It was not long ago that Korean filmmakers appeared to be winning the game. A steady stream of well-made films and blockbusters crushed Hollywood flicks at the box office, signaling a new renaissance period for the local film industry.
The solid growth, however, has slowed down significantly in recent months amid a slew of worrying signs. The combined market share of Korean films is plunging. The number of new film projects is also dwindling. Investors remain wary about the commercial viability of Korean films. Worse, several Hollywood blockbusters are poised to dominate the Korean box office in the run-up to the crucial summer season.
Leading the Hollywood lineup is "Spider-Man 3", which was released on Tuesday. This blockbuster secured a whopping 617 theaters across the nation, selling 502,000 tickets on its release day alone.
Given that Korea's biggest hit film "The Host"
got released in 620 theaters last year, "Spider-Man 3" is expected to pull off a solid box office performance, threatening other small-budget Korean films like "Adeul" ("My Son
") and "Long Day's Journey into Night
". Even if Korean filmmakers manage to survive the attack from Spider-Man, the battle is far from over. A powerful ogre ("Shrek the Third") and pirates ("Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") are set to join the Hollywood lineup in coming months, casting a dark cloud over mostly small-budget local films.
According to Max Movie, an online film ticket website, "Spider-Man 3" dominated ticket reservations this week, pulling off a 62.7 percent share, followed by "My Son
", a Korean drama that only secured a 19.4 percent in ticket reservations.
This lackluster box-office performance of Korean films came after Korean filmmakers failed to bolster their share in competition with foreign movies. In March, the share of Korean films nosedived to 21.6 percent in the metropolitan Seoul area, down from 45.8 percent a month earlier, according to multiplex operator CJ CGV. The figure marked the worst performance since December 2004 when Korean films combined carved out only 16.9 percent.
Quarterly figures are also negative. In the January-to-March period this year, Korean films achieved a 48 percent share, down from 72.5 percent in the year-earlier period. American movies, meanwhile, increased their share to 70.5 percent, staging a sharp recovery in the domestic market. This is a dramatic turnaround for Hollywood, given that American films struggled to maintain even a 30 percent share last year.
Korean Film Council, a state-funded film promotion agency, said in its latest report that Korean filmmakers introduced 32 movies in the first quarter of this year, up just one from the year-earlier period. The number of moviegoers who chose to watch Korean films declined 41.9 percent. In contrast, 45 foreign films led by Hollywood were released in Korea during the same period, marking a sharp increase from 21 films a year earlier.
In a recent survey by SBS radio, the recent decline of Korean movies at the box office is largely due to the deteriorating quality. About 44 percent of respondents in the survey said the quality problem dragged down the share of Korean films, while 23 percent blamed the slump on the reduced screen quota.
Experts said the dearth of big hits like "The Host"
is affecting the overall performance of home-grown films. The odds for a rebound are also low because of sharply reduced film productions this year. Korea produced 108 movies last year, largely boosted by the Korean Wave-led boom. But due to the downturn in the film industry partly sparked by the oversupply, the number of films made this year is expected to be down about 30 percent from last year.
Filmmakers, critics and government officials are now debating whether the slump will last longer than expected or a recovery is in the offing. Except for "200-Pound Beauty", there was no major hit Korean film this year, while a growing number of Hollywood movies sell more tickets than expected, regaining their combined market share they lost to Korean rivals in the past years.
By Yang Sung-jin