Size matters at Korea box office

Producers, distribs gamble on quality fare

BUSAN, South Korea -- For a major player in Korean film production and distribution, Lotte Entertainment took an unusual risk during the past year. The company picked up scripts by emerging Korean directors with no notable stars or a marketing hook. The result turned out to be a solid return.

Ten out of the company’s 16 films that opened this year broke even at the domestic box office.

Among them “Cyrano Agency,” a romantic comedy about a secret dating agency with a moderate budget of 4 billion won ($3.58 million), attracted 1.9 million admissions in domestic box office, beating “Resident Evil: Extinction” and “A Better Tomorrow” an ambitious remake of John Woo’s gangster flick featuring top Korean celebrities during the country’s Chuseok, or thanksgiving weekend.

Lotte hadn’t planned on picking up more adventurous films. But in the past year, the company has seen a significant rise in solid scripts of small to medium-budget with cast and directors that had slightly lower name values.

“It shows that the market tends to go safer these days,” says Lee Jin-seong, the marketing manager at Lotte.

“Films that attract more investment are those ready to go with the script, producer and cast all set, and those films always happen to be bigger-budget productions by major distributors. This leaves a small window for the rest of the work.”

A report by the Korean Film Council backs his theory. The number of releases dropped in almost half during the first half of this year compared to the same period one year earlier for Showbox, another major distributor. And while Lotte produced about the same number of films as last year, overall admissions dropped mainly because of the smaller budgets. CJ is the only exception, taking up 27.3% of market share in the first half of the year, distributing bigger-budget films like “Iron Man 2” and “The Taoist Wizard.”

The overall number of local admissions dropped in the past year, but actual revenue rose because of the higher ticket cost for 3D films and local multiplex chains, which raised its ticket prices from 6,600 ($3.6) to 7,880 won last year.

Perhaps the most notable box office variable in the past year was the rise in 3D films from Hollywood, particularly “Avatar,” which completely shook the ranking of domestic market share and set the local box office record at 13 million admissions. The market share of Korean and foreign films were four to six in the first half of the year, among which 20th Century Fox Korea, which distributed “Avatar” and “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” came in second at 17.6%.

“I think there’s increasing hope in the industry in medium-budget films, and we’ve seen positive cases in films like ‘Speed Scandal’ from last year,” says Kim Kyung-man, a market analyst at the Korean Film Council. “If you look at top ten Korean films that were released this year, many audiences still have trust in those films.”

A number of Korean films including a humble thriller “Bestseller” targeted a niche market and did fairly well in local box office when Hollywood biggies like “Clash of the Titans” dominated the scene. And while “Avatar” and “Iron Man 2” virtually swept the local box office earlier this year, smaller budget Korean films like “The Servant” and “Harmony” by CJ Entertainment were steadily catching up in top 10.

Emerging Korean companies like N.E.W., which distributed films like “Lift King Kong,” agree that there’s desire in the industry to seek quality content over bigger name values.

“The moderate success of smaller budget films like ‘Quiz King’ and ‘Cyrano Agency’ during Chuseok box office gave hope,” says Kim Hyung-cheol at N.E.W., which has recently invested in a production fund of 30 billion won with Gyeonggi Film Commission. “Many still prefer ‘certified films’ but the demand for smaller and solid content is there.”

Overall many would agree that the Korean film industry is slowly picking up from the worst periods in 2006 and 2007.

“We really hit the bottom at the time, and are slowing coming out of the dark,” says Jun Yeon-ju, the marketing manager of Korean films at Showbox. “People are investing more aggressively and more films are being produced especially this year. By next year we should be in better hand.”