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Ko - production in Busan
  • Korean Film Industry Faces Unique Challenges Amid Covid-19 Crisis
  • by Pierce Conran /  Apr 14, 2020
  • Theaters Empty, Releases Stalled, Foreign Shoots Postponed

    Despite being one of the first hotspots of the Covid-19 pandemic outside of China, South Korea has managed to keep down infections and deaths related to the disease through a combination of aggressive testing and case tracking. This has allowed many sectors of the nation to remain active, unlike many other countries in the world which have had to resort to large-scale lockdowns, which are putting massive strains on their economies and causing turmoil in global financial markets (including Korea’s KOSPI and KOSDAQ). However, while Korea’s cinemas are largely still open and productions are mostly ongoing in Korea, the local film industry has also been severely hit by the crisis, which has led to empty multiplexes, postponed releases and indefinitely delayed international shoots, not to mention a very public legal spat that arose after a film tried to alter its release plans.

    Record low admissions and gutted spring release calendar

    During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the virus ravaged China (where all theaters had closed around the Chinese New Year holiday) and a few isolated cases were imported into Korea, the first casualty at the box office was the local thriller BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS, which had just picked up a Special Jury Award from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it had held its world premiere. The film, starring JEON Do-yeon and JUNG Woo-sung, was originally set to open alongside political comedy HONEST CANDIDATE on February 12 but instead postponed its release day by a week owing to concerns over the spread of Covid-19, which proved to be an unfortunately timed decision. HONEST CANDIDATE opened unopposed to strong numbers on the 12th, shortly before Korea suddenly entered its most trying phase of the pandemic. On February 18, a day before BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS rescheduled release, Patient 31, the so-called ‘superspreader’, was diagnosed in the city of Daegu and infections quickly spiked. Weekdays audiences began to shun theaters and admissions plummeted, leaving the just 224,000 sales over the weekend, even though it ranked first on the charts.

    It was around this time that major releases began to postpone their releases en masse. The Invisible Man was the unlikely victor on the charts the next week, with just 109,000 sales in pole position, when the youth sci-fi thriller Time to Hunt, fresh from a gala screening at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as the black and white version of BONG Joon-ho’s PARASITE (2019), moved off their original February 26 release dates. In the absence of major new releases, as Hollywood titles such as A Quiet Place Part II and Mulan and local titles such as Call, Confession (translated title) and ZHANG Lu’s Fukuoka (2019) also postponed their March releases plans, The Invisible Man held on to the top spot for four weeks 

    Hollywood’s April (No Time to Die), May (F9, Black Widow) and June (Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick) releases were the next dominos to fall as the spring and summer release calendars began to empty out. In the absence of major new fare and with viewers reticent to visit theaters during the health crisis, admissions continued to wind down with new record lows being posted each week. By April 6, daily tickets sales were down to around 15,000, the first time that figures had ever dipped below 20,000, since the inception of the box officer tracker KOBIS (Korean Box Office Information System) in 2004.

    While many arthouse theaters closed completely and CJ CGV temporarily shut 30% of its locations, most multiplexes have kept their doors open during the crisis. With no major new titles to show they’ve gotten creative with their programming, and rereleases have featured prominently in their schedules. Past favorites such as A Star Is Born, La La Land, John Wick, Green Book, Taken, Memento, Schindler’s List and many more have kept business alive to some degree as the new releases from earlier this year have been winding down their theatrical cycles.

    Time to Hunt still on the prowl for release date

    Faced with suddenly scraping its theatrical plan despite having already heavily invested in its marketing, one production company attempted to salvage the release of their film with a risky pivot. Little Big Pictures, the local distributor and main investor behind the aforementioned Time to Hunt, announced on March 22 that the film would be released instead on global streamer Netflix, who would launch the title globally in 190 territories on April 10. The news was instantly greeted with anger by Contents Panda, a part investor and the international sales agent of the project, which had already signed distribution contracts with companies in 30 countries across the globe and was in the process of finalizing an additional 70 deals. Although Little Big Pictures defended its move, arguing the pandemic amounted to a force majeure that allowed them to terminate their contract, Contents Panda took legal action and the Seoul Central District Court accepted their request for an injunction on April 8, barring the film from screening anywhere outside of Korea. A day later, Netflix announced their decision to postpone the film’s release in all territories indefinitely, awaiting a resolution of the legal maelstrom. 

    Productions delayed temporarily at home, indefinitely overseas

    Regarding domestic productions, several projects have either experienced delays, some short - CHOI Dong-hoon’s Alien (translated title) began its shoot in late March instead of early March - others longer - the start date of HAN Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration (translated title) with SONG Kang-ho and LEE Byung-hun was delayed from March to May. More significant has been the effect on Korean films with international shoots due to travel restrictions. YIM Soon-rye’s Negotiation (translated title) with HYUN Bin and HWANG Jung-min was originally set to being shooting in late March in Jordan but had to be postponed. The production hopes to be back on site in late April but the situation remains fluid. Likewise, KIM Seong-hun’s Pirab (Korean title) with HA Jung-woo and JU Ji-hoon was expected to begin production in Morocco in March but investor Showbox confirmed that the start date has been delayed. Meanwhile KIM Sung-je’s Bogota with SONG Joong-ki had been on location shooting in Colombia since January but was forced to pause production.

    Light at the end of the tunnel

    As of this writing, when daily new infections have hovering around 30 for several days and the governments social distancing guidelines are scheduled to be lifted on April 20, there is hope that some of the most severely affected local industries could start to recover in the coming weeks. Though major distributors, which have largely been quiet over the past two months, have yet to date any of their major titles before late summer, CJ Entertainment has cautiously scheduled a scaled down release of the black and white version of PARASITE (2019) on April 29, ahead of a planned VOD release in May. If the downtrend can be maintained in the coming weeks perhaps the spring release calendar can start to fill up again before the whole season becomes a casualty to global pandemic.
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