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2018 Korean Film Industry Yearly Report

Dec 04, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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A Review of this year’s issues

Once again, Korean films have been thriving in 2018. Now is a good time to look back at the past year before wrapping up. Let’s talk about the meaningful changes that occurred within the Korean film industry this year. This year, Korean cinema saw the apparition of films targeting the global market in earnest, as well as the diversification of the market with the emergence of new actors in film financing and distribution. Also, while blockbusters floundered at the box office, movies based on strong concepts achieved meaningful successes. How will 2018’s changes affect the Korean films of 2019? Let’s sort out this year’s issues.

The emergence of film aimed at the global market

There was one title that was impossible to miss in the Korean film industry this year: Along with the Gods. Released on December 20, 2017, the first part Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds rallied 14.41 million spectators and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, released August 1, 2018, sold 12.27 million tickets, making them the second and tenth most-watched Korean films in history, respectively. The reason why the Along with the Gods series holds such an important place in 2018’s Korean cinema isn’t merely due to its local success. Rather, it is the fact that it has successfully followed in the footsteps of Korean films intended for the global market, a trend systematized first by TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016), that holds big significance. Released successively in 10 Asian countries and 15 South-American countries, among others, the Along with the Gods series achieved notable commercial successes particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, for a global profit of USD 107,470,000 for Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds and USD 96,760,000 for Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (according to IMDB). Furthermore, Dexter Studios, which co-produced Along with the Gods, developed a VR film named Along with the Gods VR – Hell Escape, based on their CG work on the movie and notably their creation of the Seven Hells. They announced that the movie will be made available successively in foreign markets, starting with Korea and Macao, thus signaling their growing interest in the global market. 

Released in October, Rampant is another film made with the global market in mind, this one capitalizing on the Halloween season. Combining zombies and a Joseon-Era background, KIM Sung-hoon’s Rampant hired the services of Korean Wave stars HYUN Bin and JANG Dong-gun and pushed ahead with simultaneous theatrical releases in 74 territories in America, Oceania, Europe and Asia. In Korea, the film racked up a somewhat lackluster 1.31 million admissions, but the film topped the box offices in the Philippines, where it was released on October 25, and in Vietnam, where it hit theaters on November 2. In total, it has so far garnered USD 12.11 million in global profit.

The successive launches of new film investment and distribution companies

Another important change in Korean cinema this year is the emergence of new financing and distribution companies. Merry Christmas, Ace Maker Movie Works, NAVER WEBTOON, Kakao Page, etc. have announced one after the other that they were moving into the film business. Particularly drawing a lot of attention were Merry Christmas, founded by former Showbox CEO YOU Jeong-hun with an investment from Chinese Hwayi Brothers, and Ace Maker Movie Works, financed by former Carver Korea President LEE Sang-rok and helmed by JUNG Hyun-joo, former Head of Investment and Production at Showbox. First, Merry Christmas is expected to unveil on January 9 the first project it backed up, The Man Inside Me (translated title), and is currently working on Quantum Physics (translated title) and ROMAN, a SF movie set in space with a KRW 24 billion budget. As for Ace Maker Movie Works, it is currently working on I Won’t Hurt You (translated title), starring KANG So-ra, and the directing debut of actor JUNG Jin-young, Close to You. On top of this, there is much expectation about MOONLIGHT Film, the production company of The Spy Gone North, KUNDO : Age of the Rampant (2014) and Nameless Gangster : Rules of the Time (2012) director YOON Jong-bin, and film studio SANAI Pictures, responsible for New World (2013) and Asura : The City of Madness (2016), as they received investment from chinaware manufacturer Haengnam. The company acquired 60% share of each studio, turning them into its subsidiaries, and will start its film financing and distribution business after a rebranding that should be adopted during the general meeting of stockholders next January. Also, biopharmaceutical company Celltrion Entertainment is investing in and distributing Uhm Bok-dong (working title) in the first half of next year, while Kiwi Media Group, which gave us the hit Don LEE (aka MA Dong-seok) vehicle THE OUTLAWS (2017), is doing likewise with four titles, The Gangster, the Cop and the Devil, Out of Body (translated title), Body Snatch and Hungry. Also, NAVER WEBTOON established Studio N, with former Director of Korean Film Business at CJ ENM KWON Mi-kyong appointed CEO, and is now preparing its line-up, while Kakao Page turned its webtoon Dokgo Rewind into a mobile film and released it on Oksusu, the video streaming service operated by SKT. 

High-concept movies jump into the fray

It’s safe to say that the Korean film box office this year has been dominated by low-budget high-concept movies. Most representative among them are JUNG Bum-shik’s mystery horror GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum, released last March, YIM Soon-rye’s feel-good drama Little Forest, released in February, and LEE Jae-kyoo’s Intimate Strangers, released in October. First, GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum is a low-budget mockumentary about seven urban explorers visiting the abandoned Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital, a real location. Produced with a budget of KRW 1.05 billion (USD 940,000), the film was a success in Korea, with 2.67 million total admissions, paving a new way for the stagnating Korean horror cinema. It is also a title that was terribly effective in CGV’s multi-screen format ScreenX, and has become the fifth most successful film in ScreenX, behind TRAIN TO BUSAN, The Himalayas (2015), Black Panther and Operation Chromite (2016). Considering that all the other films are blockbusters emphasizing spectacle, the decent success of GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum is all the more meaningful. This film demonstrated what synergies can be achieved when a high-concept film meets the right technology. 

Helmed by YIM Soon-rye and starring KIM Tae-ri, Little Forest also became a success with its low budget of KRW 1.5 billion (USD 1.35 million). A Korean adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name, the film is a feel-good movie following Hye-won (KIM Tae-ri), a young woman tired with city life, as she goes back to her home village and starts farming and cooking her own meals. With a strong support within the female audience and more than 1.5 million admissions, Little Forest elicited a demand from audiences for more films with woman-centered narratives and female protagonists. 

Produced with KRW 3.8 billion (USD 3.43 million), Intimate Strangers has now broken past the 5 million admissions threshold and ranks among the most successful Korean films of 2018. Distributed by Lotte Entertainment and produced by Film Monster with the help of Drama House, Intimate Strangers tells the fascinating chaos experienced by six characters – YUM Jung-ah, KIM Ji-soo, LEE Seo-jin, CHO Jin-woong, YOO Hae-jin, SONG Ha-yoon and YOON Kyung-ho – in a confined space over a limited time span. The PR company reported, “Despite the expectations that Intimate Strangers would have an older audience fitting the mid-forties average age of the main cast, it appears that demographics from 10 to 29 make up a large percentage of the spectators and also expressed high appreciation for the film.” The importance of concepts within the Korean film industry is expected to be stressed by these successes.
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