Korean movies drew over 100 million viewers this year, setting a milestone in the 93-year history of the domestic film industry. Each Korean watched two Korean movies on average this year to beat the previous record of 99.6 million set back in 2006.
"The Thieves" and "Masquerade" both drew more than 10 million viewers each, while 27 films attracted more than a million viewers. This is due to the efforts of the Korean movie industry to adapt to changing conditions since the protective screen quota was dropped and the market opened to foreign films.
When the government lowered the screen quota from 106 days to 73 days a year in 2006, the movie industry protested strongly, claiming that culture is not a commodity that can be traded. Industry workers staged street protests, and one actor returned his medal of cultural merit, saying an accolade from a country "that tramples on its cultural sovereignty" was worthless. But the opening of the market ended up helping rather than harming the domestic movie industry.
Facing dwindling audiences for four years after the screen quota was abolished, Korean movie makers came up with better scripts and production values. And since 2010, Korean they have lured viewers back by bringing out films with unconventional subjects or uniquely Korean themes that Hollywood studios cannot offer.
Hit movies such as "Arrow - the Ultimate Weapon," took viewers back to a time when Korea made the finest bows in the world, while "Sunny" about a reunion of a group of female classmates, and "Architecture 101" retro melodrama set in 1990s, had a powerful nostalgic appeal for viewers who are now middle-aged.
"Broken Arrow," which brought to light a controversial court case and exposed legal corruption, was also a hit. By offering a diverse range of genres, Korean movies increased their market share to 60 percent. In contrast, mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters were relegated to second place or lower rankings at the Korean box office.
Now, Korea's movie industry faces the challenge of tapping overseas markets by appealing to foreign viewers. Another problem is the dominance of movies funded and produced by major conglomerates, which control 80 percent of movie screens here. Many low-budget, independent films made by aspiring directors have a hard time finding even a handful of theaters that are willing to screen them.
Korea's cinema industry did not grow due to government protection, but due to the spirit of challenge the movie industry workers took upon themselves.