The audience says ‘cut’ and filmmakers tremble
In the 1980s movie theaters in Seoul were swamped with Hollywood films. In the 90s the tables were turned and the Korean film industry dominated the local box office. With the success of “Shiri,” Korea’s first blockbuster action film, major Korean movies like “JSA” (Joint Security Area) and “Old Boy” won a large share of the domestic market.
However, a report released by the Korean Film Council in July showed that the first half of this year saw a sharp deterioration in the industry’s prospects. The Korean audience seems to be turning its back on locally made films.
Kim Seok-won used to be a big fan of Korean films. In 2004, after seeing “Taegukgi,” a tragedy featuring two brothers and their struggles struggling during the Korean War, Kim told all his friends and family that it was a film every Korean should be forced to see.
But now Kim watches more Hollywood films than Korean. He says he feels Korean film companies treat the audience like fools. “I used to watch films made by Koreans but even Hollywood blockbusters with a bad script are more entertaining,” Kim said. “I don’t see why I should pay for a movie that is nothing but cheap jokes, just because it was made in Korea.”
Kim is not alone. Han Jae-wook, an office worker and a movie buff, says he has recently been watching Hollywood films rather than Korean movies.
“It’s Hollywood blockbusters for sure,” said Han. “They’re more fun to watch.”
Han feels that Korean movies have improved in recent years but they still lag behind the Hollywood competition. “This is a fact that even the neighborhood dog knows.”
“I had high hopes for ‘May 18’ [the recently released movie about the Gwangju massacre] but it was a huge disappointment,” Han said. “I am now looking forward to ‘The Bourne Ultimatum.’”
Han said Korean movies are too corny, even though there are some good ones like “Radio Star” and “The War of the Flowers.”
Na Woon-taek, another film fan, said he enjoyed Korean movies like “Silmido” and Taegukgi but he sees them as exceptions. “The biggest problem Korean movies have is that they lack depth,” said Na. “I just don’t feel the movie.”
Some Korean films like “D-War,” which more than 7 million have seen since it was released on Aug. 1, have enjoyed extraordinary success.
The Korean Film Council’s box office rankings showed that the five leading movies in theaters as of Sunday Aug. 26 are all Korean films.
The top spot is occupied by May 18, closely followed by D-War, a fantasy movie about dragons. The recent resurgence of Korean films has been welcome news for the struggling industry.
According to the Korean Film Council report there were 178 films released between January and June 2007, which is eight films more than the same six months of 2006. However, the number of people going to theaters in Seoul has dropped 9.1 percent to 22.5 million compared to the same period last year. In the first half of 2006, the audience in Seoul rose by 18.9 percent and hit 24.7 million.
The drop in numbers in the first half of this year has been associated with a sharp drop of more than 30 percent in the audience for Korean films. As a result the market share of Korean films has fallen below 50 percent to 41.7 percent. This is the biggest fall in the last six years and all the more alarming considering that the market share of Korean films in the first half of 2006 was 55.6 percent.
Foreign films took 58.3 percent of the market in the first half of 2007 percent thanks to Hollywood blockbusters like “SpiderMan 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Transformer” and the last installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
By June, other than “200 Pound Beauty,” the top five movies based on the number of ticket sales, were all Hollywood blockbusters.
The study also revealed that exports of Korean films have sagged.
Korea’s film exports, which started to drop rapidly in 2006, made another steep dive in the first six months of this year when 148 films were exported to 45 countries with earnings of $7.4 million. Compared to last year, earnings were down by 66.6 percent. The first six months of 2006 saw a drop of 68 percent compared to 2005. This year’s export earnings are back at the 2002 level, before Korea’s film export revenues doubled in size.
The Asian market, which was the biggest for Korean films, has diminished. Last year Asia accounted for 70.5 percent of Korean film exports. This year the market share has dwindled to 54.8 percent. Sales to Europe did increase.
Although the figures look bad, Claudia Kim, the author of the report, says we should be cautious. The drop looks bigger, according to Kim, because the movies in late 2005 and early 2006 were exceptional.
“For example, ‘The King and the Clown’ had sales of more than 10 million tickets,” said Kim. “In the first half of this year there were no Korean movies that drew such large numbers.”
She said many of the big-budget Korean films were intentionally held back until the second half of 2007 to avoid competition with major Hollywood blockbusters.
“The beginning of this year was unusual because a series of Hollywood blockbuster sequels, such as SpiderMan and Pirates of the Caribbean, which were guaranteed a wide following, were released one after another,” Kim said. “Korean films had to avoid this traffic jam because Korean moviegoers tend to flock to a single successful movie.”
In the past many Korean moviegoers might watch a film simply because it was made by a Korean film company, Kim said. But today audiences have changed and want better entertainment. “Korean films need to rise to the market’s level with better quality and stronger stories.”
Yu Gi-na, a professor at Dongguk University and a well-known film critic, said the biggest contributor to the declining popularity of Korean films in the first half of 2007 was the lack of variety. “Korean filmmakers tend to create similar films after a single film in a genre has been a hit,” Yu said. “There are no innovative or creative movies.”
Yu said the lack of choice and dearth of creative films is caused by the investment structure practiced in Chungmuro, the center of Korea’s film industry.
“Films are chosen based on the profit investors can make,” she said. “The scripts are written to attract investors rather than focusing on the quality of the story.”
As a result filmmakers are reluctant to make innovative films and they shy away from high-risk, quality work. This investment approach is self-defeating because when the onscreen quality is poor the audience will turn away.
But Kim does not believe the next six months will be so bad. “Korean films are popular during the Chuseok (Korea’s thanksgiving) season,” Kim said. “Many families prefer going to Korean films rather than Hollywood movies during national holidays.”
She said that during this season many light Korean comedies will hit the screens. Also major Hollywood blockbusters will be far less common in the second half of this year. “There are only a few more Hollywood blockbusters, like The Bourne Ultimatum, left in the 2007 market.”
However Kim is worried about next year.
“A lot of Korean films absorbed investment funds between 2005 and 2006,” he said. “Considering that it takes an average of two years to complete a movie, most have already been released and only marginal investments have been made recently.”
She said between 2005 and 2006 there has been an oversupply of Korean movies and that the Korean film industry needs to establish a better climate for investment based on good quality films with solid scripts.
“The Korean film industry is too dependent on the success of couple of big-budget films like D-War and May 18,” Yu said. “For the success of such film there is a saying in Chungmuro that a film is a flop if less than 5 billion won was invested in it and a film becomes a success if more than 5 billion won is invested. This is not a sustainable trend.”
Yu and others believe that what the Korean film industry needs is a wider range of low-budget high-quality films with the capacity to make small profits. In other words Chungmuro has to get away from the blockbuster mentality.
Yu also blamed the Korean media for the hoopla. “The Korean media have a tendency to report on how many viewers a film attracted in real time,” said Yu. “Do filmgoers really need to know how many people have seen a film? The obsession with numbers makes it look as if the media is manipulated by the film industry’s promotional strategy.”
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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