Box Office Report of 2017
The Korean film market reached new all-time benchmarks for income and admissions in 2017 after a strong December rally. Yet the real story behind the numbers was which unexpected films got audiences the most excited while several seemingly surefire hits stumbled out of the gate. With 219.87 million tickets sold when all was said and done, 2017 saw the Korean exhibition market reach a new overall milestone. Though as admissions advanced only 1.3% Runnersover 2016, while the annual rate of increase since 2013 has averaged 0.78%, last year was further evidence that the Korean cinema market is at its saturation point.
For the seventh year running, local titles claimed a majority share by clinching 51.8% of sales. Korean films welcomed 113.9 million viewers, the fourth highest figure on record and down 2.3% since 2016. Annual sales reached USD 1.66 billion (KRW 1.76 trillion), also a new record.
Politics takes the spotlight
Instead of any particular genre dominating the charts, many of the most visible titles last year were ones with heavy political overtones. This applied to both the commercial realm and documentary films in the indie scene. One of two 2017 titles to join the 10 million viewer club, JANG Hun’s A Taxi Driver (2017) starred SONG Kang-ho as a Seoul cabbie giving a German reporter (played by international star Thomas Kretschmann) a lift to Gwangju to cover the protests in May 1980.
In the low-budget realm, there were several politically-tinged documentaries that proved hugely successful. LEE Chang-jae’s Jeonju Cinema Project OUR PRESIDENT (2017), which welcomed an extraordinary 1.86 million viewers (USD 13.68 million), chronicled the election of former president ROH Moo-hyun. CHOI Seung-ho’s media corruption exposé Criminal Conspiracy (2017), which looks into the erosion of freedom of the press, brought in an impressive 261,000 viewers (USD 1.91 million). In a dramatic turn of events, CHOI was elected as the new head of MBC, the network that he was fired from in 2012, last December.
Surprise hits punch down pricey tentpoles
Away from the political arena, viewers rewarded titles that offered slight but effective twists on familiar genres, while many pricey high-concept offerings stalled on the charts. Two of the year’s most surprising hits each took straightforward thriller narratives and set them in Daerim, an old Seoul neighborhood with a high concentration of Chinese-Korean residents. Jason KIM’s Midnight Runners (2017) featured KANG Ha-neul and PARK Seo-jun as police academy recruits who conduct an unsanctioned investigation after seeing a woman kidnapped on the streets. Released during the high summer season, the film came surprisingly close to the final tally of RYOO Seung-wan’s World War II escape drama The Battleship Island (2017), with HWANG Jung-min, SONG Joong-ki and SO Ji-sub, but at a fraction of the cost. KANG Yun-sung’s THE OUTLAWS (2017) stars Don LEE (aka MA Dong-seok) as a gruff detective who tries to take down a Chinese-Korean gang led by YOON Kye-sang. The surprise hit of the Chuseok holiday season, the gritty crime drama put up a much better showing than HWANG Dong-hyuk’s prestige period drama The Fortress (2017), which, despite great reviews, and a cast that included LEE Byung-hun, KIM Yun-seok and PARK Hae-il, fell short of expectations at home.
The dearth of strong roles for women
One of the more unfortunate trends in commercial Korean films in 2017 and one that seems to have been consistent over the last few years has been the general lack of projects with women leads. NA Moon-hee scored a surprise hit with I Can Speak (2017), but among the only other mainstream films led by women were the Cannes-debuted action title The Villainess (2017) with KIM Ok-vin, the gangster drama A Special Lady (2017) with KIM Hye-soo and horror titles House of the Disappeared (2017) with KIM Yun-jin and The Mimic (2017) with YUM Jung-ah. While fortunes were mixed for these films at the box office, I Can Speak was the only film with a woman in the lead to be released during one of the four most lucrative box office seasons in the country, effectively shutting out actresses for an opportunity to prove themselves.
BONG Joon-ho screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time with his Netflix-backed Okja (2017). However, though the film was going to receive the wide distribution from Next Entertainment World in Korea, the country’s top exhibitors (CGV Cinema, Lotte Cinema, and Megabox) all refused to screen it as Netflix insisted on releasing it on their online platform at the same time. The film over-performed in a limited release in arthouse theaters with 322,000 viewers.
Korea claims busy release windows, foreign titles crowd slower months
The new year brought with it a surprise hit in the form of the animation Your Name., which became the most successful Japanese film of all time in Korea with 3.64 million viewers. After that, it was back to business as usual as local titles duked it out over the Lunar New Year Holiday. Prosecutor saga The King (2017) got off to a strong start when it opened on the same day as the North Korean action drama Confidential Assignment (2017), but it was the latter that legged it out to victory with 7.82 million admissions, versus the former’s respectable 5.32 million spectators total.
The usually slow March got a boost with the release of Disney’s global phenomenon Beauty and the Beast, the only film not to be released in Korea’s four main release windows to land in the year’s top 10, with 5.14 million entries. As per usual, local films took a backseat to Hollywood in spring and early summer as The Fast and The Furious 8 (3.65 million viewers), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (3.05 million viewers) and The Mummy (3.69 million viewers) were the highest-grossing titles of April, May, and June. The Mummy, whose star Tom Cruise is very popular in Korea, briefly broke the record for opening day sales with 873,000 entries, though it quickly slowed down after that.
Hollywood scored its best release of the year in July when Spider-Man: Homecoming welcomed 7.26 million spectators. The high summer season kicked off a few weeks later when The Battleship Island once again set a new opening day benchmark with a stunning 971,000 viewers. However, a controversy concerning screen monopolies that followed and a lack of enthusiasm hurt it going forward, as the pricey film couldn’t quite get over its break-even point, finishing with 6.59 million admissions.
The local industry had no trouble dominating the rest of the season, however, as A Taxi Driver rode all the way to 12.19 million entries and Midnight Runners surprised with 5.65 million tickets sold. During the same period, Hollywood’s best efforts were Despicable Me 3 with 3.32 million sales and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a few spots shy of the Top 20 with 2.79 million viewers. Business revved up again in late September ahead of the Chuseok holiday, first with the hit human drama I Can Speak, which gradually made its way to 3.28 million viewers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle fell shy of its predecessor but remained strong with 4.95 million admissions before The Fortress and THE OUTLAWS opened on the same day in early October. Defying expectations, the former made it to 3.85 million viewers while the much smaller THE OUTLAWS punched its way to 6.88 million admissions. Things slowed down after the holidays but there was still space for a few more hits as Marvel scored once more with Thor: Ragnarok, reaching 4.85 million viewers after a late October start, and the local con man thriller The Swindlers (2017), which dominated November with 4.02 million entries.
The year ahead
As 2018 gets underway there are plenty of big titles ahead, but at this juncture, it remains to be seen whether political works will have the same impact. Meanwhile, top actresses such as SON Ye-jin, KONG Hyo-jin, and KIM Hye-soo will receive top billing on several promising works later this year, at least some of which should find themselves in prime release slots.