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Will Korean audiences return to movie theaters?

Anyone connected with South Korea's film exhibition industry has good reason to be feeling depressed these days. Box office returns in September were down roughly 80% on the previous year due to concerns about moviegoing during the pandemic. Leading cinema chain CGV has announced the permanent closure of numerous venues, and as losses pile up with each passing month, the survival of many independent theaters is also in doubt.

The psychological thriller Call, originally scheduled for a theatrical release last spring, has announced that it will skip theaters and debut directly on Netflix on November 27. Other major releases, including Venice Film Festival selection Night in Paradise and one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters Space Sweepers, are reportedly considering the same path.

It's easy to feel pessimistic in such a situation, and there's no indication when viewers might start coming back in significant numbers. Anyone following the industry needs to be clear-eyed about the fact that recovery is going to be difficult. But at the same time, it's easy to let the emotion of the moment overwhelm us, and affect our assessments of the future.

The pandemic has produced much breathless commentary about how life will be forever altered even after vaccines or other measures bring the virus under control. Some changes no doubt will be permanent, particularly in cases where existing trends have been bolstered by our response to the pandemic. If we look at film exhibition in the US, where admissions have been on a downward trend since 2002, it's very possible that in the post-pandemic world, attendance will not recover to its former levels. It could lead to fundamental shifts of power within the film industry.

But the situation in Korea is different. Theatrical admissions have been at record levels in recent years, powered by a steadily expanding viewer base. There was a time 15 or 20 years ago when the audience was made up almost entirely of viewers in their 20s and 30s, and people rarely went to the movies after getting married. But since then, the film industry has successfully encouraged new viewing habits and pulled both families and older viewers to the theater. Several years ago, South Korea passed Iceland to become the country with the highest per-capita film attendance rate in the world.

There are several factors behind these high rates of attendance. Studies have shown that countries with a strong local film industry tend to have significantly higher box office totals than places where screens are dominated by Hollywood product. (This is not to say that Hollywood blockbusters don't draw viewers to the theater – they certainly do! – but when a healthy local film industry exists alongside Hollywood imports, we see higher viewing numbers overall.) There may also be cultural factors accounting for the high rate of theatrical attendance in Korea. Movie theaters in Korea are popular for the same reason that cafes are popular: people of all ages tend to meet and socialize outside of the home, and moviegoing fits comfortably into existing social habits.

Which is why I get a bit skeptical when I hear pronouncements that "Film is dead" or "Netflix is king now". Certainly, in the current situation Netflix and other OTT platforms have grown much stronger than before. I don't expect them to weaken particularly when the pandemic is over. But that doesn't mean that viewers won't return to the theater at levels similar to the past.

Not to be cavalier about this, but sometimes I imagine a hypothetical situation in which something I love, like chocolate, becomes completely unavailable for a year and a half. If that were to happen, I'm sure that six months into the Chocolate Crisis we would see much commentary in the media about how consumers, having adjusted to life without chocolate, would no longer want to eat it in the future. But speaking for myself, I'm sure that when the first shipment of chocolate arrived in Korea, I'd be standing in line waiting for it, and it would probably taste better than any chocolate I had ever eaten in my life. In the months or even years to follow, I would appreciate and value chocolate more, not less, than I had in the past.

In this near future which is so hard for us to visualize right now, when people live without masks and without fear of contagion, will Korean viewers be crowding the multiplexes and selling out film festivals with even more enthusiasm than they had previously? For me, the objective, cold analysis suggests the answer is yes.

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