Overcoming Oscar in Korea

Local distribs tweak marketing to woo hesitant audiences to theaters

Winning an Oscar has never been a guarantee of success in South Korea. Historically, the little gold statuette 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 postwar 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. So far, it's paying off.

"Reader," which was scheduled to be released March 26 on 150 screens, ultimately upped its rollout to 204 screens and so 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 films like "Lust, Caution," which blended sex with art house sensibility. Three weeks into its release, "Reader" managed to pull in 437,000 moviegoers during the weekend of April 17-19.

"The combination of the film's sexual content and the popular appeal of 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 — like "Chicago," which sold 1.4 million tickets here in 2003 — Oscar winners typically are overlooked in favor of blockbusters that emphasize action and effects.

On the whole, Korea's taste for non-mainstream fare has thinned during the past decade, widening the gap between commercial film fans and art house lovers and leaving little room on the marquee for Oscar winners whose sensibilities often fall 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. "Juno" sold just 70,000 tickets.

"(Koreans) are going to turn away from a film if they think it is difficult," said Eom Dong-jin of Movie and I, the firm that marketed "No Country."

"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." (partialdiff)