[ENTERTAINMENT]For classic movie theaters, it's curtains

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[ENTERTAINMENT]For classic movie theaters, it's curtains

Long before there were huge multiplex theaters like the Megabox Cineplex in southern Seoul or the MMC in the center of the city, there was Dansungsa, downtown's old but classy cinema with but a single screen (a small, second screen was added over a decade ago). Established in 1907 in the heart of Jongno 3-ga, the traditional base for cinephiles, the theater has shown numerous significant films as well as local plays throughout its history. During the Japanese occupation, "Arirang," directed by Na Woon-kyu and praised by contemporary critics as Korea's first nationalistic film in content and aesthetics, premiered at Dansungsa. Until the '80s, the commercial success of movies depended largely on the theater's sales.

But that was then. Last January the theater announced that it would close in the summer to begin a two-year renovation that would transform the hallowed hall into a modern multiplex theater with 12 screens and 4,200 seats. It also plans a strictly English-language theater named "Cinecity Dansungsa." Long-time moviegoers realized then that the good old days of the single screen cinema were gone, at least in downtown Seoul.

When Dansungsa made its announcement, Daehan Theater, Seoul's second oldest cinema, was in the middle of a similar renovation. The theater reopened last Friday with plenty more screens, showing the top three blockbusters: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," "Whasango" and "Doosaboo Ilche." Another former single screen cinema, Picadilly Theater, is scheduled to reopen in June 2003 with 11 screens. A little arithmetic shows that by the end of 2003, there will be some 30 screens in Jongno 3-ga alone. Seoul Cinema is another theater there that offers seven screens.

The drastic change in the cinematic atmosphere is no surprise considering how successful multiplex theaters have been in Korea. The idea was first adopted here by the CGV Gangbyeon cinema in 1998. Since then, more and more theaters have either added screens or initiated a complete overhaul of their facilities, installing high-tech sound systems and luxurious seats. There are now only three single screen theaters left in the vicinity, down from dozens just a decade or so ago.

"The problem is the shoddy reputation of single screen theaters," said Yun Seong-ki, the marketing chief at the Scala Theater, a first-run, single screen cinema in Jongno. "Most of the single screen cinemas are old and their facilities need to be upgraded. That's why young moviegoers shun the single screens when they go downtown on weekends to catch movies."

Another reason the single screen theaters are failing is that they have not distinguished themselves; they play the same new blockbusters that the multiplex theaters run at the same time. As they say in Korea, that's like trying to break a rock with an egg.

"The selection of a film is vital," Mr. Yun said, explaining that it's important to differentiate from the multiplex theaters. He says that if a single screen theater chooses good films and devises successful marketing strategies, it can survive the onslaught of the multiplexes.

But it will probably be mighty lonely.

by Park Soo-mee

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