It seems the film industry has emerged as one of the few recession-proof industries while the economy struggles to regain its footing. The stats are out, showing that Korean films recorded their best ever performance, with a 4.7 percent increase in revenue from ticket sales compared to a year earlier.
An estimated 72 million Koreans went to the movies in the first six months of this year raking in about 477 billion won ($370 million) in revenue. Although attendance fell short of 2006’s record-setting figure of 77.4 million, profits during the first half of this year saw a conservative increase from 473 billion won that year.
This was due to theater chains heavily implementing discounts through deals with credit card companies and holding special promotions which shaved the prices off tickets.
According to a recent report released by the Korean Film Council, the market share for Korean films saw a 7.5 point jump from last year’s 37.2 percent.
Light, broad-minded fare like the Cha Tae-hyun comedy “Speed Scandal” and “Secret Couple” scored big with audiences, while films dealing with topical subject matters, such as the homosexuality in “A Frozen Flower,” also met with success.
But the talk of the town this year has not been about “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook’s vampire yarn “Thirst” nor Bong Joon-ho’s critically heralded thriller “Mother.”
It was the unprecedented success of “Old Partner,” a low-budget documentary about an old man and his dying ox, that the film industry was talking about. Its emergence shook the domestic film industry, causing them to take notice of the highly lucrative potential of the long-neglected “indie” market.
The film was produced with a paltry budget of 100 million won but raked in more than 19 billion won, becoming the most profitable Korean film in history. The film opened in just 20 theaters and through word of mouth, the film attracted a total figure of more than 2.9 million.
However, some industry insiders feel the film’s sensational box office run won’t do much in changing production trends within the filmmaking community.
“Old Partner was an exceptional case and I don’t think the film’s success will push production companies to rush out there to finance low-budget independent films, but it definitely raised some eye-brows and put the spotlight on a side of the film industry that a lot of folks have disregarded,” said KOFIC’s Han Seung-hee.
The two highly publicized and hyped domestic films by the auteur duos of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho also took home modest box office loot with “Thirst” attracting a little more than 2 million and “Mother” bringing in just fewer than 3 million.
Although the two films didn’t make the splash they set out for, overseas distribution looks to become another source of revenue stream where avant-garde cinema has a bigger draw than in the domestic market.
Currently, the black comedy “Running Turtle” starring Kim Yun-seok is looking more like it might have sturdy enough legs to become another sleeper hit. The film opened June 11 and has thus far collected 2 million in ticket sales.
With these domestic films posting good numbers, have Korean films taken back their command of the industry from the Hollywood? Hardly.
Since the government reduced the screen quota regulation in 2006, Hollywood films have maintained their foothold in the Korean film market.
Although market share of American films decreased from 54.4 percent last year to 45.1 percent this year, there is still another half of the year left and Hollywood has more to unleash onto domestic movie screens. This is only the beginning, as the current market share for North American films is the result of two Hollywood blockbusters, “Terminator: Salvation” and “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.” The fourth Terminator film recorded a mammoth 57.2 percent box-office share, while the Transformers sequel posted a staggering 78.9 percent.
“Revenge of the Fallen” attracted 3.45 million in just seven days after its opening on June 24. It currently stands to become the year’s biggest box office draw, just as the first film was in 2007.
The Michael Mann-helmed John Dillinger crime saga “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as the notorious American crime-wave era robber and Christian Bale as the FBI agent hot on his heels, will open in August. That same month will bring another set of Hasbro toys – and the cartoon series – to life in the Stephen Sommers-directed G.I. Joe.
The big-budget actioner will see Hallyu-star Lee Byung-hun make his Hollywood debut as a ninja assassin. Speaking of which, Korean continental superstar Rain will make his official debut in North America headlining the Wachowski Brothers’ “Ninja Assassin,” directed by James McTiegue.
Finally, Quentin Tarantino’s long-anticipated World War II film “Inglourious Basterds,” starring a near unrecognizable Brad Pit will open later this year.
Korean films going up against these heavyweights can only hope domestic movie-goers show them some love too.
To be fair, the domestic line-up isn’t looking too shabby either. A slew of promising films are ready to roll out this summer and beyond.
“The Five Sense of Eros,” an omnibus film with an all-star cast directed by five of Korea’s most promising directors, along with the comedy “National Team” starring Ha Jung-woo about a rag-tag group of would-be ski-jumpers are the most notable as of now.
But the big budget disaster film “Haeundae,” starring an ensemble cast including Sul Kyoung-gu, Ha Ji-won, Park Joong-hoon and Uhm Jung-hwa is the one to watch. Budgeted at a 1.6 billion won, it is the priciest domestically financed Korean film of all time.
For more serious fare, a film based on the true accounts of the No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War is set to open later this year. Korean films outlining the country’s tumultuous past have often translated into box office bounty in recent years.
With so many films from both sides grappling for the wallets of Korean movie-goers, it will surely be interesting to see who comes out the winner by the end of the year.
But for moviegoers, this year will truly be a good year at the movies. (Korea Herald)