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[Weekender] Movie theaters still struggling after pandemic disruptions

Mixed views among cinema, film industry at almost 60% recovery of pre-pandemic levels

Jan. 13, 2024 - 16:01 By Hwang Joo-young

CGV's 4DX Screen theaters offer four-dimensional experiences that include two additional side screens. (CGV)

South Korea's multiplex cinema industry faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, with strict social distancing measures leading theater attendance to plummet.

Yet even with the end of the pandemic, the industry has not experienced a significant recovery. Instead, the rise of online streaming platforms such as Netflix has impacted the traditional theatergoing experience.

Meanwhile, all major multiplex cinema chains here have raised ticket prices in response to financial deficits during the pandemic. The typical cost increased from 12,000 won ($9.14) in 2020 to 15,000 won in 2023.

The increase has prompted many people to turn to streaming services, finding them more cost-effective than the movie theaters they had been used to.

"These days, it's quite expensive to enjoy a movie at a theater. If you purchase two tickets and popcorn, the cost easily surpasses 40,000 won," said Lee Jae-young, a 34-year-old office worker residing in Seoul.

In Korea, a monthly membership for Netflix starts at 5,500 won, for viewers who don't mind ads. The highest-level membership, where users view ad-free at the highest quality and can share the account, costs 17,000 won.

The number of moviegoers in 2023 was 125.1 million, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, according to data from the Korean Film Council. It represented just 56.6 percent of the average attendance between 2017 and 2019, before the pandemic.

Out of the major multiplex chains -- CGV, Lotte Cinema and Megabox -- only CGV managed to turn a profit in the second quarter of 2023. CGV, the country’s largest cinema chain with 199 theaters nationwide, had seen deficits for three consecutive years since 2020.

The cinema chain attributes the turnaround to its initiative on special theaters featuring enhanced sound effects and four-dimensional experiences.

"CGV has consistently endeavored to present to audiences special experiences that are exclusively available at theaters," said an official from CGV. “We will continue to strive to deliver such irreplaceable experiences for our audiences, expanding the number of special theaters."

The uniqueness of movie experiences at the special theaters was enough to attract many viewers back to cinema seats, despite the higher price than that for both regular theaters and streaming services.

Ticket prices for CGV's special theaters range up to 25,000 won per ticket, based on the features and time schedule.

Lotte Cinema and Megabox also operate their own special theaters, such as Megabox's Dolby Atmos known for its high-quality sound.

Notably, 63.1 percent of moviegoers opted for special theaters over traditional two-dimensional ones for James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” from December 2022 to March 2023.

Moviegoers gather under posters for "Avatar: The Way of Water" at CGV in Seoul. (Newsis)

According to CGV, revenue from Imax, 4DX, ScreenX and 4DX Screen theaters accounted for 28 percent of its total revenue in the first half of 2023, almost double the pre-pandemic figures. Margins for these special theaters is about 50 percent higher than for regular theaters.

"Audiences are willing to pay for ticket prices when theaters offer an experience that cannot be replicated through online streaming services at home," said an industry official on condition of anonymity.

On the other hand, some experts say that the overall filmmaking and distribution landscape has not yet fully recovered from the pandemic.

"During the pandemic, the entire film industry didn’t prepare for the post-pandemic era. Production companies and cinema chains withdrew investments, which worsened the industry," said culture critic Kim Sung-soo.

"Instead, both cinema chains and film production companies have focused on the financial aspect only; for instance, they are obsessed with advertising how much capital they invested in their projects compared to their competitors."

The result has been a decline in the number of moviegoers.

In 2022 and 2023 combined, the number of films selling at least 10 million tickets -- a typical measure for blockbuster success in a nation of under 52 million people -- stood at just four, while there were five such films in 2019 alone.

While Kim Sung-su's "12.12: The Day" has scored over 12 million tickets sold since its release late last year, a number of others high expectations, like "Smugglers," fell short.

Starring Kim Hye-soo and Zo In-sung, "Smugglers" eventually sold just 5.1 million tickets.

The streaming giants are also seen as to blame, as they have been an attractive partner for production companies, resulting in a decline in the number of films on the big screen.

In recent years, a wave of production companies have also begun making TV series for online streaming services.

In 2022 alone, Barunson E&A, renowned for director Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning "Parasite," and B.A. Entertainment of the "Roundup" film series announced plans to expand from their cinema business to TV series.

Some film directors express concerns about such trends in the film industry.

"Of course, the landscape of the film industry has changed significantly during the pandemic. However, there are still moviegoers who prefer theater experiences and are willing to pay for the price," said Min Kyu-dong, director of "The Treacherous" (2015) and "All About My Wife" (2012).

"Keeping producing films in various genres will be the key to bringing back the audience to theaters more frequently. Works that do not take this into consideration may find it challenging to resonate with the audience."

CGV operates the Temper Cinema which features reclining beds. (CGV)