Screen to stage: cinemas reborn as live venuesOn his way to a new theater where Kim Myeong-jun, 33, was supposed to meet a date to see the Korean musical “La Ronde,” he realized the building was one he used to frequent when he was younger.
Back then, however, it was a movie theater, one of the oldest in the neighborhood. Now, it had become a new musical performance theater, according to the marquee on the familiar building.
What used to be the Kyemong Art Hall, a single-screen art house in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, is now the Woongjin Think Big Art Hall, staging Korean musicals every night.
“Performance theaters are scarce in number in southern Seoul compared to northern Seoul where most popular theater districts are located,” said Shin Ji-na, a staff member at PMC Production, the company that now runs the theater in place of Dongyoung ENG, which still owns the building. “So our theater is good news to residents here who want to see musicals near their homes.”
The Woongjin Think Big Art Hall is one of few old theaters lucky enough to find a way to survive in the era of glittering malls and new multiplex cinemas. With the sharp increase in multiplex chains, older single-screen cinemas similar to Kyemong are disappearing fast.
In less than a year, the number of cinema screens in the country shot up by 40 percent, now numbering 1,567, according to a study the Korean Film Council did in 2004, mainly due to the rate at which multiplex cinemas were appearing.
In Daejeon, 59 out of 62 screens, or 95 percent, are part of new multiplex cinema complexes, showing that the giants are taking over, the study showed.
Geumsan Jungang Theater in South Chungcheong province, which opened in 1959, closed for good this summer. The proprietors said the newer multiplex chains were impediments to smaller cinemas continuing in business.
Yesan Jungang Theater, another small cinema nearby, stopped showing movies in the spring.
Against the backdrop of many small cinema bankruptcies or closings, some have managed to turn their businesses around through remodeling and turning them into live performance theaters.
Cine Core, a once-popular cinema in Jongno, closed officially in 1997. The building was used for office space and occasionally to screen independent films by a small distribution firm.
It reopened this year, however, after its new owner remodeled it to become a live performance theater. Just last month, the owner announced the building would become home to the martial arts show “Jump.”
The place has never been so busy, according to the new users of the theater.
“Ninety percent of the seats are occupied at every performance,” said Kim Hui-gyeong, a promoter from Yegam, the producer of “Jump.”
The theater was the most popular in the city in terms of weekend reservations, she said. “We expect the audience will grow to 142,000 this year from 108,000 last year, because we opened the theater in central Seoul.”
In Gangnam, the Kinema Theater has been renamed the Woorim Cheongdam Theater. Instead of showing films, the theater is now better-known for being home to “Nanta,” a world-acclaimed stage show featuring a mixture of traditional Korean percussion, vigorous dance, physical humor and high comedy.
Such rebirths of old cinemas also bring benefits to theatrical groups. Before this trend, there were few performance venues and rental fees were too high for many groups to be able to afford to perform regularly.
“Renting the stage of a theater in Daehangno for one night easily costs more than 800,000 won ($830) these days,” said Kim Sung-ryang, a communication team member of Arts Council Korea. “This means that buying a used theater and remodeling it for use as a permanent home can become more profitable for theater groups in the long run.”
Kim In-su, an employee of the engineering arm of the Kyemong Culture Center, which remodeled the former Kyemong Arts Hall, said turning it into a live performance venue was not difficult.
“We already had the ticket booth, the seats, and the sound system,” he said. “We just removed the film projector and made the stage bigger.”
“That’s much easier than building a new theater from scratch,” he added.
And, in an ironic twist, some theater groups unable to “take over” old cinemas have found multiplexes coming to their rescue.
The CGV chain noticed that audiences seemed to enjoy being able to watch live performances in a movie theater, so it opened two of its cinema stages, in Sangam and Apgujeong, to theater groups during the summer.
So far they have hosted the monodrama “The Impertinent Widow;” magic show “Choi Hyun-woo and his Magic Friends;” and an a capella musical, “Geoul Princess and the Pyeonggang Story.”
“Movie theaters are likely to be located closer to residential areas and that means people have easier access [than going to performance theater districts],” said Kim Young-min, a promoter at the CGV chain.
“We believe we are providing more cultural benefits,” he added.
by Lee Min-a