetheart of the South Korean entertainment industry, and Jun Jong-seo still has that glow from her acclaimed appearance in 2018’s Burning by Lee Chang-dong. But director Lee Chung-yun of The Call was a first-timer, with only some short films to his credit. Park Shin-hye, unused to working with someone her own age, at first commented on their dynamic being peculiar. He pitched both Park Shin-hye and Jun Jong-seo alike w on the project via the strength of its time-travel thriller concept, an opportunity for both actresses to break into a very different milieu than that for which they were known.

With the long term plan for The Call already being to maximize alternate revenue sources, the movie’s ultimate November release via Netflix quickly became a natural fit for the project. While The Call had strong international rankings on Flix Patrol, exact numbers as to just how successful the movie was remain unknown. We do, however, know that Space Sweepers, a sci-fi flick originally intended as a big tentpole release for the holiday season, finally decided on a similar February release on the platform–to even greater international success.

Distributors remain uncertain about fully committing to an exclusive online release regimen. The competition among South Korean streaming services is so fierce that tying any major movie to a single streaming platform carries far too much risk. Netflix could shoulder The Call and Space Sweepers in part because they could reasonably expect those movies  to do well in the international market. In some ways, Burning is more famous internationally than locally, boosting the profile for The Call, and Space Sweepers went to a great deal of trouble to include a multinational cast, right down to hiring Richard Armitage of Hobbit fame to play the Elon Musk-inspired villain.

Going forward, distributors are instead experimenting with a hybrid approach. Seobok, a science fiction film expected to be more introspective than the relatively bombastic Space Sweepers, will launch in both theaters and on streaming on April 15th. In this case the exclusive contract will be with TVING. CJ E&M, which is distributing the film, is hoping the move can help cut its losses in the event the South Korean filmgoing public still isn’t ready to go back to theaters. With major stars Gong Yoo and Park Bo-gum in the leading roles, Seobok will be the first major title to see a theatrical release since last summer, which saw three big flicks in the form of Peninsula, Steel Rain 2, and When the Devil Calls Your Name. Cumulatively, these three movies had just under ten million admissions. Pre-COVID, an especially strong movie could get that many just on its own.

But then a big part of what’s leading the ambiguity behind the South Korean box office is the uncertainty about whether movies are doing poorly because of COVID-19, because of a lack of marketing effort due to COVID-19, or just the movies themselves being bad. With Steel Rain 2 having 1.8 million admissions versus When the Devil Calls Your Name having 4.3 million admissions despite similar release windows, the latter project clearly had just plain more interest. So it is that even if Seobok does poorly, that alone probably won’t be enough to make distributors give up on theaters entirely.

If Seobok does well, however, it’s quite likely that other major projects on the backburner because of COVID-19 will announce theatrical release dates in short order, with a revival of the traditional market becoming symbolic of the country’s recovery from COVID-19. In either scenario film production will continue apace. With so many streaming options available, and streaming services such as Netflix enjoying record profits last year, there simply isn’t any reason to stop no matter how empty the theaters are.

 

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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