In bid for screens, blockbusters are bending the rules

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In bid for screens, blockbusters are bending the rules

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Hollywood film “Now You See Me 2,” left, and Korean zombie blockbuster “Train to Busan” came under fire for selling tickets through previews before their official releases. Small films say such previews deprive them of screens and the chance at success. [LOTTE ENTERTAINENT, NEW]

Distributors of soon-to-be-released blockbusters are bending the rules to top the local box office before they officially come out.

The move involves selling tickets to preview screenings, which have traditionally been given out free of charge to people like film critics for promotional purposes.

Since box office ranking is determined solely by ticket sales, the films can officially open already at the top - meaning they’ll get more screens at local theaters.

The success of a film hinges largely on the number of screens it’s allocated. Most mega-hits that have sold more than 10 million tickets here were given over 1,000 screens.

While not technically illegal, the move has drawn the ire of the distributors of small, local films, who say their chances of success are being squashed by movies that already have an audience.

This was the case recently with Hollywood heist film “Now You See Me 2” and Korean zombie flick “Train to Busan,” both of which were already top-ranked days before their official release. The former was officially released on July 13, but distributor Lotte Entertainment organized previews on July 9 and 10 across 412 screens nationwide. More screenings were held the day before its release.

The film saw 300,000 tickets sold during the previews, climbing to fourth at the local box office the weekend before its release.

Similarly, “Train to Busan,” which opened on Wednesday, was screened by distributor NEW in Seoul and Busan between July 15-17. The film played on around 400 screens.

This has been bad news for small local films like “Trick,” “Familyhood” and “Seondal: The Man who Sells the River,” which have all been losing screens - and the chance to become a hit.

“Trick,” for example, was released on July 13 with 390 screens, according to the Korean Film Council. That number fell to 373 on July 15 and 331 on July 17 - the days “Train to Busan” held previews.

“[These distribution companies] break the rules set up by the market and attract audiences, depriving small, quality films the chance to succeed,” said a person working for a public relations agency that promotes local films. She asked to remain anonymous. Some affiliated with the blockbusters say not all involved are comfortable with the tactic.

“[‘Train to Busan’] received good reviews at Cannes Film Festival, it’s high quality. I think the film could make it big without controversial previews,” said a person close to the film who asked for anonymity, speaking to Korea JoongAng Daily affiliate Ilgan Sports. “The actors are feeling embarrassed.”

But the distributors have their own side of the story, saying the screenings play a critical role in gauging audience response and garnering attention.

“Many people wanted to watch the film in advance, so we held previews and tried to do no harm to other films,” said Hyun Seung-hee, a manager at the NEW public relations team. “Word-of-mouth marketing is also important to us.”

According to film critic Kang Yu-jeong, these kinds of previews bring chaos to Korea’s film market.

“These small films already fixed their release dates in order to avoid blockbuster films like ‘Train to Busan,’ but ‘Train to Busan’ is well aware that there are no strong players out in the market and decides to pre-release it,” she said.

“In addition, many audiences are more willing to pay for a blockbuster than a small film if they cost the same. There’s also the allure of watching an unreleased film before other people.”

Amid all the criticism, upcoming Korean war flick “Operation Chromite” announced that it wouldn’t hold previews, and its public relations team said the decision reflected the “honest” nature of the film itself.

Still, the moves haven’t seemed to affect the other movies’ momentum. “Now You See Me 2” and “Train to Busan” have continued on to top the Korean Film Council’s pre-sale list, which tracks how many tickets for a film are reserved in advance.

As of Thursday, “Train to Busan” was ranked first, while “Now You See Me 2” was second.

Ticket pre-sale lists can play a major role in people’s decisions about what to see in theaters, according to CGV Research Center, run by the country’s largest theater chain, CJ CGV.

BY SUNG SO-YOUNG [so@joongang.co.kr]

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