Questions are being raised in Korea's movie industry about whether the star power of its directors and actors is waning after the Korean Film Council analyzed the box-office receipts of domestic and foreign films in the country in the first half of the year.
The Korean movie "Sunny," directed by Kang Hyung-chul, was the most viewed film with around 5.9 million spectators. This was followed by the hugely popular U.S. animation "Kung Fu Panda 2," which sold 4.87 million tickets, and the Korean film "Detective K," which sold 4.78 million.
◆ Rookie Directors on the Rise
Rookies who have made between one and three movies have been dominating the box-office this year, at the expense of established veterans. Kang took top spot with "Sunny" and Kim Seok-yoon ranked second with "Detective K," both of which were their second movies. Kim Jin-young took third place with "Dangerous Meeting," his third film.
Meanwhile, only three veteran directors found their way inside the top 10 in the first six months: Shim Hyung-rae ranked fourth with "The Last Godfather," Kang woo-suk came fifth with "Glove" and Lee Joon-ik placed seventh with "Pyongyang Castle."
Experts attribute this new trend to the audience's changing standards for selecting movies.
Kim Nan-do, a professor of consumer studies at Seoul National University, said that in bygone years, people relied on star power to fill the vacuum left by the paucity of information available about movies. Directors, producers or stars' reputations effectively earned their trust. However, with the arrival of the Internet and social networking service like Twitter, people can form their own judgments and be more selective.
"Now people select movies according to whether they are interested in them or not," the professor said. There is also a growing sense of experimentalism in the country, with audiences more willing to give new directors a shot as they tend to explore new cinematic avenues, he added.
◆ Indie Films Taking Off
Independent movies by rookie directors have also been very successful this year. "Bleak Night" garnered 20,144 viewers, "Re-encounter" attracted 10,859 and "The Journals of Musan" sold 10,795 tickets. Although these numbers pale in comparison to the 40,000 to 50,000 tickets sold daily for hit movies in the country like "Sunny," they are stellar in independent movie terms.
The reason for their success lies not just with their cinematic quality, but also the unique marketing strategies underpinning them. Unlike with commercial movies, distributors do not advertise the movie's cost, but rather focus on staging interactive promotional events. These may include public talks with the director and actors, or so-called community viewings, where groups of people pay to watch the film at a location of their choice.
In the case of "Bleak Night," the director held no fewer than 70 talks with the audience, while the director of "The Journals of Musan" exchanged questions and answers with fans on 50 occasions, and the distributor of "Re-encounter" staged 30 community viewings.
◆ Preference for Korean Films
Foreign films still control the Korean movie market, holding a 52 percent market share, but the dynamic is shifting. Foreign films' slice of the pie dropped 10.6 percent in the first half from last year, while Korean movies edged up 8.9 percent. Domestic films have been eating up an increasing share of the market since 2008, when they owned 40 percent of it.
"As people choose films according to their interest, rather than because of the name of the director, or whether the movie picked up awards at film festivals, Korean films are becoming more popular," said movie critic Kang Yoo-jung.
Domestic movies also cater more to the local audience's penchant for sentimentality, while imports tend more towards complex narratives and suspense, he added.