Oscar films flying high in Korea

Academy Award winners rare successes in local market

SEOUL -- Winning an Oscar has never been a guarantee of success in Korea. Historically, the little gold statue simply hasn't carried much weight with local filmgoers.

So when Korean film promotion company Ruby Kino laid out its marketing plan for the March release of "The Reader," it knew it would need to think differently.

The film, about an affair between a teenage boy and an older woman in post-war Germany, was seen as too radical for mainstream Korean tastes, and Kate Winslet's best actress triumph wasn't expected to help.

Ruby Kino's strategy? Focus on the sex. And so far, it's paying off.

"The Reader," which was scheduled to release March 26 on 150 screens, ultimately upped its rollout to 204 screens and thus far has sold an unusually large number of matinee tickets to Korean stay-at-home wives.

The film appears to be repeating the daytime success of such films as "Lust, Caution," which blended sex with art house sensibility. Three weeks into its release, "The Reader" still managed to pull in 437,000 moviegoers for the weekend of Apr. 17-19.

"The combination of the film's sexual content and the popular appeal of Kate Winslet from 'Titanic' were the foundation of the film's commercial success," said Ha Hye-jin, a marketing staffer at Ruby Kino. "But honestly, we didn't expect the film could pull in this much."

This year in Korea, other Oscar winners, including "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Slumdog Millionaire" also are doing unusually well, thanks in no small part to innovative marketing.

With few exceptions -- such as the Oscar winners "Chicago," which sold 1.4 million tickets here in 2003 -- Academy Award winners are typically overlooked in favor of blockbusters that emphasize action and effects.

On the whole, Korea's taste for non-mainstream far has thinned over the last decade, widening the gap between commercial film fans and art house fans, and leaving little to no room on the marquee for Oscar winners whose sensibilities often fall right in between.

"No Country for Old Men" provides a good example. Winner of four Oscars in 2008, the Coen brothers' critical favorite played only small art-house theaters here, selling a mere 60,000 tickets. Similarly, "Juno" sold just 70,000 tickets.

"(Koreans) are going to turn away from a film if they think it's difficult," said Eom Dong-jin of Movie and I, the firm that marketed "No Country for Old Men." "Our lesson was that Oscar could be a marketing barrier for some films."

Absorbing that lesson, the company decided to try exploiting its next project's ancillary resources -- emphasizing the soundtrack and the popularity of the novel on which it was based -- and was able to help "Slumdog Millionaire" sell more than a million tickets in one week in mid-April.

One theory about the reason for Oscar winners' poor performance here is that their subject matter is often tough to convey and doesn't necessarily sync with mainstream Korean mores -- a dilemma evident with "Milk," a biopic of San Francisco's first openly gay elected official.

The Gus Van Sant film originally was scheduled to open nationwide Mar. 26, but the importer, Sponge, then delayed the release to Apr. 23, then again to some time in May. Sponge did not announce an exact release date this time, but with a line-up of big-budget Korean films including "Thirst" and "Insadong Scandal" opening this month, insiders predict that distributors of non-mainstream films may wait for a more favorable market.

"A well-made film doesn't always guarantee success," said Yu Gina, a film professor at Dongguk University. "An award-winning film in one country doesn't mean the same thing in another country. It would almost be foolish to expect that all Oscar films should please audiences around the world."