South Korea's Polarizing Film Market: Can Mid-Budget Genre Movies Survive?

Korea Indie Film H 2016
Rafael Alvarez

Korea Indie Film H 2016

With mid-budget releases becoming virtually nonexistent in the country's increasingly corporate film sector, independent-minded talents are taking matters into their own hands.

The South Korean film industry had another banner year in 2015, with the local box office reaching record heights and international sales.

Revenue hit 1.72 trillion won ($1.42 billion) last year, up 3.1 percent from 2014 and setting a record for the sixth consecutive year, according to the Korean Film Council. The number of exported domestic films, meanwhile, shot up to 650 titles — the most ever. Last year’s three biggest movies — local titles Veteran ($88.7 million) and Assassination ($83.1 million), followed by Avengers: Age of Ultron ($74.7 million) — now rank among the top 15 films of all time at the Korean box office.

But industry figures say the large numbers belie a more complicated picture of internal strife. Much like in Hollywood, the headline-making box-office records have come at the cost of intense polarization within the Korean theatrical market, with huge-budget blockbusters dominating screen counts and leaving increasingly low-budget indies to pick up the scraps.

The result: Mid-budget dramas and genre pictures have virtually vacated the field. "On a given weekend, the top three box-office hits take up about three-quarters of the screens across Korea. This doesn’t give audiences much of a choice," says film critic Jeong Ji-ouk.

The situation is compounded by the fact that top investor-distributors such as CJ Entertainment and Lotte Entertainment also own the country’s largest exhibitors. "[Veteran and Assassination] were very well-made films in and of themselves, but we also need to take this unfair market structure into consideration," adds Jeong.

Though more films are being made and released than ever before, fewer new titles are actually reaching viewers. In 2015, a record 1,208 movies were released in South Korea, of which 538, or 41 percent, were shown on just one screen (Age of Ultron, by comparison, opened on 1,843 Korean screens). And half of these single-screen releases played in the cinema just once before hitting VOD channels. The number of such "single-screen" films has been on the rise in recent years: 91 titles in 2011, 172 in 2012, 246 in 2012 and 359 last year.

So, even though a record number of films were released in 2015, only 47 titles — or 1.37 percent — managed to secure 500 or more screens, and those accounted for 81 percent of the annual admissions. "Five to 10 films open every week, which is too many considering the size of the domestic market. If films don’t have a big debut, they get pulled immediately, and then cinemas will allot more screens to the bigger blockbusters,” says a staff member at a major multiplex who asked not to be named.

As polarization within the industry deepens — between both big-budget and indie filmmaking as well as younger and older audiences — insiders say Korea’s oligarchic entertainment conglomerates are only becoming more conservative about the projects they greenlight. And much like in Hollywood, it’s the stars who are stepping up and throwing their weight behind inspiring, indie-spirited projects.

After Lee Jung-hyun appeared in Roaring Currents, the 2014 maritime epic that is South Korea’s highest-grossing film of all time, the singer/actress was expected to follow that up with another high-profile, mainstream production. Instead, Lee surprised the industry by choosing to star in Gooc-jin Ahn’s dark indie comedy Alice in Earnestland.

"My agency wanted me to choose a bigger project, but female characters [in mainstream movies] are extremely limited. I felt very frustrated while choosing pieces after Roaring Currents, but Alice caught my eye for its novel subject matter, and more importantly, because I wanted a meaningful, female-driven story,” says the 36-year-old actress. Lee went on to be named best actress at the 2015 Blue Dragon Film Awards, one of Korea’s most prestigious film events.

Similarly, actor Kang Ha-neul also eschewed financial gain to star in Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, a biopic about a famous Korean poet and independence fighter. Lee Joon-ik, the star director of such pricey blockbusters as Korea’s 2016 Oscar submission The Throne, turned to a more independent style of filmmaking for Dongju.

"I did not want to commercially exploit the life story of Yun Dongju," says the filmmaker. In order to retain full visual control of the feature, Lee refused using product placement or other advertising incentives while operating on a micro budget of about $413,000.

Cho Jae-hyun (Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius), one of Korea’s most well-established actors, also insists on appearing in indie films even though he has become a household name thanks to his appearances in smash-hit TV soaps and big-budget action movies. A Korean in Paris, a quirky indie that premiered last fall at the Busan Film Festival, marks the 50-year-old’s second collaboration with Venice-winning auteur Jeon Soo-il, following El Condor Pasa (2013).

"I take part in smaller projects because my participation helps budget issues,” says Cho. “Independent movies must be made, because their unique vision and diverse subject matter can inspire and provoke mainstream cinema. But sadly, indie filmmaking is dying out."

Nevertheless, the actor, who also debuted as an indie filmmaker in 2015 with A Break Alone, says he would continue to direct and act in art films. Cho’s frequent collaborator, art house auteur Kim Ki-duk, on the other hand, announced that he would no longer show his films in Korea outside of film festivals. He is now working on his Chinese film debut, Who Is God (working title), after having released the Japanese-language project Stop last year. "I feel uneasy whenever small films hit screens because it is so tough for them to reach audiences," says Cho. "It’s true that not all small films have mainstream appeal. They’re sought out by audiences with a particular taste. But it is a problem that such viewers don’t even get the chance to seek them out."

Insiders point out, however, that such a polarization is not limited to the indie-versus-mainstream discourse. "Commercial films are also suffering. There is an obsession with blockbusters that hit 10 million admissions, and mid-budget commercial films are being neglected," adds Cho. Market analysts share this view, and a 2015 report compiled by the Korean Film Council states that "genre films have virtually disappeared."

Jung Woo Sung, one of Korea’s most popular actors, debuted as a producer for the upcoming unconventional mystery romance Remember You because established producers seemed unwilling to try something different. The 42-year-old actor attempted to introduce rookie writer-director Lee Yoon-jung to studios, but "older producers kept trying to alter the script," he said, adding, "I decided to step in because they would have compromised what made the story so unique."

Much like Robert Simonds’ STX Entertainment stateside, Jung believes mid-budget features offer both creative value and a market opportunity. "Not everyone can make big movies on a big budget," he says. "It’s more important to have a diverse range of mid-budget films that will present lower risks and help build a stronger market."

Jung also plays the lead role in the mystery romance, which cost less than $4 million, a medium-sized project with a break-even point of roughly 3 million admissions.

Bong Joon Ho’s $40 million Snowpiercer remains the priciest Korean production of all time. Films made for more than $10 million must target at least 10 million admissions, or roughly a fifth of South Korea’s population of 50 million.

"Mid-budget films make up the core of the industry, and things look a bit shaky even though there is growing number of blockbusters,” says Lee Seung-won, head of the CGV Research Center. In the mid-2000s, quirky sleeper hits such as 2008's Scandal Makers ($41.7 million grossed in Korea) were credited with pulling the country's film industry out of a recession that set in after studios invested heavily in big-budget, star-studded films that did not live up to expectations.

But can that happen again? Director-producer JK Youn has vowed to make a more diverse range of mid-budget films via his company JK Films. Though he is best known for such mega-hits as Haeundae and Ode to My Father, each of which crossed 10 million admissions, his extensive filmography also includes smaller comedies and crime dramas.

Says Youn: "The Korean film market is severely polarized, and I hope I can help the situation by presenting more colorful films on a reasonable budget. If we succeed, then I am sure this will inspire more filmmakers to do the same."