Netflix Film Debate Hits South Korea Ahead of 'Okja' Launch

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

CJ CGV, the Asian country's largest cinema chain, may not screen the Netflix title, saying it is "ruining the ecosystem of the Korean film market."

Not long after French exhibitors and cinema purists criticized the Cannes Film Festival for letting Netflix films Okja, by South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho, and The Meyerowitz Stories by Noah Baumbach, compete for the Palme d'Or, the same debate has arrived on the shores of South Korea ahead of Okja's simultaneous release in theaters and on the streaming giant's service this month.

Okja, the much anticipated sci-fi drama starring Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal and produced by Brad Pitt, among others, is set to be released to Netflix users in 190 countries on June 28 (June 29 Korea time). The same day, Next Entertainment World (NEW), one of South Korea's top four distributors, will bring the film to cinemas in the country.

NEW, however, does not own cinemas, unlike its rivals. And major South Korean distributors are echoing concerns raised by their French counterparts about the possible death of theaters. In recent days, rumors have been spreading in the local film sector that CJ CGV, the largest theater group with 139 locations across the Asian country, could refuse to carry the Netflix title.

"We believe there should be a gap between its theatrical opening and online release. In case this does not happen [and Okja opens in cinemas and on Netflix simultaneously as planned], then we have discussed the possibility of not screening the title at CGV theaters," said a source working for CGV, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Netflix has completely disregarded the ecosystem of the Korean film market."

In South Korea, theatrical release plans and the number of screens for a movie have traditionally been decided about a week ahead of a given film's opening date. A film's box-office performance in the country largely depends on its first-week score, and it then debuts on streaming platforms about two to three weeks after the initial big-screen debut. The poorer its performance, the faster it moves onto the internet platforms.

Exhibitor Lotte Cinema, run by Lotte Entertainment, said it is also currently discussing what it calls "the Okja problem," according to a source employed by the exhibitor.

NEW, which had previously announced that it was pursuing "an unlimited run" for Okja in theaters, does not plan to scrap its plan of having the film debut on Netflix at the same time.

"There are no changes to Netflix's policy of having a simultaneous release. We are currently trying very, very hard to discuss ways to work with cinema operators," said a representative for NEW.

Others say that cinemas cannot completely ignore Ojka. "The film has been at the center of hot debate, but more importantly, it's the much-anticipated film of one of South Korea's most respected and loved auteurs Bong Joon Ho. Cinemas will not completely shut out the possibility of earning profits from such a hot title," said film critic Kwak Young-jin.

"While I do understand the conservative wish to preserve traditions and 'purity' per se, this is a discussion that was bound to occur some day," said Kim Si-moo, film critic and former president of the Korean Film Studies Association.

"I'm not deeply knowledgeable about these things since I'm not a distributor, but the disputes are interesting," director Bong told The Hollywood Reporter in a previous interview. "I must say things have been settled in a promising way. Back in the 1960s, people were saying the introduction of television meant the end of cinema. I see today as an era of coexistence, between cinemas, TVs and smartphones/tablets. I bet many of these French distributors also watch Netflix at home."

The Snowpiercer director has also strongly defended Netflix for the creative freedom and support he received during the filmmaking process.