How Korean Sleeper Hits Are Finding Their Niche

'Detective K'

Filmmakers target new markets for documentaries, indie fare.

When Korea’s largerst multiplex, CGV, decided to expand the number of screens devoted to independent films under a program entitled Movie Collage, the move was seen as a long-term investment. The multiplex franchise, which now has 10 screens devoted to independent, art and documentary films, has been losing 3 billion won every year.

The company, though, has seen slow progress over the years. Last year, the Korean documentary Don’t Cry for Me, Sudan which proved particularly popular among the middle-age group, went on to make the box office top 10 for several weeks. CGV introduced the film through Movie Collage but expanded distribution to general theaters as the demand went up.

“It’s more like a community welfare project if you will,” said Yi Sang-kyu, head of PR at CGV. “In recent years independent films like Old Partner did well but we’re still operating these theaters at a loss. In the longer run, however, we’re trying to satisfy a growing audience that wants more diversity onscreen.”

CGV’s expansion of its arthouse theaters reflects a bigger shift in the Korean film industry: more producers and filmmakers are recognizing the virtue of breaking even with small-to-mid-sized projects that cater to various niche markets.

After hitting an all-time low in the mid-2000s, Korean cinema has seen only a few homegrown blockbusters like last summer’s Haeundae. The first quarter of this year saw an overall decline, down 12.6 percent from last year.

A few family comedies such as Hello Ghost and Meet the In-Laws did well in domestic theaters. But the industry has seen rare genres hitting the Korean theaters in the past few months such as Detective K, about an 18th-century oddball private eye, and Glove, a film about a baseball team of hearing-impaired players.

The upcoming Arrest King starring Park Joong-hoon also targets a niche audience of men in their 40s and 50s as the film evokes nostalgia for the actor’s 1990s cop comedies that may seem outdated for younger mainstream Korean audiences.

Indie films are also witnessing an expanding market. The award-winning teen crime drama Bleak Night drew more than 18,000 viewers as of April 25, since opening in 20 theaters on March 3, while the teen pregnancy drama Re-encounter attracted more than 12,000 moviegoers since Feb. 17.

The number may be small but an indie flick hitting 10 thousand-viewer mark is equivalent to 1 billion for mainstream works. It’s also an impressive feat considering that the two films deal with topics that remain a taboo in Korea.

Korean Film Council, a government-supported film body that promotes Korean films, has taken some proactive measures to promote diversity in Korean cinema. The council recently announced that it would spend 700 million won to help small-budget projects. Qualified filmmakers will receive help from scouting locations to editing for short, feature-length and documentary pieces.

Last year, the council provided 150 million won worth of funding for five low-budget Korean films including the multiple award-winning North Korean refugee tragedy The Journals of Musan. After picking up grand prizes at Marrakesh and Rotterdam, the film’s actor-director Park Jung-bum recently the Best New Narrative Director Award at Tribeca. At home it is steadily attracting auds.

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“Judges took into consideration subject matter and boldly selected films that addressed topics and themes often overlooked in mainstream cinema,” Moon Bong-hwan of KOFIC said. “The council hopes the support will encourage filmmakers to create experimental works.”

The funding is also aimed at ensuring distribution and screening, Moon said. In March, the council opened Indieplus, exclusively screening independent films, and plans to provide financial support for selected art houses or theaters wanting to devote one of its screens to the genre.

Twilight-years dramas targeting overlooked audiences of older Koreans are also becoming a sleeper hit.

Based on a popular web cartoon by Kangfull the Korean film Late Blossom starting veteran actor Lee Soon-jae became one of the top grossing films during the first quarter of 2011. The film about four penniless men and women in their 70s rediscovering romance scooped close to 10 billion won since opening in mid-February. It is still showing in domestic theaters.

The film initially attracted audiences in their 20s and 30s but drew scores of middle-aged fans and senior citizens a few weeks into the run, according to the film’s distributor Next Entertainment World (NEW).

“As the pattern goes for films that remain high-in-demand for a long time, older audiences usually flock to theaters to see movies that 20-year-olds talk about,” said Park Eun-jung, senior manager of NEW’s distribution team. “A lot of younger audiences re-watched the film with their parents and grandparents. Because there weren’t many films that appealed to older viewers at the time we had cases where department stores would host ‘silver cinema’ events.”

A large portion of those watching the film still remain quite young in their 20s and 30. “Regardless of age, many moviegoers are tired of provocative thrillers and scandalous melodramas, and want to see feel-good movies,” said culture critic Lee Moon-won.

Nevertheless, CGV says box office success increasingly depends upon whether it brings in middle-aged and senior viewers.

NEW also pointed that the film owes to favorable reviews of Late Blossom which spread through word of mouth, mostly online, and tweets by its lead actor.

Yet clever marketing tactics in cyber space don’t always ensure ticket sales. Lee Joon-ik was a champion of his SNS activities for his 80-billion-won period comedy Pyeongyang Castle, which made headlines with his tweets. But the film bought in a little over 12 billion won (the director even said he’d retire after the film’s blockbuster flop).

Perhaps Koreans seem to have learned from Hong Kong’s example that casting superstars in an epic setting does not necessarily entice viewers. While the Cantonese government is providing funds to make small- to mid-budget projects based on the quality and uniqueness of the script, local filmmakers are recognizing the market potential and making movies targeting different audiences on their own.

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