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A New Era of Small Films

Jun 05, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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Small Films, Big Possibilities

A change has recently been observed in the Korean film industry, an increase of films with USD 10 million budget. With works such as The Battleship Island (2017), REAL (2017), The Fortress (2017) and Psychokinesis flopping in the local box office despite all their efforts, investors and distributors have become more careful with their approach to blockbuster projects, while mid-scaled films that few would have bet on had strong runs at the box office, such as Confidential Assignment (2017), LUCK-KEY (2016), THE OUTLAWS (2017) and Midnight Runners (2017) which turned out to be hits. Another noticeable change is the ongoing streak of the success of small films. From DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet (2016) directed by LEE Joon-ik and released in 2016 to OUR PRESIDENT in 2017, and Little Forest and GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum in 2018, low-budget films produced with a net production cost of around USD1 million have been scoring strong numbers in theaters. Let’s take a look at the general trend of these small films that open various possibilities amid the Korean theater landscape centered on the so-called “big films” as well as their potential growth. 

Films Making Historical Criticism Proving their Potential for Success 

Anarchist from Colony, released June 2017, cost USD2.5 million to become a box office hit with a total of 2.35 million admissions and USD16.7 million profits. But in fact, it was a small film, DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet, that laid the groundwork for the success of Anarchist from Colony. DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet which follows the story of YOON Dongju, an oppressed poet during the Japanese Occupation, and SONG Mongkyu, his best friend, and freedom fighter, is a low-budget collaboration between director LEE Joon-ik from King And the Clown (2005), with its 10 million admissions, and film production company Luz Y Sonidos, run by SHIN Yeon-shick who also directed films such as The Russian Novel (2013) and The Avian Kind (2015). The success of DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet stemmed from a synergy between the commercial flair of LEE Joon-ik and SHIN Yeon-shick’s expertise in low-budget film production. This film made with a budget of USD 557 thousand raked in 1.169 million total admissions and earned a total of USD 8.1 million. Following the successes of other films set during the Japanese Occupation like Spirits' Homecoming (2016), Assassination (2015), The Handmaiden (2016) and The Age of Shadows (2016), DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet proved the box office potential of low-budget films that take a critical look at historical periods. 

Meanwhile, low-budget social documentaries targeting the politically tumultuous periods of Korean history have drawn a lot of enthusiasm from the audience. The documentaries Spy Nation (2016) and Criminal Conspiracy (2017), directed by CHOI Seung-ho, and OUR PRESIDENT, directed by LEE Chang-jae, are three examples that stand out. Dealing with the National Intelligence Service’s spy fabrication case, Spy Nation cost USD 278,000 to generate 140,000 ticket sales and earn a total of USD1 million, while Criminal Conspiracy which disclosed the true faces of journalists who colluded with the government was made on a budget of USD 139,000 and attracted 260,000 moviegoers, with profits of approximately USD1.85 million, when it was released in 2017. A documentary on the late Korean president ROH Moo-hyun, OUR PRESIDENT has generated the most surprising result when it was released in May 2017. This low-budget film which cost USD278 thousand raked in a whopping 1.85 million in attendance and USD13.48 million in total earnings. 

Diversification of Subjects and Genres 

Likewise, such small films were a breath of fresh air in a film industry ruled by thriller-action movies. And it seems like this is set to continue this year, but with a little change in trend. The first point to note is the current preeminence of stories about female protagonists tackling feminist issues in the local and the international film industry. Among the small films that performed well this year is Little Forest. This film was rated G and pitched itself as a ‘healing film’ amid the slate of murder and crime films, and featured KIM Tae-ri who also played in 1987: When the Day Comes (2017). In the film, a 20-something woman returns to her hometown to recharge her batteries and find a meaning to her life. Despite its rather monotonous storyline, the film was warmly received by the audience, attracting 1.5 million people and earning a total of USD 11 million (The film spent USD1.39 million in total production costs). JEON Go-woon’s Microhabitat is another title which may not have been a jaw-dropping success, but definitely, a small film to take note of, with production costs of USD325 million, that attracted both critical acclaim and the attention of the audience, generating 56,000 in attendance. By tackling the current dilemmas faced by young Koreans through Miso (played by E Som) who works as a housekeeper and chooses to stick to her personal tastes in spite of her poverty, Microhabitat became the highest grossing hit for film production company KwangHwaMoon Cinema, which had already attracted attention before with works like The King of Jokgu (2014) and The Queen of Crime (2016). Since the release of Little Forest, low-budget films like Stand by Me about people on the fringes of society and fake horror GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum have continued the streak of success for low-budget films. Distributed by Megabox Plus M, Stand by Me was made on a budget of USD465,000 and attracted 300,000 moviegoers (earning a total of USD2.1 million), while Showbox’s GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum (USD1 million in production costs) attracted 2.67 million moviegoers and earned a total of USD20 million, proving the box office potential for low-budget horror films. 

The Evolution of Investors, Distributors and Policy-Makers

With the success of these ‘small films’, there has been a surging demand from the Korean film industry for more policy and industry-related efforts. Likewise, the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) has also been focusing on expanding their support for small films under USD930,000 in production costs. Last April, the new KOFIC chairman OH Seok Geun announced the main changes in KOFIC’s 2018 operations, stating, “for this year we have added an additional USD911,000 to last year’s independent and art film production support budget while raising the revised maximum amount per selected project to USD372,000.” In addition, the organization is also considering a new support fund for mid/low-budget films ranging between USD930 thousand to USD2.79 million in production costs. In an interview with KOFIC-published ‘Korean Cinema’, Chairman OH explained, “These films costing between USD 930,000 and USD2.79 million and requiring 1-2 million moviegoers to break even are very important in that they prove the advantages of projects driven by specific concepts, with the personality of the creators standing out, and serve as the backbone of commercial films. Therefore, it is one of our tasks to help movies budgeted at USD930,000 – USD2.79 million secure production costs, as they are not eligible for public support and have trouble getting greenlighted by investment corporations, unlike medium-high budget films. A change in major investment and distribution companies can also be detected. Showbox which inspired a thriller trend with films such as The Chaser (2008) and Inside Men (2015) will showcase its latest small film since the release in 2018 of the horror film GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum, the directorial debut film by actor KIM Yun-seok’s underage (translated title) which cost USD1.86 million. NEW’s mid/low-budget films include MIN Kyu-dong’s Herstory and CHO Kyu-jang’s thriller Witness, Megabox Plus M who distributed mid-budget films such as THE OUTLAWS, Anarchist from Colony and The Bros (2017) are gearing up to release LEE Joon-ik’s Sunset in My Hometown (USD3.7 million), the KONG Hyo-jin-starring thriller Door Lock (USD3.35 million) and the NA Moon-hee-starring The Little Princess (translated title) (USD2.3 million).
Any copying, republication or redistribution of KOFIC's content is prohibited without prior consent of KOFIC.
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