Head of South Korea's Lotte Group on New Entertainment Division Cultureworks

Cha Won Chun — THR — H 2018
Kwon Joongho

In his first face-to-face interview with the media since assuming his post in 2013, Cha Won Chun also discusses launching the online streaming service Seechu and receiving sound advice from Tom Cruise.

In June, South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group saw its film exhibition, investment and distribution operations break off from its retail subsidiary to form a new affiliate, rebranded as Lotte Cultureworks. As if to fete the launch of the new division, its first film, the $36 million August release Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days, has topped Avengers: Infinity War to become the country’s biggest release this year. The pic has crossed 12.3 million admissions (South Korea has a population of about 50 million) and grossed more than $90.1 million. The VFX-heavy fantasy film about journeying into the afterworld is the sequel to the 2017 smash hit Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds, which garnered $101.5 million at the box office with 14.4 million admissions.

The two-part franchise, based on the popular web cartoon series (or "webtoon") of the same name, was the first in the country to be shot simultaneously. "It would have cost $6 million to $7 million more and taken several more years if they were shot separately," Lotte Cultureworks CEO Cha Won Chun, 61, tells The Hollywood Reporter during his first face-to face interview with the media since assuming his post in 2013.

"When I was a boy, I used to read endlessly at comic book stores until my mother came to find me," he recalls. "I think that is what drives filmmakers, this blinding passion. So I tell my employees that you must take a shot at things. You can make mistakes, and there could be losses, and it’s up to us [executives] to take responsibility."

The father of two isn’t new to taking risks. He began as a high school teacher but said he became bored with having to repeat the same curriculum. After joining Lotte’s strategy team in 2004, Cha didn’t expect to head the entertainment arm that at the time included not only film investment, distribution and exhibition but also live productions, namely musicals, at the landmark Charlotte Theater in Seoul. "Lotte Cultureworks brings together all the creative divisions under one umbrella," he says. "We’re living in an increasingly integrated world where traditional distinctions between and across platforms are disappearing. So we might decide to work on a certain story initially developed for film, but it might work better as a series for the web."

Cha sat down in his Seoul office to talk about entering the TV drama production race, expanding the company’s exhibition business in Southeast Asia and receiving sound-design tips from Tom Cruise.

How does breaking off from Lotte Shopping — the retail arm of Lotte Group — affect your film business, and what does it mean to be rebranded as Lotte Cultureworks?

I think establishing ourselves as an independent affiliate allows us to adopt a more flexible attitude, to think outside the box more. Being rebranded as Lotte Cultureworks also means that we will not only focus on exhibition and investment-distribution through Lotte Cinema and Lotte Entertainment, respectively, but also expand our stage production projects and encompass various platforms and content to become a more multifaceted entertainment company. It is very important for us to invest in new projects.

You announced plans to move into TV production in October. What kind of content do you hope to produce that will set you apart from competitors such as CJ Entertainment?

The diversification of platforms has blurred the distinctions between conventional types of audiovisual content and has altered the way in which they are consumed. Related industries are undergoing drastic changes as a result. We decided we must take on challenges in line with such a shifting climate, and one of them is TV dramas. The TV series we plan to invest in and produce won’t be much different from our movies, however. We envision creating family-friendly content akin to [period drama] The Last Princess and [action-comedy] Midnight Runners, but also riskier projects similar to Along With the Gods. Our mission to provide fun for our viewers will remain intact.

Any plans to create English-language content or co-productions involving Hollywood?

As a partner of Globalgate Entertainment [the local language production-financing venture aligned with Lionsgate], we are working on the creation of a platform that will allow us to directly remake diverse foreign IP content for South Korean audiences. We are also heavily invested in introducing our IP to Hollywood studios as well as those in Japan, India and European countries. We hope to move beyond simply handling remake rights to directly partaking in joint investments and productions.

Lotte distributes Paramount films in South Korea. How has that partnership paid off?

Since 2015, Lotte has been distributing and marketing about seven to 10 Paramount films each year as its South Korean partner. A long-term partnership with a major U.S. player, I believe, sets us apart and allows us to provide a much more diverse and entertaining array of content to moviegoers. This year was a particularly successful one for us, as Mission: Impossible — Fallout and Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days were back-to-back hits [with a cume $49 million, the former currently ranks as the third-highest-grossing film released in South Korea in 2018].

You announced this year that Lotte will expand its theater business in Southeast Asia. 

Lotte Cinema now accounts for about a third of South Korea’s market. We operate 172 cinemas with 847 screens at home, 179 in Vietnam and 96 in China. We also established a foothold in Indonesia. We are aiming to expand our exhibition operations with 140 cinemas in Southeast Asia by 2022. In Vietnam, we plan to focus on expanding into all of its top five cities and to contribute to the local film sector by expanding our scope of investment and production there. In Indonesia, we are looking to partner with local shopping mall giants to expand our exhibition business and to also partake in co-productions. Entering new emerging markets is very important for diversifying our lineup of projects.

You launched an online streaming service, Seechu, in July. How do you see the future of the exhibition business?

I always tell my employees, “You’re going to be jobless in 10 years.” People spoke about the death of cinemas with the advent of TV. The introduction of multiplex theaters has killed single-screen cinemas, and similar, if not even more drastic shifts, are occurring today. I insisted on changing our digital projectors to laser ones because we can’t expect moviegoers to be satisfied with something that can be replicated at home theaters. The development of VR will necessitate this in the near future, but it would be too late by the time it becomes mainstream. Making the switch [in our domestic cinemas] cost 150 billion won [about $131 million], but we have to be prepared for what is to come. We cannot expect to survive if we don’t offer the most optimal technology. My dream is to be able to treat my current employees to a meal about a decade after I retire, and this means that they still need to be around for it to happen.

When Tom Cruise comes to Seoul to promote a film, he always makes sure to watch it with fans, though he does it rather furtively. He watched Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation on the second floor of one of our theaters [which is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for its large screen] and told us that the volume was a little off. We immediately corrected this. He watched [Fallout] at the same theater, and we hope it was a better experience for him and the rest of the moviegoers.

My wife waits for me after work everyday so that we could walk home together and we also made it a ritual to watch a film or musical in one of our theaters every weekend. It's really important for us to be able to enjoy the movie-going experience, and so it is vital for Lotte to enable it.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 3 daily issue at the American Film Market.