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Ko - production in Busan
  • History of Korean Films at US Box Office
  • by Pierce Conran /  Jun 16, 2016
  • Changing Landscape of Distributors and Demographics

    Korean cinema entered a new era of prosperity in the late 1990s and it didn’t take long for the rest of the world to take notice. While international film festivals got the jump on the industry’s renaissance, around the dawn of the new millennium distributors also got into the fray as Korean films began to crop up in arthouse theaters in major cities. France and other territories in central Europe were the keenest early adopters, but North America, a notoriously difficult market for foreign language fare, also afforded an opening to select Korean films.

    Going through the available records on foreign language releases at the North American box office, per Box Office Mojo, yields release dates for a total of 86 Korean films, though this figure does not include a number of titles whose returns were not reported by their distributors. Among the available date, eight Korean films generated receipts in excess of USD 1 million, while 45 releases raked in over USD 100,000.


    In the current climate, there are two distributors which overwhelmingly dominate, CJ Entertainment and Well Go USA, but until a few years ago a wide array of different distribution houses acquired Korean films for the American market, though few purchased more than one or two. Over the years, 24 North American distributors have released at least one Korean film. Another major change has been the audiences that are being targeted, which began as arthouse crowds but these days mostly comprise Korean expatriates living in North America.

    Early Days of Korean Film Distribution in America

    The first Korean film to be released in the States in the 2000s was IM Kwon-taek’s Cannes competition invited Chunhyang, which was put out by Lot 47 (their only Korean release) in 2000 and made a very respectable USD 798,977, a stellar number for an Asian release. IM’s film may have had an unexpected boost from the incredible success of Ang LEE’s period martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was released just three weeks earlier and went on to make USD 128 million.

    The next pair of releases, which came in 2002, were far more modest, the action blockbuster Swiri, which reinvigorated the Korean industry in 1999, and the youth indie drama Take Care Of My Cat. Released by IDP, Swiri made USD 98,452 while Kino could only muster USD 9,866 for Take Care of My Cat. Kino also put out IM’s next film Chihwaseon, another Cannes competition title, in 2003, but by then the brief fascination with Asian period fare had waned and the film took in a far smaller USD 64,029.


    The scale, not to mention success, of Korean film distribution stepped up in 2004, when five titles were released. These included Oasis, which Lifesize was able to squeeze USD 10,304 out of, the period drama Untold Scandal, another midlevel performer for Kino with USD 63,332, and horror title A Tale Of Two Sisters with USD 72,541, which was Tartan’s first Korean title in North America. On the other end of the spectrum, IDP scored a huge hit with Korean war film TaeGukGi: Brotherhood Of War, which mustered USD 1.11 million, while Sony Classics struck gold with KIM Ki-duk’s arthouse title Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter And Spring, which generated USD 2.38 million in receipts and remained the top Korean title in the market for almost ten years.


    Six more titles followed in 2005, though among these only KIM Ki-duk’s 3-Iron, once again put out by Sony Classics, and PARK Chan-wook’s Old Boy, grabbed by Tartan after its Grand Prize pickup at the Cannes Film Festival, were able to make notable inroads, with USD 241,914 and USD 707,481, respectively. Modern Korean classics like BONG Joon-ho’s Memories Of Murder and JANG Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet were unable to attract a theatrical audience. Tartan released PARK Chan-wook’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance the following year, to the tune of USD 211,667, while New Yorker attempted to introduce HONG Sang-soo to American audiences with Woman Is The Future Of Man.


    In line with a softening of the domestic film business from 2006 on, Korean titles entered a period of obscurity in the US, with the only major titles for the rest of the decade being BONG Joon-ho’s creature feature The Host, which earned USD 2.2 million for Magnolia in 2007 and PARK Chan-wook’s Thirst accumulating USD 318,574 for Focus Features in 2009.


    By this time, certain distributors had either given up on Korean films or gone out of business, such as Tartan. Magnolia, one of the larger indie distributors in the market, experienced further modest success with BONG Joon-ho’s Mother in 2010 (USD 551,509) and KIM Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil in 2011 (USD 129,210).

    Targeting K-Film to New Audiences

    The distribution map for Korean films took a turn when CJ CGV, the vertically integrated giant of Korean cinema, opened up a CGV Cinemas branch in Los Angeles’ Korean town. They self-distributed some of their own films, though grosses for most of the early titles were not reported, but soon CJ struck deals with other cinema chains across America, including industry leader AMC Theaters, to release Korean films, particularly in locations with high concentrations of Korean expats. Instead of going for the arthouse film crowd, Korean films were now being directly marketed to Koreans living in the States.

    Hitman thriller The Man From Nowhere (2010) was an early success (USD 528,175), but it took a few years for CJ to get the hang of the system. Period drama Masquerade set a new benchmark with USD 922,921 in 2012 yet 2014 proved to be the breakout year for CJ Entertainment America, as Roaring Currents stormed the limited charts with USD 2.59 million, and was followed by Ode to My Father with its equally impressive USD 2.3 million.


    Action-thrillers dominated in 2015, when CJ counted up USD 1.2 million for RYOO Seung-wan’s Veteran and Well Go USA, a specialist in Asian film distribution, scored a company-best USD 1.9 million with CHOI Dong-hoon’s Assassination.


    As of early June in 2016, CJ has reported figures for 34 Korean titles in North America, which include their own titles, as well as select blockbusters from Korean rivals Showbox and Next Entertainment World (N.E.W.). Meanwhile, Well Go USA has so far distributed 14 films, including their current critically-acclaimed smash THE WAILING. The horror-thriller came out in America just two weeks after its bow at the Cannes Film Festival and has already earned USD 541,689 with dozens more markets yet to open. What makes THE WAILING so special is that it is the first Korean film in years to draw a significant amount of non-Korean viewers to cinemas, as it turns into an across the board word of mouth hit, albeit still on a limited scale.

    New Horizons for Korean Films and Filmmakers

    Yet these are not the only ways that Korean cinema is gaining access to the North American market. 2013 was notable as three of the country’s biggest directors embarked on English-language debuts. KIM Jee-woon directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand (USD 12.05 milllion) and PARK Chan-wook teamed up with Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska for Stoker (USD 1.71 million). BONG Joon-ho scored a massive hit in Korea with Snowpiercer, an English-language sci-fi that was financed by CJ. The film was picked up by The Weinstein Company, but controversies surrounding the final cut led to a smaller-than-expected release. TWC-Radius eventually put it out in the summer of 2014, and grossed USD 4.56 million. However, an experimental early VOD release reportedly bumped its earning over USD 10 million.

    While a select few Korean films are made available in theaters, an increasing number can now be found across online platforms. Drama Fever hosts a sizeable collection of commercial titles and even Amazon Studios is getting in on the game, having recently purchased PARK Chan-wook’s latest film The Handmaiden, even before it was selected for Cannes’ competition lineup. Online market leader Netflix has also been providing a respectable Korean film collection for several years. The online giant is also the sole investor on the currently shooting Okja, a new Korean and English language blockbuster from BONG Joon-ho.

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