Behind a Korean film renaissance

Behind a Korean film renaissance
Cinema-goers in South Korea.

At a glance, Korean cinema seems to be having a renaissance.

In a world where Hollywood blockbusters dominate the silver screen, local films grabbed a market share of 60 per cent in 2013, double that of US titles. Not only that, ticket sales exceeded 200 million for the first time in history last year, as Koreans once again proved themselves to be among the world's most avid cinemagoers.

Then this summer came another major milestone.

A local period flick, "Roaring Currents," attracted more than 17 million viewers, the largest number in Korean cinema history. The previous record was 13 million set by the 2009 Hollywood sci-fi flick "Avatar."

This means that 1 in every 2.8 people in this country of 50 million - almost everyone in cinema-going age groups - has watched the story of Adm. Yi Sun-sin, one of the nation's most revered heroes from the Joseon era (1392-1910).

Critics cite a combination of factors for the film's success: the story of a true hero when Koreans long for someone to look up to and lessons on morality and leadership, all peppered with cinematic brilliance.

Nevertheless, the film's triumph reignited a heated debate over the conglomerate-controlled film industry and how its moneymaking machine works to churn out megahits at the price of diversity.

"To me, the figure -17 million- is not something that I can be just happy about, because it invokes some very profound and weighty issues," Kim Han-min, the film's director, said at a forum held on Oct 8 in Busan, apparently mindful of the issue.

Vertical integration

It is a familiar story with the Korean economy and its towering conglomerates, but the Korean film industry, too, is led by a few large firms that control all levels of the filmmaking process -- from investing and distributing to screening.

The first chaebol to enter the film market was Samsung in 1992, but following the 1997 financial crisis the company backed out to focus on its core businesses.

The second generation was paved by CJ, Lotte and Orion, which entered the market through CJ Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment and Showbox-Mediaplex, respectively.

A small but strong rookie player, Next World Entertainment, emerged in 2008, rolling out box-office hits including "Miracle in Cell No. 7" and "The Attorney," which both exceeded the 10 million viewer mark in 2013.

These four major distributors now occupy more than 90 per cent of the Korean film market's audience share. Two of them operate their own theatre chains, too - CJ CGV and Lotte Cinema, the nation's two largest multiplex chains.

This vertical integration has improved efficiency, channeled more investments into local films and helped bring larger audiences to cinemas.

At the same time, movies made on shoestring budgets and art house films face certain barriers, industry insiders say.

"It is no longer news when distributors who have their own theatres promote their films and give them preferential treatment over other films," said Choi Yong-bae, vice chairman of the Korean Film Producers Association, at a forum on the monopoly in the Korean film market held at the National Assembly in September.

"They give priority to their films by giving them more screens and more seats, better time slots and arrays of promotions and advertisements in the theatre," Choi commented.

For this reason, many art house films and films distributed by small companies end up not being advertised, being screened during less popular time periods and disappearing from theatres after only a few weeks, he added.

When "Roaring Currents," distributed by CJ E&M, opened in local theatres in August, it competed with two large-scale period flicks: "The Pirates" (Lotte Entertainment) and "Kundo: Age of the Rampant" (Showbox).

"The Pirates" garnered 8.6 million viewers, placing second after "Roaring Currents," while "Kundo" took third place with 4.7 million viewers.

During the peak of its success, "Roaring Currents" was shown on 1,586 of a total 2,608 screens, 61 per cent of all the screens in the nation.

CJ E&M took 55.2 per cent of the box office in August (32 million tickets) with "Roaring Currents" and six other films it distributed, while Lotte's distributor took up 22.6 per cent. Both NEW and Showbox had single-digit market shares, according to the state-run Korean Film Council.

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