Reality is much more dramatic. Despite current wave of financial crisis, Korean film industry has passed through a tumultuous, roller coaster ride during 26 weeks of the first half and produced many news. In 2009, Korean film industry started out with the unexpected mega box office successes of ‘Scandal Makers’ and ‘Old Partner’. Since then, lukewarm “thriller trio” (‘Marine Boy’, ‘The Scam’ and ‘Handphone’) passed through the box office, even though they were highly anticipated since their developmental stage. The number of Korean films screened at Cannes Film Festival broke the record with a total of 10 films (including short films), and ‘Thirst’ won Grand Jury prize. Also, crowd pleaser ‘My Girlfriend is an Agent’ was a hit and critically praised ‘Running Turtle’ has received some attention at the box office. Korean film industry has undergone all these events and faced megaton Hollywood blockbusters including ‘Terminator Salvation’ and ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, in the end of the first half. As a result of the furious battle, Korean film industry could not hold its own against transforming and cybernetic robots. However, Korean film industry was at least comforted by the number of admissions, which has increased by 23.8% when compared to the same period last year and the box office sales went up by 25.4%. Market share of Korean films also increased from 37.2% last year to 44.7%.
Achieving the Biggest Volume of Box Office Ever in the First Half
During ’07-08, a dull growing curve in the cinema business and a period of poor outcome in the rate of return of Korean film industry, doubts were widespread among various film associations. At that time, most people analyzed that the dominance of the marketplace leaned towards foreign films as the gross number of admissions decreased. But Korean films still survived. In other words, Korean films have recovered its confidence and proved that they still have the ability to lead box office if the first half of 2009 was any indication.
In comparison to the same period last year, the number of admissions went up 2.9% and the sales by 4.7% due to several successful Korean films. The number of admission, during the period between January and June, totaled 72.17 million and the sales totaled US $373 million. Comparatively, while the number of admissions is 5 million less than that of the first half of 2006, the sales exceeded first half of 2006 (US $370 million). All in all, it accomplished the biggest box office volume in history in the first half.
Korean Film, Recovering Confidence
7 Korean films ranked in the top 10 box office list in the first half of 2009. There were only 2 US films on the list, so it clearly seems that Korean films have been dominant in marketplace. Out of 26 weeks in the first half, Korean films have occupied the top spot for 15 weeks in total; US films with 8 weeks; Chinese films 2 weeks; British film 1 week. Also, 6 Korean films stayed at top spot for more than 2 weeks. ‘Scandal Makers’ retook top spot on the 3rd week of January in its 7th week of release. Ranked 15th in the first week, ‘Old Partner’ occupied top spot for 2 consecutive weeks during its 6th and 7th weeks of release. ‘My Girlfriend is an Agent’ also retook top spot during its 3rd week of release.
Beyond Miraculous Box Office Performance
In case of Korean films on the list, it is noticeable that there have been some differences from the past. Films on the list contained several drawbacks as commercial films, such as unusual subject, inexplicable theme, inferior quality, less pre-release awareness, and so on. That indicates that the films on the list were against the traditional entertainment values that most popular films seek. It also demonstrates that audience tend to seek a wide range of films and their understanding and acceptance toward niche films have gotten deeper and wider. In other words, Korean audience changed their view, no matter what genre, blockbuster or independent film is, to find what they want to see and experience. As a result, when they find a film to their liking, they tend to spread positive words to their friends.
The marketplace of the first half 2009 opened with a fresh, strange view and ended up with an aged, familiar view. Trailing after the miraculous successes of ‘Scandal Makers’ and ‘Old Partner’, artistic battle between ‘Mother’ and ‘Thirst’ was fought in the frontline, and consecutive strikes from Hollywood blockbusters arrived (‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ and ‘Terminator Salvation’), all aiming for screen dominance. A few multiplexes have increased the ticket price, insisting that it is the best solution to improve the business environment. Last year’s marketplace was gloomy to say the least and while first half of this year showed some signs of revitalization, it is perhaps too early to predict any permanent landscape of the industry. But it is best to keep an optimistic stance.
Originally published as ‘Korean Box Office Bouncing Back After A Steep Decline’ by Lisa Han. Published in the excellent Korean Cinema Today Vol.02 by the Korean Film Commission. You can download a PDF copy of the magazine here. Note: since it’s release, ‘Haeundae’ has become the biggest Korean hit of the year, and is only the second film after ‘Transformers’ to pass the 5-million attendance mark so far.