South Korea Box Office Flatlines in 2016 After Years of Growth

Train to Busan - H 2016
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'Train to Busan'

Homegrown films dominated again as local productions by Hollywood studios made a splash and Disney ended the year as the highest-ranked U.S. distributor.

The South Korean box office reached about $1.44 billion (1.74 trillion Korean won) in 2016, up by just 1.2 percent in local currency terms and 2.1 percent in dollar terms, from the previous year's $1.41 billion (1.72 trillion won), according to the Korean Film Council's KOBIS database.

The flattish result came despite a number of domestic films that performed strongly.

While cinema admissions — by which local industry watchers measure box-office performance — crossed 200 million for the fourth straight year, overall revenue flatlined for the first time since 2008, when the box office declined by 0.04 percent in the local currency. In fact, the market growth rate halved for the second consecutive year.

Growth of 1.2 percent in Korean won was less than half of the 3 percent recorded in 2015, which was again half of the 6 percent gain that South Korea had enjoyed in 2014. The 2016 results continue a steady deceleration since an unprecedented boom in 2012, when revenue jumped 15 percent. Annual growth averaged about 6 percent-plus in 2011 and 2010.

As far as factors playing into the weaker growth, ticket sales fell sharply in November as massive, nationwide political protests were held on a weekly basis. Helping the box office was a record number of theatrical releases as 1,564 titles hit cinemas, up 23 percent from 1,203 in 2015. The Korean currency, which weakened considerably against the dollar last year, was also a factor that industry observers kept an eye on.

Domestic films continued to lead the market for the sixth consecutive year, with marked interest in political thrillers reflecting the sense of uncertainty in the country.

A total of 338 local titles opened in 2016 to dominate the market, finishing with a share of 53.7 percent, compared with 52 percent in 2015. There were six more U.S. films in cinemas during the year, but the 343 titles accounted for 42.6 percent of the market share with $611.7 million, compared with 43.5 percent and $615.3 million in 2015.

Korean zombie actioner Train to Busan became not only the biggest film of 2016 in the country, but also one of the highest-grossing movies of all time ($76.8 million).

The top distributors remained about the same from 2015, as CJ Entertainment held on to the top spot with a 16 percent share for its 22 releases, including Niam Leeson action film Operation Chromite, Park Chan-wook's Cannes competition piece The Handmaiden and DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 3. Showbox followed in the second spot with a 15 percent market share via a lineup of 10 titles, including crime drama A Violent Prosecutor and disaster thriller Tunnel. Walt Disney Korea came in third with a 14 percent share for its 10 releases.

Only two among the year’s top 10 films in South Korea hailed from Hollywood, namely Marvel/Disney's Captain America: Civil War at No. 3 and Doctor Strange at No. 9. Local productions by Hollywood studios, however, made a splash, with Warner Bros.’ The Age of Shadows ranking fourth and Fox’s The Wailing finishing seventh.

Among Hollywood releases, there were a considerable number of re-runs, many of which drew more revenue during their second time in theaters. Smaller films also made a splash, most notably as Korea leads the international market for La La Land ($17.2 million and counting).