The play's the thing in South Korea

South Korean film producers are striking gold -- in the theater

SEOUL -- While many in the Korean film industry are worrying about a pending collapse, there is another entertainment market that is growing dramatically: stage musicals. The performing arts market grew from just 91.3 billion won ($98 million) in 2000 to 237 billion won ($256.5 million) in 2005, according to the most recent data compiled by the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

Even more stunning, the musical portion of that market has exploded from just 13.8 billion won ($14.9 million) to 109.5 billion ($118.2 million) over the same period.

"The market is still growing so fast," says Kim Byeong-seok, head of the Performing Arts Division at CJ Entertainment, the leading South Korean film producer, which last year accounted for 25% of the live-theater market. "The musical market grew 38% in 2006, which was even higher than 2005. New infrastructure should boost the expansion of this market and the distribution of contents."

The film-to-stage phenomenon in South Korea began with the arrival of Broadway imports such as "Aida" and "The Phantom of the Opera." But with licensing and production costs for those shows topping $10 million, producers are increasingly turning to Korean movies, TV dramas and even comic books for homegrown alternatives.

One of the first major hits to stem from a local film was "Waikiki Brothers" in 2004, which is ironic considering that the original movie was a flop in 2001. Korean's second-biggest film to date, "The King and the Clown," took the stage in September 2006, while in March, the curtain rose for the 2005 hit "Innocent Steps," based on the film of the same name.

Now, however, musical adaptations of locally produced films are flooding local
theaters, including Sidus FNH's "Singles" and "The Gingko Bed," MK Pictures' comedy "The Quiet Family" and KiHweck ShiDae's "Love So Divine."

Classic films also are getting the musical treatment, with the 1990 romantic comedy "My Love, My Bride" staging in November and Im Kwon-taek's 1990 hit "General's Son" arriving at the theater next year.

CJ Entertainment, despite producing 60 works -- including 37 musicals -- since beginning its theatrical division in 2003, has not adapted any of its movie catalog for the stage yet, but Kim says that several projects are in the planning stages.

Television has proven a fertile source for theater material, too, especially for producers looking beyond South Korea to the wider Asian market. One of the first pan-Asian TV hits out of South Korea was "Winter Sonata," which was turned into a stage play in Japan in 2006.

The most ambitious local musical to come from television sprang from the hit TV series "Dae Jang-geum" (Jewel in the Palace); it's set to open at the end of May. "Dae Jang-geum" was one of South Korea's biggest TV hits to date and was hugely successful from Singapore to Tokyo. With that in mind, the TV station that broadcast the hit show approached local theater group PMC Prods. to create a musical version.

"It's a known show around the region," PMC Prods. general manager B.I. Kim says. "If our musical version is quite good, we can take it on tour all over Asia. But first, we have to make it work in Korea."

Even the Korean government is getting involved. It has offered $55.8 million in support this year for the performing arts sector.

"It's really a phenomenon," Kim says. "As the economic situation in (South) Korea has grown, people have more money and want to enjoy their lives, so movies and theater are natural choices. Koreans are traditionally people who really love music and dance. Whenever our people meet, after work or whatever, we always end up at a karaoke bar. It's part of our national character."