Korea Box Office In 2023 Is Far Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

Korea Box Office In 2023 Is Far Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

A strong December for local films helped make up for an otherwise miserable 2023 at the South Korean box office – previously the fifth largest cinema territory worldwide.

And while theatrical markets in other major territories have recovered to reach at or near pre-pandemic levels, Korea finished 44% below 2019.

Data from the Korean Film Council’s Kobis tracking service showed annual gross revenues of KRW1.261 trillion ($964 million at Jan 2024 rates of exchange) in 2023. That represented a gain of 9% on 2022, but it was far below the KRW1.91 trillion ($1.46 billion) recorded in 2019, the last pre-COVID year.

The bleak trend was mirrored in terms of attendance or ticket sales, which remains the country’s preferred performance measure. Cinema attendance reached 125 million in 2023, an 11% increase compared with the 113 million recorded in 2022, but 45% below 2019’s 227 million.

Kobis’ monthly data describe a year of peaks and troughs. Powered by holdover title “Avatar: The Way of Water,” 2023 started brightly enough, with a strong January. But February, March and April represented a bleak quarter that was particularly desperate for Korean films. Used to commanding about half of the annual total, these earned a meager 25% of the nationwide box office.

Summer was brighter, with Korean-produced “The Roundup: No Way Out,” “The Smugglers” and “Concrete Utopia” earning respectively $79.9 million, $37.9 million and $28.5 million. “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1,” with $30.8 million, and “Oppenheimer,” with $26.2 million, were the two biggest import successes of the summer season. (“Barbie,” in contrast, was a notable flop with just $4.38 million.)

But, as summer turned to autumn, both Korean and imported titles struggled again to find traction, and gross box office slumped between September and November. “The Marvels” earned just $5.22 million in a market that has previously been strong for the MCU.

December was sharply lifted by political thriller “12.12: The Day,” which finished as the year’s top film, with $88 million, and action thriller “Noryang: The Deadly Sea,” with $26 million recorded in the first ten days of its December release.

Market share for Korean films slipped from 56% in 2022 to 48.5% in 2023 (and 51% in 2019), keeping the full-year percentage largely within the bounds of normality. But there was plenty of reason for concern.

Only two films – “12.12: The Day” and “The Roundup: No Way Out” – achieved more than ten million admissions, the conventional denominator of a blockbuster in Korea. And the list of disappointments was far longer, including “Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman” ($14.2 million), “Hero” ($13.6 million), “The Point Men” ($13.3 million), “Road to Boston” ($7.22 million) and “The Moon” ($3.97 million) among the most notable.

Among imported titles, Hollywood too had plenty of disappointments. “Elemental,” which had particular Korean connections, was the top foreign film of 2023 in Korea, earning $54.3 million. Second and third places, however, belonged to Japanese animation films “Suzume” ($43.6 million) and “The First Slam Dunk” ($38.2 million). Hollywood’s underperformers in Korea included “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” ($7.24 million), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” ($6.49 million), “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” ($5.94 million), “The Little Mermaid” ($5.09 million) and “The Flash” ($5.14 million).

Given the struggle to engage audiences endured by the Korean theatrical industry, the number of film releases fell both year-on-year and when compared with the altogether healthier 2019. Some 1,539 titles reached Korean screens in 2023, compared with 1,774 in 2022 and 1,943 in 2019, the Kobis data showed. (Within that total, both local and imported numbers dropped.)