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A Box Office Update - 1/22/2022
Sales, Sinkholes, and Spiders
So now that I’ve caught up on the biggest South Korean pop culture craze of 2021, it’s time I get a little bit back on brand and explain what’s been going on in South Korean film lately. The reason I’m so inconsistent with these updates isn’t just a matter of these editorials not really paying off. There also hasn’t been a whole lot of news worth editorializing about when it comes to the South Korean box office lately. Last year was uniquely bad for South Korean movies. Exactly two South Korean films, Escape from Mogadishu and Sinkhole, managed to crack the country’s top ten at the 2021 box office. The other eight all went to foreign films, one of which was Japanese.
As tempting as it is to blame this on COVID-19, the fact of the matter was the situation in 2020 was quite the opposite. Dolittle and Tenet were the only foreign films to chart that year- and Dolittle had the advantage of coming out before COVID-19 did. Moreover, box office receipts overall in 2021 went up quite a bit even before Spider-Man: No Way Home closed the year out with a very strong finish, a streak that’s continued into this year. Spider-Man: No Way Home will likely pass the seven million viewers mark this coming weekend. Which is to say, roughly one in every seven South Koreans will have seen it.
What happened? As much as I hate to say it, South Korean film is stagnant. It’s not bad, by any means, but quality has never mattered to whether any country’s domestic film market is a success. What matters is effective spectacle and marketing. Extreme Job had that. Parasite had that. Exit had that. These were all movies with strong characters and concepts that had the right sense of unique humor and genre to really stand out against the usual overly colorful nonsense from Disney, which played to a completely different niche.
Disney easily crushed the competition in 2021 in South Korea mainly because nothing was rumor-worthy anymore. And part of this might have been deliberate. There’s a certain crassness in South Korea locally when it comes to marketing too aggressively, thanks to COVID-19. Disney releases avoid this not because their publicity teams are made up of bad people but because so much of their marketing is based in existing brand awareness. The three more arcane Marvel movies last year had a high floor compared to the domestic competition thanks to the abstract Marvel Cinematic Universe connection, while Spider-Man: No Way Home did exceptionally well by building off of the preexisting Spider-Man films that have long been mainstays on South Korean cable.
The situation isn’t quite as bleak as I’m making it sound. Lunar New Year weekend will feature the release of the political thriller Kingmaker, relevantly coming out in the run-up to South Korea’s presidential election, as well as The Pirates: Goblin Flag, which is exactly what it sounds like. Both movies are showing strong early numbers in terms of online reservations, although it’s impossible to guess whether these numbers will hold when the movies finally come out. In the end, I’m skeptical this industry might ever recover to its pre-pandemic heights. More than any individual movie or trend, the sheer convenience of streaming options in South Korea makes the theater experience a hard sell now that the habit’s been broken.