More than three months into the coronavirus crisis, the South Korean film scene continues to struggle amid what cineastes describe as an unprecedented time of strife in more than 100 years of Korean cinema.
The number of cinemagoers recorded new lows every month since January, and April saw the figure fall below 1 million for the first time since the Korean Film Council started compiling the data in 2004.
Multiplexes, which dominate the market, temporarily shut down some screens, and as new film releases were postponed they resorted to screening past hits. They also turned to low-budget indie and arthouse films that under normal circumstances would have found it very difficult to get screenings there.
“Lucky Chan-sil,” a heartwarming drama from director Kim Cho-hee, has been seen by more than 23,000 moviegoers since its March 5 release. Several indie films, such as “The Hill of the Wind,” a film about a mother and daughter who are reunited after leading separate lives, and “Dreamer,” a tale of two underdogs that might otherwise have been relegated to the film festival circuit, made it to multiplex screens as multiplex operators scrambled to find films to fill the screens that remained open.
“The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how dependent the Korean film industry has been on the ecosystem revolving around a few multiplexes,” culture critic Kim Heon-sik said.
The four leading multiplexes -- CGV, Megabox, Lotte Cinema and Cine Q -- accounted for 93.7 percent of the 3,079 screens nationwide last year, according to KOFIC.
“With the virus pandemic, it’s become evident how focused the entire industry has been on commercial profit from films, neglecting its cultural role,” Kim Dong-hyun, director of the Seoul Independent Film Festival’s executive committee, told The Korea Herald. Around 80 percent of the film industry’s profit comes from ticket sales, according to KOFIC.
The number of indie screens is minuscule -- some 70 at 60 indie or arthouse theaters.
“If a few private companies hadn’t dominated the screens and there had been more small cinemas supported by other means, such as the government budget, more diverse films would have been available in the first place and the overall market would have been less dependent on profit-driven films,” Kim said.
Yet others are more cautious about direct government involvement.
A scene from “Lucky Chan-sil” (Challan)
Meeting the need for diversity
Won Seung-hwan, director of Indie Space, an indie theater that opened in 2007, says there should be more private not-for-profit theaters like Indie Space rather than cinemas run solely on government funding.
“Even with losses, many private indie theaters run by nonprofit organizations, such as Indie Space, did not close, or closed for a minimum period, during the pandemic because there were several low-budget films being released, and such theaters’ purpose and responsibility are to provide screens for films opening in difficult situations,” Won told The Korea Herald.
Won, who has served as director of the Korean Association of Cinematheques and the Association of Korean Independent Film and Video, also stressed the need for a social consensus on the importance of cinemas that offer diversity.
“The ideal indie cinema would be operated by the social community and supported by donations and subsidies,” Won said.
Indie film director Park Suk-young, whose film “The Hill of the Wind” from last year opened in local multiplexes April 23, kicked off a nationwide screening tour in December, to provide communities the chance to watch more diverse films.
“We have to remember that, although films can be enjoyed as entertainment, they also have a cultural role in our society. We not only consume films, but we experience other people’s lives and thoughts and are educated through them,” Park said during an April interview.
Won pointed out that a genuine interest in promoting diversity in films may be the most fundamental change needed in Korean cinema.
“The government seems unwilling to make changes or attempt to take up new challenges regarding indie or arthouse films,” said Won, adding that there were no policies to improve the environment for indie cinemas.
Seoul Independent Film Festival Executive Committee Director Kim Dong-hyun (SIFF)
Indie filmmakers call for immediate help
On April 22, a group of indie filmmakers and related organizations urged the government to provide direct financial support to offset losses from COVID-19. It also revealed the results of a survey that showed more than 40 percent of the 52 individual respondents had had no income in the past three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It would be ideal if KOFIC could maintain its independence and yet have the power to request policies for the film industry. Right now, there is no governmental body specializing in film and the Ministry of Economy and Finance has the dominant power over the budget. And this seems to be delaying financial support for indie filmmakers,” Kim said.
Won of Indie Space urged the government to initiate a long-term support program to deal with the coronavirus crisis, which he believes will last through the year or even into next year.
“Even after the COVID-19 situation eases, I’m expecting the industry won’t return to the way it was before the crisis,” Won said.
“Indie Space has seen the number of theatergoers drop by almost 90 percent in April compared with the same period last year. Indie and arthouse cinemas may be able to survive until the end of this year with the KOFIC subsidies, but these subsidies are unrelated to the current situation and the amount is too small to cover the losses sustained during the pandemic.”
By Choi Ji-won (firstname.lastname@example.org