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Battle of December, Three-Way Showdown

Feb 06, 2018
  • Writer by Pierce Conran
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Box Office Report of 2017

With a few presumed hits coming up short and lower-than-usual attendance at some points of the year, particularly early summer, a lot was banking on December to pick up the slack and close the year on a high note. The end-of-year period (late December and early January) is one of the four busiest release windows in Korea, along with Lunar New Year, High Summer (late July/early August) and Chuseok, and 2017 tends to be dominated by domestic films. Three local studios stepped up by each putting forward a big-budget film, offering a more ambitious (and potentially riskier) lineup than previous Decembers. What’s more, Disney was also in the mix with the most highly anticipated 2017 release around the world.

Fears of an annual admissions dip proved unfounded when December soared to 23.88 million ticket sales, which was a whopping 10.2% improvement over the previous record for the month set in 2014 (21.68 million viewers). But the most remarkable figure was the local market share, as 78% of the tickets sold were for Korean titles. This was a massive jump over the previous record, December 2016’s 65.1%. Combined with the overall sales swell, this gave the local industry 18.67 million admissions during the month, a staggering 42% rise over the previous record (2016 - 13.12 million). So exactly how did the local industry engineer such a spectacular result?

First, let’s have a look at what films have dominated the end-of-year season in the past. In the top 20 films ever released in December in Korea, 16 are local titles, while the list is also home to five of the 16 Korean films that have crossed the 10 million mark. As of this writing, JK YOUN’s Ode to My Father (2014) tops the list with 14.26 million entries (though that may change by the time this goes to print) and James Cameron’s Avatar is the highest foreign title with 13.3 million entries accumulated in 2009, and the only one in the top eight. Among distributors, CJ Entertainment seems to have a knack for programming the right films for the month, as they own seven of the spots in the top 20, including Ode to My Father.

Each armed with big budgets, proficient crews and popular stars, Steel Rain (2017), Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) and 1987: When the Day Comes (2017) demonstrated the manifold strengths of Korea’s commercial sector as each title aimed for large crowds by promising very different kinds of entertainment. Meanwhile, Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened in Korea the same week as it did around the world, but not with the same results.

Next Entertainment World went first on December 14 with the tried-and-true North Korean action drama by teaming up again with director YANG Woo-suk for Steel Rain. Featuring JUNG Woo-sung as a rogue North Korean agent who partners up with KWAK Do-won’s South Korean intelligence officer, the film sees the pair attempt to avert a nuclear crisis. With a large action quotient, plenty of humor and topical geopolitical tensions, the film offered a potent entertainment cocktail that viewers rewarded with a strong 1.39 million admissions opening weekend. NEW and YANG previously made the drama The Attorney (2013) with SONG Kang-ho, which, with 11.37 million spectators, is the fifth most popular film to ever be released in Korea in December. 

Coming out on the same day was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which couldn’t even mobilize half of Steel Rain’s audience, as it bowed with a disappointing 523,000 spectators. Neither Star Wars: The Force Awakens nor Rogue One lit up the Korean box office but as it became the first of the new Star Wars titles to finish under one million admissions, it seems safe to say that the Star Wars brand has failed to build any momentum in Korea. 

Opening on December 20, about five months after it was originally supposed to bow, was Lotte Entertainment’s Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, the first installment in an ambitious two-part fantasy epic webtoon adaptation from director KIM Yong-hwa. Featuring HA Jung-woo, CHA Tae-hyun, JU Ji-hoon and KIM Hyang-gi, the film burst out of the gate with 2.74 million viewers during its first weekend and effectively ended Steel Rain’s chances of becoming a major hit.

December 27 welcomed JANG Joon-hwan’s political drama 1987: When the Day Comes, boasting an enormous array of big names, including but not limited to KIM Yun-seok, HA Jung-woo, YOO Hae-jin, KIM Tae-ri, SUL Kyung-gu and GANG Dong-won. The CJ Entertainment film bowed with a strong 1.35 million entries and terrific reviews but it was Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds that once again claimed the top spot with 2.47 million admissions in its second weekend.

The first week of January saw no change as the same two titles led, each with over a million tickets sold, and a week later the pair claimed the top spots again, though this time they switched places as 1987: When the Day Comes essentially stayed level with another weekend take of over a million entries. As of this writing (January 31), Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds has overtaken Veteran to become the third most successful Korean film of all time with 14.02 million entries and may end its run as the second most successful Korean film of all time.

Showing no signs of slowing down, 1987: When the Day Comes is steadily turning into one of 2017’s most successful releases, having crossed the seven million viewer mark. As we close the books in 2017, we’ve discovered the true potential of December as a blockbuster season. Following last year’s closing trio of hits, future December release schedules may find themselves just as crowded with ambitious local tentpoles.
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