|An empty cinema foyer in Seoul is seen Jan. 14. / Korea Times file|
By Kwak Yeon-soo
The COVID-19 pandemic upended the local box office in 2020. Ticket sales were at their lowest levels since the early 2000s, according to a report from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC).
Last year, 59.52 million people visited movie theaters, down 73.7 percent from 2019 and the lowest number since 2004 when KOFIC started to compile local box office data. The industry's total revenue also hit its lowest since 2005, plunging 73.3 percent to 510.4 billion won ($460 million) from 1.9 trillion won the previous year.
Contrary to the previous years when at least a few films passed 10 million or more in attendance, not a single film passed this milestone in 2020.
In 2019, five films ― "Extreme Job," "Avengers: Endgame," "Aladdin," "Parasite" and "Frozen 2" ― exceeded 10 million in ticket sales, setting a new record for Korean box office history. Last year was the first year since 2012 without a single "10 million film."
The political thriller "The Man Standing Next" ― released Jan. 22 last year ― scored the highest at the box office, grossing 41.2 billion won with 4.75 million tickets sold. It was followed by "Deliver Us from Evil" and "Peninsula," which attracted 4.36 million and 3.81 million moviegoers, respectively.
KOFIC's annual report revealed the market is becoming increasingly skewed toward big-budget titles, with top ten releases accounting for 51 percent of the total box office. In comparison, the top ten films in 2019 accounted for 46.2 percent.
Local films took up 68 percent of the market compared to 51 percent the year before, marking their 10th straight year of holding a greater market share than foreign releases. Koreans watched 1.15 films at the cinema per capita last year, according to KOFIC.
Meanwhile, exports of Korean films and services were up 13.3 percent at $83.61 million in 2020, compared to $73.79 million the previous year.
Despite the lack of new films on the market, the growth of over-the-top (OTT) platform film services, as well as content IP sales to global big-name OTT services, have boosted the figure.
In 2020, Taiwan was Korea's top buyer for the third consecutive year, followed by Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Indonesia, which proved that Asia is the major export market for Korean cinema.
Independent and arthouse films continued to struggle but female-driven narratives and women directors played an active role, a potential silver lining for the industry.
"Since 1999, the Korean film industry has been focusing on quantitative growth such as increasing state aid and investing in movie chains. As a result, we are facing increased polarization and market saturation," a KOFIC official said.
"In the post-coronavirus world, we should focus on fostering creative filmmakers and drawing audiences who actively consume movies."