‘Avengers’ was just the beginning
In April 2014, crowds gathered around Mapo and Cheongdam Bridges, Gangnam Daero and Sangam DMC to watch the filming of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” It seemed that the first landing of a Hollywood blockbuster in Seoul went smoothly.
A year later, the second installment of the Avengers franchise returned with a bang. Before it opened, it broke the presale record at 97 percent. Now, it is expected to become the top-selling foreign movie in Korean history. The ticket sales were as speedy as Quicksilver, catching up with record holder Avatar from 2010.
What makes the movie so popular? First of all, the audience is already familiar with the franchise’s characters. More importantly, the movie features scenes set in Seoul. Who, among Korean viewers, wouldn’t flinch when Tony orders that Dr. Cho be contacted in Seoul?
But the second Avengers flick also started a controversy when the government subsidized some of the film’s cost, claiming that setting part of it in Seoul would boost tourism.
After watching the movie, however, more people probably looked up “Sokovia,” a fictional Eastern European country, than they searched for Seoul. There’s no better or more effective product placement for Seoul than a guest role in a blockbuster film, but some are disappointed by how the city was depicted. The city is shown unflatteringly, covered with signs and gray buildings.
New York in films is not always about the Statue of Liberty and or skyscrapers. Personally, New York reminds me of yellow cabs and eccentric drivers, the back allies of Brooklyn and an outdated subway system. Likewise, Seoul’s charms are in its narrow allies and flashy signs.
Some argued that the government should not have reimbursed the film company because it unflatteringly portrayed the city. Many countries offer the location incentive programs to invite foreign productions for economic gains. The reimbursement of production costs spent in the location has become a global standard. It is similar to the sales tax refund for foreigners. Incentive systems in other countries are based on the money spent in their countries regardless of the boost in tourism. For example, Bong Jun-ho’s “Snowpiercer” was partially filmed in Czech Republic and the production company have gotten about 3.5 billion won ($3.2 million) in incentives from the Czech government. But it’s not easy to notice that the movie was shot there. Animation “The Nut Job” is not set in Canada but got about 9 billion won in funding from Canada.
Why did the production team of the second Avengers follow “Transformers 4,” which was set in China and became the biggest box office hit in Chinese history? Why did they choose Korea, which does not have a grand landmark like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and is not even a top-five film market? Did they need the 3 billion won in incentive, which is less than 2 percent of its $250 million production cost? Director Joss Whedon said Korea exudes the image of a high-tech metropolis with advanced genetic engineering technology. The biggest benefit may be boost to Korea’s image.
A few years ago, foreigners attending the Busan International Film Festival were frightened when they heard the siren for the civil defense training. To the foreigners, the image of Korea was a country always on the verge of breaking down into war. That image has been the biggest obstacle for the tourism industry. To foreigners, the fact that a Hollywood film was shot in Korea is an assurance for safety. The improved image is worth 30 billion won and a few days of inconvenience.
The filming of Avengers in Korea is just the beginning. In April, 2014, aspiring models competing on America’s Next Top Model season 21 had photo shoots in landmarks like Gwanghwamun and Seoul City Hall. Netflix drama Sense8 also chose Korea as a location.
The second Avengers spent 13 billion won in a few weeks, hiring hundreds of Korean staff and boosting the overall economy. The tourism boost and enhanced image are fruits that need to ripen before we can pick them.
The government needs a long-term perspective rather than focusing on immediate outcomes. Sustainable supports and systems should be prepared. I hope to see Spider-Man flying through the buildings in Teheran-ro, Seoul, or the sequel to “Begin Again” set in the Hongdae neighborhood.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
*The author is the CEO of Hanmac Culture Corporation.
by Kim Hyung-jun