Local Distributors Weigh the Risks during Unprecedented Pandemic
Since late February, when the first major cluster of Covid-19 infections gripped the country, theaters in South Korea have experienced a massive downturn in business, although they have mostly managed to remain open, unlike many other countries around the world. Beyond a desire to maintain social distancing, one other major factor preventing audiences from returning to cinemas has been a lack of major new content, as the marquees have been dominated by smaller works from around the globe that wouldn’t normally find themselves near the top of the charts, as well as a range of rereleases.
That at least is set to change on June 4, when the market welcomes the mystery-thriller Intruder, the first major commercial title to go on release since the star-driven thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws bowed on February 22. The directorial debut of SOHN Won-pyung, the film stars GIM Mu-yeol (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, 2019) as a successful architect whose long-lost sister, played by SONG Ji-hyo of Unstoppable (2018), returns over two decades after disappearing. The architect soon begins to feel that something isn’t quite right about this woman.
Entrenched in one of the country’s most reliable subgenres, the missing-child-who-returns mystery, Intruder, along with its attractive leading cast, has all the makings of a solid mid-level performer. However, distributor Acemaker Movieworks has taken on the rather large responsibility of being the film that attempts to reopen the market to the larger public amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Intruder was initially scheduled to open at some point in March but by late February the whole industry’s release schedule had been upended, pushing it back indefinitely. As infections dropped to single-digits, it eventually staked its claim on a May 22 release date, aiming to be the first major release to launch in three months. A new spike of club-related clusters in Central Seoul forced Acemaker to delay that plan by two weeks and as of this writing the film is still set to open in early June.
It’s a similar case for Innocence (translated title), a new trial thriller about a woman looking to clear her mother’s name, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, in a case of poisoning. Kidari Entertainment and Sony Pictures Korea had also planned to release this debut film by PARK Sang-hyun, with SHIN Hye-sun (A Day, 2017), in March, and also had to push back to May and then June 11.
Both films had production costs in the region of KRW 6 billion (around USD 4.8 million) and would have needed around 1.5 million viewers initially to break even at the box office, but these repeated delays have pushed up their marketing costs and consequently their break-even points.
There will be some relief from recently announced Covid-19 related government support programs, which include a KRW 9 billion (USD 7.2 million) allocation to help exhibitors woo viewers back with cheap cinema tickets, as well as KRW 4.2 billion (USD 3.4 million) grant to support films that were forced to delay during the pandemic.
The question of course will be whether audiences are truly ready to return to cinemas in anything resembling significant numbers by June 4. After hitting all-time lows of 15,000 daily admissions, business rebounded somewhat in April, with single day figures reaching 100,000 during the Golden Week holiday. Business dipped again following news of the new clusters and the last three weekends have hovered around 180,000 over their respective Friday-to-Sunday periods.
Beyond Intruder and Innocence, some other major titles that didn’t get their releases postponed have tentatively joined the June release calendar. First among those is the mystery film ME AND ME, the directorial debut of veteran actor JUNG Jin-young, star of King and the Clown (2005), among many others. The film features CHO Jin-woong of Believer (2018) as a detective who investigates a strange case in the countryside involving a teacher who has to lock up his wife each night due to a strange condition. The film is scheduled for June 18.
Also coming in June, but without firm release dates as yet are the period musical drama Sorrikun and the horror-drama #ALIVE. Sorrikun is a Joseon Era pansori tale from Spirits’ Homecoming (2016) director CHO Jung-rae, while #ALIVE is the story of a man (YOO Ah-in -BURNING, 2018) and a woman (PARK Shin-hye - Heart Blackened, 2017), who live in the same apartment complex during a zombie outbreak.
Beyond the June release schedule, which could quickly be altered if the number of cases were to rise again, the July-August period, typically the busiest cinema-going period of the year, is looking far more nebulous. A number of big-budget titles have hinted at high summer releases but none have announced fixed dates at present. Films such as TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) sequel Peninsula, RYOO Seung-wan action-thriller Mogadishu (literal title), Korea’s first space drama Space Sweepers and the musical Hero are all films rumored to be eyeing summer releases, but that may not happen if next month’s batch of films fail to attract respectable audiences.
However, even if June box office grosses remain depressed, the case can also be made that a massive tentpole might be just what’s needed to motivate viewers to brave the multiplexes once again. In Hollywood, Warner Bros seems to banking on that happening with their Christopher NOLAN film Tenet, which is still scheduled for July 17, though many believe that will be too early for cinemas to be back in business in parts of the Western world.
Peninsula takes place four years after the events of TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016), as the whole country has been engulfed by a zombie outbreak and has slipped into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. YEON Sang-ho is back in the director’s chair and GANG Dong-won and LEE Jung-hyun lead an all-new cast. The film has already been sold to several other markets and if its local release were to be delayed it’s unclear what would happen with its confirmed summer release plans in other markets, notably Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Covid-19 infections appear to be under control.
Whether or not these releases go ahead as expected is uncertain at this point, but a clearer picture of cinema-going in summer 2020 should emerge in the coming weeks after the first wave of new releases will attempt to answer the question on everyone’s minds - can multiplexes draw crowds while social distancing remains a top priority?