Not Surprising, but Stable
The first quarter of 2017 was one of few surprises at the Korean box office but one which demonstrated the industry’s stability, both as a global exhibition market and a local production industry. Though not quite reaching the highs of 2013 (55.47 million) or 2015 (54.56 million), Q1 this year handily exceeded the totals of the last two years, with a sturdy 52.27 million admissions registered during the time period.
As usual, local titles were the top draw, though they fell a hair short of an overall majority with 49.6%. Hollywood had a slightly poorer showing with 39% as one significant Japanese hit, Your Name lifted Japan’s market share to an unusually high 8%.
The year kicked off as the last box office battle of 2016 fizzled off, with last year action-thriller hit Master scoring one last victory over the New Year weekend and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story managing only a second place debut, once again marking Korea as one of the few global markets where the franchise is unable to open in first place, despite a one week delay compared to its global rollout, presumably to give local end of year hits Master and Pandora time to burn off their audiences.
Your Name Waltzes into Records Books
The period between the beginning of the year and the Lunar New Year holiday is generally a quiet one at the box office yet a few foreign family-oriented titles managed to generate positive returns, as Your Name by SHINKAI Makoto confidently strode up to first place for two weeks and Disney’s Moana had a quiet release well ahead of the holidays and built up a strong total by holding on to most of its audience week to week. SHINKAI’s work, which recorded about 3.65 million entries, now has the distinction of being the most successful Japanese film of all time. Overall, it was the third most successful film at the Korean box office in the quarter, falling just below a pair of local Lunar New Year releases and ahead of anything Hollywood that was able to conjure up in the period.
Prosecutors and Agents Duke It Out over Lunar New Year
As one of the four major box office periods of the year, and one with a particularly strong emphasis on family gatherings keen to enjoy local films, the Lunar New Year holiday is always a strong period for Korean films, where most big studios try to program a major title to coincide with the holiday.
Recent Lunar New Year hits have included Miracle in Cell No.7 (2013), The Berlin File (2013), Miss Granny (2014) and A Violent Prosecutor (2016). This year only two major local releases went head to head, but both looked like surefire winners from the outset, and sure enough, they dominated the season, leaving all, including Hollywood’s offerings, in the dust.
The first big box office showdown of the year occurred on January 18th, with the tandem releases of local tentpoles The King, from Next Entertainment World, and CJ Entertainment’s Confidential Assignment. The former prevailed during its opening after building buzz for several weeks, but it was ultimately the latter that overtook it, wooing the prized older demographic, which was mobilized through gradual word of mouth.
On the other hand, North Korea-themed spy action-comedy Confidential Assignment, with superstar Hyun-bin (The Fatal Encounter, 2014) and actor YOO Hae-jin fresh off the smash success of LUCK-KEY (2016), was the new offering from hit-making production house JK Film, responsible for Haeundae (2009), Ode to My Father (2014) and The Himalayas (2015). Though less thematically bombastic than its competition, the film’s more broadly appealing elements eventually won out, as the film grew and grew and ultimately came close to 8 million viewers. Of course, both films won out in the end, with The King finishing well over 5 million admissions.
By the end of February, as audiences began to ebb, Korea lost its command of the first rank, when M. Night Shyamalan’s Split overperformed to clinch the spot. The high concept drama-thriller opened the door for several Hollywood titles which have locked Korea out the top up until late April as of this writing.
Hollywood’s blockbuster season is no longer limited to summer, or even late spring, as the rollout of tentpoles now starts in late winter. Since the start of March, franchise titles such as 20th Century Fox’s X-Men title Logan and Universal’s Kong: Skull Island briefly scaled the charts, but it was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast that managed to stick around well beyond its opening as it finished on top for four consecutive weeks.
Disney Once Again Corners Korean Family Market
Although its Star Wars titles perform less impressively in Korea than elsewhere, the rest of Disney’s lineup continues to score box office gold in Korea, with their sensational live-action update of Beauty and the Beast becoming the top-performing Hollywood film of the first quarter. After loading it up to the top of the charts for the best part of a month, the film had accrued just shy of 5 million admissions by mid-April. Along with Moana, the studio held the top two Hollywood spots in the early part of the year. Taken with foreign chart topper Your Name, the top three foreign titles in the first quarter all catered successfully to foreign audiences, repeating a trend that appears to have emerged in the last few years, with key animated titles scoring strong returns over the end of year to Lunar New Year period, particularly Disney’s works, which have included Frozen and Zootopia.
During Beauty and the Beast’s extended Korean box office dance, another local film also quietly made an impression. Opening in second and staying there for three weeks, on its way to a robust finish, was Showbox’s crime drama The Prison.
Blockbuster Shakeup in Late Spring
As of mid-April, The Fast and The Furious, the eighth installment in the action franchise, is the current box office champ and looks to repeat up top for another victory lap. Late April should see local films become competitive again, with the doubleheader release of Showbox’s election drama The Mayor and CJ Entertainment’s period investigation comedy-thriller The King's Case Note.
Once May gets underway, Hollywood should once again find plenty of favor with local audiences, but despite a new Marvel title on the way (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), the US blockbuster lineup, which includes Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant and Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is less competitive than past years and should leave plenty of openings for local films, such as the Cannes-invited prison thriller The Merciless from CJ Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment’s comedy-thriller The Sheriff in Town and 20th Century Fox’s new Korean offering, the period action drama WARRIORS OF THE DAWN.
Slow Season for Indie Cinema
Whereas this period last year proved a strong one for independent cinema, particularly low-budget works set in the Colonial Period such as LEE Joon-ik’s biopic DONGJU; The Portrait of A Poet (2016) and the comfort women drama Spirits' Homecoming (2016), no small works were able to break through in a meaningful way this year. The most notable local indie offering was Snowy Road with KIM Sae-ron, another Colonial Era comfort women drama, which debuted at the Jeonju International Film Festival two years ago, yet with almost 130,000 viewers, it managed only a fraction of Spirits' Homecoming’s success. The only other Korean low-budget work to crack 100,000 viewers was KIM Tae-yong’s cod feature MISBEHAVIOR with KIM Ha-neul, which was backed by Filmmaker R & K, RYOO Seung-wan’s production house.
Other Notable Works
Beyond the chart-toppers week after week, a couple of other films quietly worked in the background to build respectable totals. Among those was LEE Soo-yeon’s long-awaited sophomore film, the serial killer drama Bluebeard with CHO Jin-woong, which reached just over 1.2 million admissions during its March run. Also notching up over a million viewers early this year was Damien Chazelle’s awards favorite musical La La Land, which added to it December success to bring its total to almost 3.5 million spectators, handily doubling Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash, which had counted Korea as one of its top global markets.