The Koreas

Why Are Russell Crowe and ‘The Avengers’ Flocking to South Korea?

Visits by Hollywood stars are only the latest sign of a growing movie market in South Korea.

Why Are Russell Crowe and ‘The Avengers’ Flocking to South Korea?
Credit: Tae-jun Kang for The Diplomat

Russell Crowe’s first-ever visit to South Korea wowed South Korean movie fans, but Crowe must have been more impressed by Korean people’s excitement for him and his movie. The Hollywood megastar, who visited Seoul to promote his new movie The Water Diviner, was welcomed by hundreds of fans who filled up the airport. Crowe later recalled that moment on TV, saying, “The greeting at the airport was amazing.”

More and more international movie stars have been heading to Seoul recently to promote their movies as South Korea has become one of the most attractive movie markets in the world.

In 2013, South Korea’s movie market was the 6th biggest in the world according to the Motion Picture Association of America, putting South Korea ahead of Germany and only slightly below India. The number of South Korean moviegoers reached over 200 million in 2014, up 25 per cent from 2010, and sales at cinemas last year were estimated at $1.5 billion, data from Korea Film Council reveled.

South Korean viewers have proven their purchasing power is as strong as other big movie markets such as the United States or China: Iron Man 3 generated about $64 million in South Korea, a figure topped only by markets in the U.S. and China. The animated film Frozen did even better, generating about $100 million and making South Korea the film’s the second most profitable market after the U.S.

As Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, said during his visit to South Korea in 2013, “South Korea has a considerably sized movie market. It is interesting to see so many movie lovers here. The fact that about 7 million people watched Avengers in a country with 50 million population proves it.”

One of the most important facts contributing to growth of the South Korean movie market is the emergence of well-made, high-quality Korean movies.

Many see Shiri as the movie that first changed people’s perceptions toward Korean movies. Shiri, which was directed by Kang Je-gyu and released in 1999, attracted more South Korean viewers than the international hit Titanic, encouraging people’s hope that Korean movies might be able to compete with Hollywood blockbusters without spending as much money as Hollywood does. It was reported that the movie’s budget was only $8.5 million, less than one-twentieth of Titanic’s.

The South Korean movie market moved into a new epoch as its movies attracted over 10 million viewers in 2004. Silmido, directed by Kang Woo-suk, and Taegukgi, directed by Kang Je-gyu, reached about 11 million and 12 million viewers respectively, proving that Korean-made movies could attract large number of moviegoers. The success of these two movies resulted in changes to the distribution strategy. South Korean movie releases used to be timed to avoid Hollywood movies’ release dates, but that is not the case anymore.

The heyday for the South Korean movie market has yet to come. The market is expected to grow, with many seeing it as a profitable market for investment. According to Korea Venture Investment Corp, a rate of return of so-called “movie funds” increased from 1.7 percent in 2010 to 23.6 percent in 2013. 56 percent of movies were funded by VCs in 2008, yet that figure soared to 86.3 percent in 2013.

“More VCs are becoming interested in investing in Korean-made movies as the rate of return is getting better and better every year,” said Kim Hyung-soo, an executive director at Korea Venture Capital Association.

Despite its growing importance as a market, South Korea has generally not been portrayed positively in international films.The movie Cloud Atlas uses Seoul as its one of its settings, but the portrayal of the city evokes Japan rather than South Korea. Die Another Day, one of the popular James Bonds series, sparked a protest in South Korea because of how it dealt with the issue of the divided peninsula. Meanwhile Keanu Reeves was booed by Koreans for using racist terms against Koreans  in the movie Street Kings.

However, there are signs of change. The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which picked Seoul as a filming location, signed an MOU with the Korean government, promising that the movie will depict Seoul positively. No one knows how Seoul will look in this movie, but people do know it will be different from other movies. Many think that more international movies will take South Korea as a setting and try to depict it positively in an effort to attract more South Korean viewers.

Russell Crowe also said during an interview with the Korean media that he will consider shooting a film in South Korea if he has an opportunity. He might need to hurry.