Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Decline in Domestic Interest for Korean Cinema?

As a follow-on from my previous article about a possible Decline in Western Interest for Korean Cinema, where I posited a notion that far be it that Korean cinema has dropped in quality, it is more likely that viewership has withered as the Korean cinema phenomenon has become a mainstay. I also argued for a different role to be played by foreign cinema distributors (such as Tartan). Today my focus is on the domestic market for Korean films. Since roughly 2007, many commentators have speculated on the decline in market share for homegrown films in Korea. Having reached it's zenith in 2006 at 63.8%, the domestic stronghold over the Korean box office has since fallen below 50%. Certainly, attendance is not what it was in the middle of the last decade, but I think the numbers are slightly misleading. The main figure bandied about when referencing the state of the Korean film market is the percentage of admissions which are for Korean films. Understandable as it is quite symbolic to crack 50% and thus claim that Korean cinema is the ruler of the roost in its own country. I sought ought a few statistics (courtesy of and decided to measure attendance a different way. The figures available to me were the aforementioned market place percentage and the total number of admissions. By simply multiplying the full admissions by the market percentage, I was able to ascertain a new set of figures which, in my years of reading about the Korean film industry, in books, trades, academic papers and otherwise, I have never seen before. In the simple list below, I have put in bold the total number of movie tickets sold for a Korean film in Korea for the year 1996-2010, along with the previous two statistics mentioned.

2010: 68.4 of 146.8 = 46.6%
2009: 76.6 of 157.0 = 48.8%
2008: 63.5 of 150.8 = 42.1%
2007: 80.7 of 158.8 = 50.8%
2006: 97.9 of 153.4 = 63.8%
2005: 85.4 of 145.5 = 58.7%
2004: 80.2 of 135.2 = 59.3%
2003: 64.0 of 119.5 = 53.5%
2002: 50.8 of 105.1 = 48.3%
2001: 44.6 of 89.0 = 50.1%
2000: 22.7 of 64.6 = 35.1%
1999: 21.8 of 54.7 = 39.7%
1998: 12.6 of 50.2 = 25.1%
1997: 12.1 of 47.5 - 25.5%
1996: 9.7 of 42.2 = 23.1%

Going back as far as 1996, the first thing you see is how far Korean cinema has come in capturing a significant chunk of the market place. What makes the rise even more impressive is to compare it to the total admissions, which have more than trebled in a very short time period. I have collated the first two rows of data into a rudimentary graph (figure 1) below:

Figure 1:

This show us that as well as increasing its percentage in the marketplace, Korean cinema basically mirrored the rise in ticket sales. What this proves is that nearly all of the additional tickets being sold up until 2006, were going directly to the Korean film industry. Let's put this in perspective, foreign ticket sale increased from 32.5 million in 1996, to 55.5 million in 2006, that's an impressive increase of just over 70%. Domestic ticket sales increased from 9.7 million in 1996, to 97.9 million in 2006, that is a staggering rise of nearly 1000%.

What about after 2006? Total ticket sales rose for one more year, while Korean sales saw a sharp decline for the next two. 2006 was probably the ceiling for Korean cinema, with The Host breaking records, a slew of other strong films hitting theaters, and the feverish good will towards homegrown products, 2006 hit a peak. 2007 did not have the same marquee offerings for Korean audiences and was greatly affected by the screen quota system, whereby Korean exhibitors must show Korean films for a certain amount of days per year, being slashed in half (from 146 to 73).

After this 'bad year' however, Korean ticket sales went up again and for the last few years have fluctuated along with total ticket sales. The low of 2008 was the same amount of tickets sold to domestic films in 2003, which itself was nearly 600% higher than 1996. Let's look at the graph for the market share for domestic films in Korea (figure 2):

Here we can clearly see the tandem rise and fall of Korean films and foreign imports, respectively, in the Korean film marketplace. The drop and subsequent reversal of market power in 2007-08 is much more alarming in this graph. The fact that admissions are not reflected here does two things: it does not do justice to the immensity of the rise of Korean cinema through to the new millenium and; it does not account for the continuing rise in admissions beyond 2006, thereby presenting a more dire picture of domestic film consumption than is really the case.

I believe that Korean cinema is in great shape and has settled into its groove. As long as Koreans go to the theater they will most likely watch a Korean film roughly ever two visits, and for a globalized market place that revels in the modern, high-tech, savvy, and star-driven films that Hollywood has to offer, this is definitely among the most powerful domestic film markets in the world.

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