For movie lovers, there is only one story right now: Avengers: Endgame. The Marvel epic shattered box office records around the world, hauling in more than $1.2 billion worldwide in just a few days. South Korea has long been on the Marvel bandwagon, and is known as one of the biggest markets for the superhero-laden franchise. Endgame is no exception, with millions of Koreans dedicating their weekend to go see the pop culture phenomenon that is sweeping the globe.
Marvel knows the special place they hold in the heart of the Korean public, and have made South Korea a central part of the franchise’s marketing campaigns. Marvel held even held their Asia press conference in Seoul a few weeks before Endgame’s opening, dispatching the film’s top talent to South Korea to promote the film. Endgame stars Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Renner, and Brie Larson as well as the film’s directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, and Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, joined 4,000 fans in Seoul for the event, which even featured special K-pop style Avengers lightsticks that lit the entire stadium purple throughout the night. This was the fourth time that Seoul was selected as the host city for this event, after Spiderman: Homecoming, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War.
Marvel’s Korea connection is not just limited to press events, though. Marvel Studios has now filmed sections of two of its major movies on location in South Korea – Avengers: Age of Ultron in Seoul and Black Panther in Busan. Feige has since hinted that more filming in South Korea may be in the works in the future as well.
And the Marvel love isn’t limited to the movies themselves. Marvel-themed merchandise has infiltrated all types of industries in South Korea — from new Avengers-themed credit cards to skincare. Marvel even opened the world’s first Marvel Collection Store in Seoul in 2016 to sell official merch among life-sized statues of the famous heroes.
These moves make sense considering South Korea’s dedication to the franchise — and the country’s love of movies in general. South Korea is the fifth-largest box office market by revenue, and the sixth-largest by number of tickets sold. The number of tickets (222 million in 2018) is particularly impressive considering that South Korea has a much smaller population (50 million) compared to the other top movie markets — India, China, the United States, Mexico, and Russia.
This weekend, a huge chunk of that market was devoted to Endgame. According to the Korean Film Council, last Thursday — the second day of the film’s release in South Korea — 83.3 percent of all movie seats nationwide were for showings of Endgame. The movie garnered more than 1 million viewers in just 4.5 hours, a new South Korean record, and continued its momentum, with an average of more than 1 million viewers per day in the first six days of its release.
Not everyone is happy about these staggering numbers, however. Endgame’s complete domination over the South Korean box office, as well as the general influx of foreign blockbusters over the years, has made some question whether the current system is fair to locally produced Korean films as well as indie productions. Before the movie had even opened, South Korean lawmakers had proposed a bill capping the amount of show times that any given multiplex theater could devote to one film during prime time at 50 percent. Newly appointed Culture Minister Park Yang-woo has indicated he supports the idea of some sort of quota, although he noted that details still need to be hashed out. South Korea does currently have regulations that require cinemas to screen Korean movies for at least 73 days out of the year, but supporters say this is clearly not enough to prevent one movie, like Endgame, from coming in and sweeping the market.
Quota opponents also point to Endgame’s success to prove their point. The market has spoken, they say, and the response is clear. With pre-sold tickets in the millions, it doesn’t matter how many seats were available for other movies – South Koreans wanted to see Endgame.
Jenna Gibson is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago and a Korea blogger for The Diplomat. You can find her on Twitter at @jennargibson.