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Resurgence of cinema still too early to tell

Despite several highly anticipated projects, ticket sales fail to return to pre-pandemic levels

Dec. 27, 2022 - 21:45 By Kim Da-sol

This past year has been extraordinary for the film industry, finally set free from some of the constraints and anxieties of the coronavirus pandemic.

A number of brilliant projects wowed and excited moviegoers, but ticket sales failed to return to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that sluggish sales for local cinemas may linger into 2023. However, this does not diminish hope for even better films set to be released next year.

Here is a recap of the South Korean film industry in 2022.

Sequels bring moviegoers back to cinemas

Sequels managed to repeat the popularity of the originals – and we’re not just talking about the Marvel series.

The Korean action comedy film “The Roundup” made it to the 10 million ticket sales club – the first for any film since the pandemic began -- with 12.6 million tickets sold. The figure is far higher than that of the 2017 original “The Outlaws,” which sold some 6.8 million tickets.

The action franchise starring Don Lee and an A-list cast became the talk of the town, with observers wondering whether it would live up to the hype. “My Liberation Notes” star Son Suk-ku and “Our Blues” actor Park Ji-hwan showed great chemistry with Don Lee despite a number of setbacks, according to director Lee Sang-yong.

Shot during the pandemic, the film’s shooting location was abruptly switched to Seoul from Vietnam, incurring an additional 1 billion won ($783,000) in production fees than originally planned. However, the film ultimately brought in more than seven times its initial investment.

"Confidential Assignment2: International" (CJENM)

This year’s fourth-most watched film “Confidential Assignment 2: International” also managed attract 7 million moviegoers, just slightly lower than the 7.8 million tickets sold for the 2017 original. The addition of surefire actors Daniel Henny and rising star Jin Seon-kyu to the sequel made the plot more exciting.

Rise in ticket prices holds back audience

Despite the release of long-awaited sequels and mega-scale projects by renowned filmmakers like Park Chan-wook (“Decision to Leave”), it was not easy to lure people who had been streaming Netflix in the comfort of their homes back to theaters.

Before the pandemic, many people only needed to decide what to watch at the theater. Now, many are asking whether a film is really worth watching at the theater at all. Movie tickets, which cost an average of 11,000 won in 2020, now cost 14,000 won on average. A night out at the movies for two people with popcorn and drinks could set a moviegoer back some 40,000 won.

A total of 98.6 million people visited theaters from January to November, according to cinema operators. This is an increase of about 89.6 percent from a year ago, when COVID-19 was at its peak and the local film industry was brought to a halt. Despite the increase, the figure is still only about 48 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019.

This year, the local film industry saw cumulative revenue surpass 1 trillion won for the first time since the start of pandemic.

Local theaters are hoping box office sales will get a year-end boost with a slew of new releases in December, from the much-anticipated James Cameron blockbuster “Avatar: The Way of Water,” to South Korea’s first ever musical-to-screen movie “Hero.”

K-film continues to expand globally

International awards season kicks off in January, with the Golden Globe Awards slated for Jan. 10. Award-winning director Park Chan-wook has been nominated or shortlisted for a several awards, and a major win for Park would mean another big boost for Korean films internationally.

Insiders expect that such recognition worldwide could bolster industrywide efforts to bring moviegoers back to theaters.

"Decision to Leave" (CJENM)

Although Park’s first film in six years did not perform as well as expected at the box office upon its initial release, it has drawn film buffs back to the cinema for multiple viewings -- called “Nth watching” here -- leading to the long-running success of the film.

“Decision to Leave” was first released in June and sold a cumulative total of 1.8 million tickets domestically. Despite the low number of total sales, it has become the most-watched in terms of repeat viewings in South Korea, according to CGV.

Park already won the coveted best director award at the 75th Cannes Film Festival for his 11th project “Decision to Leave.” It was his third Cannes trophy and also Korea's first best director win there since Im Kwon-taek in 2002 for “Painted Fire.”

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Broker” lead Song Kang-ho also snatched the best actor award at Cannes, becoming the first South Korean male actor to win the award. Jeon Do-yeon won the best actress award at Cannes in 2007 for "Secret Sunshine" by director Lee Chang-dong.

Film director Hong Sang-soo also won the grand jury prize at this year's Berlin International Film Festival for his latest film, “The Novelist’s Film.”