Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
The First Half Report on 2021 Korean Film Industry
Korean Cinema is in the Lowest Slump, Disney is Putting Up a Good Fight
The negative effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic have already been expected, but the shock has not easily disappeared. For seven years from 2013 to 2019, the number of moviegoers surpassed 200 million every year, and the Korean movie theaters, which enjoyed a good time opening the so-called ‘200 million audiences,’ is rapidly falling. As the Korean film industry entered a period of stagnation through the process of growth and expansion, it suddenly plunged into a slump due to the sudden outbreak of COVID-19. Last year, the total number of cinema audiences was 59.52 million people, but we can’t guarantee the same number this year.
2021 Audience Share for Domestic Films, the Lowest in the History of the Box Office in Korea
According to The Korean Film Industry Settlement in the First Half of 2021 made by the Korean Film Council, the total number of viewers in the first half of this year was 20.02 million won, and the ticket sales were 186.3 billion won. The number of viewers decreased by 12.39 million (38.2%) in the first half of the year compared to the same period last year, recording the lowest ever since 2004 (It’s when the integrated network of movie theaters was set). In terms of the sales, it dropped by 87.5 billion won (32%), the lowest figure since 2005. What was even more painful was the number of Korean moviegoers in the first half of this year. The audience share of Korean films was 19.1%, the lowest in the history of the Korean box office. The number of Korean moviegoers was 3.82 million, a whopping 16.17 million (80.9%) lower than that of the same period last year. Considering that the COVID-19 Pandemic started last year, the share of Korean moviegoers in the first half of last year was 61.7%, which shows how much it has fallen this year. On the other hand, while Korean films did not exert their strength properly, foreign films took over the theater district. The number of moviegoers for foreign films rose to 16.20 million, which is 3.78 million (30.4%) higher than that of the same period last year.
The Walt Disney Company Fought Well in the Box Office
When we look at the box office hits of foreign films in the first half of this year, five foreign films had over 1 million viewers. Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga attracted 2.28 million viewers and became the top box office winner in the first half of the year (21.9 billion won). Second place was Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train with 2.15 million viewers, third place was Soul with 2.05 million viewers, fourth place was Cruella with 1.47 million viewers, and fifth place was Minari with 1.02 million viewers. The number of moviegoers seduced by the Walt Disney Company was 4.25 million, accounting for 21.2% of the audience share, ranking first in the distributor's audience share. The company distributed Soul (2.05 million viewers), Cruella (1.53 million viewers), and Raya and the Last Dragon (320,000 viewers).
The trend is expected to continue in the second half of this year with Marvel Studios’ superhero films, including Black Widow (2.93 million viewers, as of August 14), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in September, and The Eternals in November. Disney’s brand power continues. On the other hand, the No. 1 Korean film, HARD HIT, the remake version of Retribution (2015), attracted 470,000 viewers (4.3 billion won in profit). Only 18 Korean films captured more than 500 screens in the first half of the year, but no dramatic situation occurred because none of them attracted more than 500,000 viewers. It contrasts with the fact that The Man Standing Next gathered 4.75 million viewers in the first half of last year, playing a role of a backscratcher.
In January and February of this year, two animations, Soul and Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, led the box office hits. The head of Pixar Studios, Pete Doctor, won his third Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Soul following Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015). He has been praised by so many people that he suits the Academy Award for Best Picture beyond the animation category. In the case of Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, it was an unexpected success at a time when Japanese films could not exert their power in Korean theaters due to the "NO Japan" movement after Japan's trade retaliation. In Korea, although the film couldn’t break the record of 3.67 million viewers Your Name set in 2017, lots of animation enthusiasts supported Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train along with interest in Koyoharu Gotouge, the author of Demon Slayer, who suddenly announced her retirement.
In March and April, Minari fully enjoyed a special occasion with Academy Award (Youn Yuhjung's nomination and award for Best Supporting Actress). Actor Youn Yuhjung’s way of speaking became a cultural icon, drawing attention from all over the world. In comparison, the film itself was not very popular in Korea. Director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari depicts the settlement of a Korean family who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. However, the film was not as much appealing as Korean films, and it had to be satisfied with 1.13 million viewers. Considering that Nomadland, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, did not exceed 100,000 viewers in Korea, there was no Academy Award craze at the Korean box office.
In May, when Hollywood blockbusters appeared, Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga and Cruella dominated the theater district. Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga achieved stable results thanks to the loyal audience of The Fast and The Furious series. Cruella, the spin-off for 101 Dalmatians, was well-received for Emma Stone's performance in reinterpreting the cranky villain. In June, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and The Quiet Place Part II enjoyed the joy of the horror genre in the summer market. Since they were the sequels of already well-made horrors, they received lots of attention naturally.
We Must Do Something to Offset the Slump of Korean Films in the First Half of the Year
The characteristics of the box office in the first half of 2021 lie in the devastating results of Korean films. Until CJ ENM released HARD HIT (950,000 viewers in total) on June 23, Korean films did not show their presence for nearly six months. MegaboxJoongang’s The Book of Fish and CJ ENM’s Seobok, which declared the return of Korean films with more than 2,000 screens in April, failed to make the box office hits. Both films couldn’t exceed 400,000 viewers. The former is a film directed by Lee Joonik, who directed King and the Clown (2005) that attracted 10 million viewers.’ The Book of Fish was reviewed as a representative work of Lee Joonik’s film world. The latter is an SF film made by Lee Yongju, who directed Architecture 101 (2012), opening a new chapter in Korean melodrama. Seobok was expected to make a great success because top stars like Gong Yoo and Park Bogum starred in the SF film, but it produced a rather disappointing result.
Escape from Mogadishu & SINKHOLE
Now, the key depends on how well Korean films can do in the second half of the year to offset the slump in the first half. Just as DELIVER US FROM EVIL, which was released in August last year in the fight against COVID-19, gathered 4.35 million viewers, blowing hot air, we need a good result. In August of this year, two masterpieces on survival, Escape from Mogadishu and SINKHOLE, will be milestones for restoring pride in Korean films and normalizing the film market. With the support of the film industry and the theaters, the two films, which were guaranteed a 50% return on production costs to release them in the theater, are leading the revival of Korean films in the summer market. They have attracted 2.16 million viewers and 650,000 viewers respectively as of August 14, with the combined market share exceeding 80%. While some forecast it is not easy for the Korean film industry to reclaim the glory of the past during the post-COVID-19 era, what we must do now is to regain the driving force that makes the moviegoers ‘Go’ to the theater.