Busan: South Korea Taps China Film Boom

South Korea’s resources and technology are infiltrating China’s expanding film market through theater chains and co-productions, while state-level MOUs are encouraging joint projects.

Long before the Chinese market boom began attracting the world film industry’s attention, South Korean entertainment giant CJ Entertainment had a head start in launching the country’s largest cinema chain CGV there. Seven years since debuting with the Daning location in Shanghai in 2006, CGV now operates 20 multiplex theaters with 151 screens in 13 cities including Beijing, Wuhan, and Tianjin.

Currently there are some 3,200 theaters across the Asian country, while the number of Chinese theatergoers, which was 190 million last year, is expected to surpass 290 million by 2014. Riding in on the expansion, CGV has opened nine new multiplexes this year alone, and plans to set up seven more by the end of the year to eventually have 100 theaters by 2016.

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According to Chinese research firm EntGroup, CGV ranked 18th (1.6 percent of box office market shares) among local movie theater operators as of June 2013, up from 22nd (1.2 percent) in December 2012. Last year’s sales revenue of $41 million is expected to double this year, surpassing $91 million (100 billion won). Korea’s Shinhan Investment forecasts that CGV will begin making major leaps in profits by 2015, and increased the company’s target stock price from $64.37 (70,000 won) to $67.13 (73,000 won).

“In a market where you need to compete against piracy and scores of other theater companies, we are trying to distinguish ourselves with culturally inclined, technologically advanced services,” says Im Hyeong-gon, head of CGV’s Global Business Center.
Multiplexes feature Korean restaurant and café chains, IMAX screens, seats equipped with Beats by Dr. Dre headsets, and 4DX technology -- the latter being climate-controlled rooms with seats that jerk back and forth while emitting scents, winds, and even water, in sync with the onscreen action.

In addition to the theater business, Korean talent and technology are reaching out to China’s abundant capital and market size through co-produced films. Korean companies have enjoyed greater success than their U.S. counterparts, and have led the pack in entering the Chinese exhibition.

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Mr. Go, by Korea’s Showbox/Mediaplex and China’s Huayi Brothers, stars Chinese actress Xu Jiao among a Korean cast/crew including a CGI gorilla created by Korean VFX studio Dexter Film. It brought in $16.73 million (18.2 billion won) in China, or twice as much as in Korea ($8.46 million or 9.2 billion won).

“The Korean film market needs to expand. It’s important to touch upon shared human emotions in telling stories through movies, and this is a must for really globalizing Korean cinema. Working with China is the best way to make my dreams as a filmmaker come true,” says the film’s director Kim Yong-hwa.

Bunshinsaba 2, also featuring a Korean cast/crew, was the highest grossing Chinese-produced horror film on the mainland. A Wedding Invitation, a CJ production distributed by China Film Group, was another box-office success. Earlier this year China Film Group and Pegasus & Taihe Entertainment announced plans to invest $20 million in The Fist, the largest ever Korea-China co-production to be directed by Korean filmmaker Park Kwang-hyun.

In order for facilitate such joint ventures between the two industries, the state-run Korean Film Council (KOFIC) opened in April the Korean Film Business Center in Beijing and sponsors meetings between Korean cineastes and Chinese producers. “The focus right now is China. China has an incredible market but lacks content, such as VFX as well as original scripts due to censorship issues. So this is where Korea steps in,” says Kim Young-gu, manager of KOFIC’s International Coproduction Team.

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Meanwhile, cooperation is taking place on a governmental level to make sure these co-productions are widely shown across both Chinese and Korean theaters. The two countries’ culture ministries inked a pact that would recognize joint ventures as homegrown movies in both countries, thus ensuring that they will benefit from respective local policies for protecting domestic works.

The importance of co-productions in Korea is reflected in how 11 of 30 titles in this year’s Asian Project Market are designed to be international joint ventures.