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[YEAR-END REVIEW (1) MOVIE] Korea's film industry grapples with slump

2008/12/18 Source

Early this year, there was only doom-and-gloom in the Korean film industry.

Major production houses and distributors feared an economic slump would further dampen the market, undercutting the already reduced share of local films.

The negative predictions turned out to be largely on the mark.

As investment sentiment hit a new low, a host of small-budget films were released, with lackluster box-office performances. The protracted slump in the video and DVD markets pushed Hollywood distributors to withdraw branch offices in Korea.

The troubles at home also affected the performances of Korean filmmakers abroad. Fewer Korean films got honors at major international film festivals. For instance, no Korean film was invited to Venice International Film Festival for the first time in 10 years. Exports of Korean films are also feared to have slowed significantly this year.

The most depressing news for Korean filmmakers is that the share of local films slumped by more than 10 percentage points to 42 in the January-November period, according to CJ CGV, a major multiplex cinema operator.

The weakness in Korean films was widely expected. While Hollywood blockbusters continued to ramp up marketing in Asia and in Korean in particular, the majority of local production houses grappled with the dearth of investors. The global economic downturn aggravated the situation, pushing potential film investors to tighten their belts and turn cautious on new projects.

If the downward trend continues throughout December - as it most definitely will - the share of Korean films is expected to hit a new low.

Strangely enough, the number of Korean films released this year did not shrink much. Until November, 113 Korean films, including indies, greeted Korean moviegoers, down only 10 from the same period of last year.

But there were only seven Korean films that turned a profit. Given that Korea had eight blockbusters that sold more than 3 million tickets in 2005 - the height of the Korean Wave - 2008 is likely to be remembered as one of the gloomiest years.

According to the Korean Film Council, "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" sold 6.68 million tickets, emerging as the biggest Korean box-office hit this year, followed by "The Chaser" (5.1 million) and "Public Enemy Returns" (4.3 million).

"The Good, the Bad, the Weird", however, failed to make a profit. Its massive budget of 20 billion won turned out to be too costly for its box-office performance.

The real show-stealer was "The Chaser", a suspense thriller that became the year's surprise hit. The movie, which was critically acclaimed and also popular at the box office, went on to win seven awards at the Korean Film Awards 2008 early this month.

Director Na Hong-jin won awards for both Best Director and Best New Director, while actor Kim Yun-seok, one of the co-stars of the film along with Ha Jung-woo, won Best Actor at the Korean Film Awards 2008.

The success of "The Chaser", released in February, came as a pleasant surprise because it featured no high-profile actors. Despite the negative factors, "The Chaser" garnered almost unanimous praise from critics due to the movie's heart-pumping pace and air-tight storytelling.

Among foreign films, "Kung Fu Panda" was No. 1, selling 4.6 million tickets, followed by "Mama Mia!" (4.5 million) and "Iron Man" (4.3 million).

As the economic slump has deepened, Korean cinema operators are now arguing that it is time to increase ticket prices, which are currently around 10,000 won.

The government is now planning to help bolster the flagging movie industry by securing a fund worth 80 billion won. The Korean Film Council, a state agency in charge of promoting local films, held a series of forums to explore possible measures to prop up the industry, and recently unveiled a plan to invest 7 billion won in 10 indie films next year.

By Yang Sung-jin

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