Korea Box Office: Foreign Film Revenues Collapse in 2020

The New Year weekend rankings give a bizarre indication of the havoc currently being wreaked on the Korean box office by the coronavirus, audience caution and stay at home orders. For a start, a Hollywood title scored a rare victory.

“Wonder Woman 1984,” the most recently released film of international significance, took the top spot for the second weekend. But it did so with a lamentable $605,000 gross, according to data from the Korean Film Council’s (KOFIC’s) tracking services. It accounted for a 49% share of the Jan. 1-3 nationwide theatrical market, which shrank to just $1.2 million.

Behind it, Jackie Chan vehicle “Vanguard” managed just $97,000 from 12,000 ticket sales. That was good enough for third place by earnings, and second place by admissions.

Many of the titles that made up the remainder of the top ten were re-releases or other older titles. They included: Wong Kar-wai’s restored “In The Mood For Love” 20 years after its original outing, which earned $99,000; 2016 musical hit “La La Land” with $19,000; and Japanese drama “Departures,” which previously released in 2008 before winning the foreign language Oscar. It earned $20,000. Australian chiller, “The Nightingale,” released in other territories in 2018, got a Dec. 30 outing in Korea and earned $42,400.

The full-year 2020 picture is also a portrait of pain. Overall box office revenues tumbled by 73% in local currency terms, according to KOFIC’s Kobis database. It showed nationwide gross revenues of KRW510 billion in 2020, compared with KRW2.270 trillion in 2019, which had been an all-time record year. (Using end of 2020 exchange rates those figures equate to $469 million, compared with $2.09 billion.)

If the local industry were looking for a crumb of comfort in a year when revenues and releases collapsed and many prominent films skipped theaters for straight-to-streaming outings instead, the data shows Korean films were able to increase their theatrical market share.

Korean-made films earned KRW350 billion ($321 million) of the 2020 nationwide total, giving a share that surged to 69%, up from 51% in 2019. They also accounted for the top four places, with “The Man Standing Next” topping the chart with $38.1 million, “Deliver Us From Evil” earning $35.7 million, “Peninsula” earning $30.6 million, and “Hitman Agent Jun” earning $19.0 million. “Tenet,” with $17.0 million, was the top-ranked U.S. film of the year, in fifth place.

That was a particularly dismal outcome for Hollywood. Foreign titles earned a combined total of just $147 million last year in South Korea, down 84% compared with their $945 million outcome in 2019, when the country had been the world’s fourth largest box office market, behind only North America, China and Japan.

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