Korea’s Dream Factory deserves help
The author is the president of the Korean Movie Theaters Association.
Movie theaters that struggled through the Covid-19 pandemic are on the rebound. Based on their third quarter performance, the industry seems to be reviving. CJ CGV, a listed company, announced that it recorded its first third quarter operating profit since Covid-19 began. Lotte Cinema and Megabox are also known to have made operating profits.
This was possible because “The Roundup” got rave reviews and became the first movie to sell 10 million tickets since Covid-19. Also, four Korean movies were released one week apart during the peak summer season and “Confidential Assignment 2: International” opened during the Chuseok holiday.
On the surface, theaters seem to have left the pandemic behind after social distancing measures were lifted in late April. But if you look below the surface, there are still challenges. Four Korean movies released in the summer season aiming to attract 10 million viewers following the success of “The Roundup” performed below expectations. Only “Hansan: Rising Dragon” and “Hunt” surpassed the break-even point while “Alienoid Part 1” and “Emergency Declaration” were disappointments.
The gloomy summer movie market affected movie releases over the Chuseok holiday. In the past, the holiday season was the market for two or three anticipated movies. But this year, only “Confidential Assignment 2: International” was released, and the overall box office didn’t meet expectations.
The performance in October and November — an off-season for theaters — was simply disastrous. According to data in “Korean Film Industry Summary for October 2022” released by the Korean Film Council, theaters are still in the cold. The number of people visiting theaters in the month of October decreased by 58.3 percent compared to October 2019. Not much has improved since the nearly 75 percent decrease in audiences in 2020 and 2021. In November, the greatly anticipated Hollywood flick “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” was released, but its performance was less than half of expectations.
The performances of greatly anticipated Korean films were even more pitiful. “Confession,” which was released at the end of October, received relatively favorable reviews, getting a 95 percent CGV Golden Egg Index from actual viewers, but only 730,000 people saw it in theaters. Before the pandemic, it could have gotten well over 2 to 3 million viewers considering the buzz, the actors and reviews. The Korean movies “Ditto” and “Decibel,” both released in November, also got fewer than expected viewers.
During the Covid-19 period, the theaters struggled to survive through various measures such as voluntary retirements of employees, cost-cutting, enhanced operational efficiency and paid-in capital increases. According to “Summary of 2021 Korean Filum Industry” data, total sales for the film industry in 2021 was 1.24 trillion won ($789 million), a 3-trillion-won decrease from the pre-pandemic period. Theater sales plunged to 584.5 billion won in 2021 from 1.9 trillion won in 2019, generating huge operating losses.
While the losses could have been reduced by stopping operations, overall shutdowns did not happen out of desperation to keep the film industry going. The film industry is a structure of investment, production, distribution and screening working as one. If theaters close and cease operation, all other areas — investments, production, distribution and marketing — have to stop too.
It is no exaggeration to say that theaters are the core of the film industry, just as railways are a key industry in the transportation business. As a suspension in railway operations leads to disruption of all production in the country, a suspension of theater operations would not only impact the overall film industry but also the cultural life of the nation.
The budget for next year is under discussion in the National Assembly. The government and the legislature must recognize the importance and difficult reality of the film industry and come up with minimum support to revive theaters. Support for the survival of the film industry could serve as priming water for the film industry. It is terrible to think that movie theaters might close and I may not be able to watch movies I long to see on a big screen in a theater. Now is the time for the government and the National Assembly to act.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.