South Korea Box Office 2015: Local Titles Still Dominate, But Another Strong Year for Hollywood

Veteran - H 2015
Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

The MERS outbreak hit the box office for several weeks, homegrown hits included 'Assassination' and 'Veteran,' and 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' grossed more than $74 million.

2015 was a dynamic year for the South Korean box office, with Hollywood films bringing in stronger-than-usual revenue during the first half of the year, followed by a string of domestic blockbusters during the second half.

Annual theater attendance crossed 200 million for the fourth consecutive year, according to the Korean Film Council's KOBIS database, based on data as of mid-December.

The annual box office totaled $1.35 billion (1.61 trillion won) as of on Dec. 14, just about $20 million below 2014's full-year figure of $1.37 billion (1.66 trillion won). Currency shifts affected figures, with the South Korean won falling sharply against the U.S. dollar.

Industry experts, however, expect Star Wars: The Force Awakens and local mountaineering epic Himalayas to boost sales for the two final weeks of 2015. Star Wars, in particular, led ticket pre-sales, followed by Himalayas, which was pre-sold to over 60 territories via CJ Entertainment.

Total theater admissions — 203.62 million as of Dec. 14 — compare to 2014's 215.07 million. Attendance plummeted 20 percent for three consecutive weeks shortly following the outbreak of MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) in late May. Recording 38 deaths, the country was hit hardest by the lethal disease outside of Saudi Arabia, where it was first discovered, and admissions hit an all-time low of 1.55 million for the June 5-June 7 weekend. 

The epidemic, however, gave Hollywood films a major boost in a market normally dominated by local fare. Several local titles, including maritime blockbuster Northern Limit Line, postponed opening dates, allowing imports, such as Jurassic World, to face less competition with new releases to earn a cumulative $40.32 and become the eighth highest-grossing film of the year in the country.

Korea also was the second-largest overseas market for Avengers 2 after China, reaping $74.7 million. The Marvel flick is now one of the highest-grossing films in Korean cinema history; it crossed 10 million admissions — or a fifth of the country's population — in record time and is the only foreign title alongside Avatar to be included in the top 10 films of all time. The success of Avengers 2 can be attributed to how parts of the film were shot in Seoul.

As moviegoers returned to theaters en masse when the MERS scare died down and homegrown films began to heat up the box office once again. In July, Assassination (Showbox/Mediaplex) recorded over $83.05 million, enjoying huge success despite the traditional aversion in Korea to films set during the Japanese colonial era. In August, Veteran, a crime actioner distributed by CJ Entertainment, earned a staggering $88.71 million. Both films rank among the top five most successful films of all time in the Korean box office and are also among a dozen local titles that crossed 10 million admissions. The stronghold of local titles is expected to continue through year-end, with Inside Men (Showbox/Mediaplex) topping the box office for the fourth consecutive week as of Dec. 14 and bringing in more than $40.3 million.

For the Jan. 1- Dec. 14 timeframe, the market share of U.S. films was 44.2 percent, while homegrown titles took 50.6 percent, similar to 2014's split of 45.2 percent and 50.1 percent, respectively. This is the second year that the gap between imports and local titles has been relatively slim. In previous years, Hollywood films accounted for only about 35 percent, while Korean titles dominated with close to 60 percent. The market share of Korean titles even dropped to 42.5 percent during the first half of 2015, which was the lowest in seven years.

Here is the list of South Korea's top 10 box-office performers in 2015 (Korean Film Council's KOBIS database):

1.       Veteran ($88.71 million)

2.       Assassination ($83.05 million)

3.       Avengers: Age of Ultron ($74.72 million)

4.       Ode to My Father ($58.91 million)

5.       Kingsman: The Secret Service ($42.48 million)

6.       The Throne ($41.2 million)

7.       Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation($40.95 million)

8.       Jurassic World ($40.32 million)

9.       Inside Men ($40.37 million)

10.    Northern Limit Line ($38.43 million)