South Korea's major theaters are at loggerheads with the global streaming giant Netflix over the release of its latest production "Okja," which they fear will upend the local movie distribution industry.
Netflix has announced a plan to make the latest film by internationally acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho available simultaneously on the online platform and South Korean theaters. But South Korea's three largest multi-screen chains -- CJ CGV, Lotte Cinema and Megabox, which control 90 percent of screens in the country -- finally decided not to release the movie. They argued that the simultaneous release would "destroy the ecosystem of the local film industry."
In South Korea, movies are offered on Internet-based TV, VOD and other platforms about two to three weeks after their big-screen debuts.
As both sides refused to step back, the international action film is expected to be shown only in non-multiplex theaters June 29. As of Monday, a total of 79 theaters with a total of 103 screens around the country decided to release the movie, and the number will continue to rise till the release day, according to the movie's local distributor Next Entertainment World.
Co-written by Bong and Jon Ronson of "Frank," "Okja" follows a girl from a rural town who risks everything to prevent a multinational company from kidnapping her close friend and super pig named Okja. The sci-fi film was co-produced by three Hollywood studios -- Plan B, Lewis Pictures and Kate Street Picture Co. -- while Netflix covered the film's entire budget of US$50 million.
It stars Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal of "Nightcrawler" and "Everest," and Paul Dano of "Love & Mercy" and "12 Years a Slave," and has Korean actors, including An Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Choi Woo-shik and Yoon Je-moon, among its cast.
Despite the major theaters' boycott, "Okja" remained second on the real-time chart of pre-reserved movies after the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster "Transformer: The Last Knight" for the second day in a row with nine days left before its release.
But it was even before the movie comes to South Korea that it stirred heated debate over Netflix movie's theatrical release. The debate first surfaced during the 70th Cannes Film Festival last month where "Okja" was one of the two Netflix titles competing in Cannes for the first time, along with Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories." But after a strong protest from French movie theaters, Cannes changed its rules to exclude films without a commitment for a French theatrical release starting next year.
Behind the boycott seems to be mounting fear that the global streaming giant would undermine the country's film distribution system and eventually dominate the film market.
Netflix has only about 80,000 paid subscribers in Korea but over 100 million worldwide. The number of international subscribers could reach 128 million by 2022, according to a report from the US Digital TV Research.
"The reason why we refuse to release this profitable much-anticipated film is because we don't know what influence it will have on the Korean cinema market in the long term," said an official at one of the cinema chains participating in the boycott, asking not to be named.
"When it comes to the power of Netflix, domestic movie chains are rather weak," a CGV official said, also requesting not to be named. "Since Netflix is expanding its influence not only in movies but also in broadcast content, we need to first have in-depth discussions on what influence it will have on movie, online video and the overall broadcasting market in the future."
However, not all Korean moviegoers are in favor of domestic cinema chains as far as this contentious issue is concerned. Some claim that the movie chains are not qualified to mention "an ecosystem of the film industry," while they are busily filling theaters with lucrative films and increasing the number of chain theaters.
"It's hard to swallow the multiplex operators' claim that they cannot simultaneously release the movie due to conventions even though they have already introduced policies running against market traditions like charging different prices for seats," Kim Hyong-ho, a movie market analyst, pointed out.
Conglomerates have come under fire for monopolizing the market by operating investment, production, distribution and screening all together, and thus excluding independent and experimental films from their theaters. Last year, they came under criticism for beginning to charge new rates, which actually hiked ticket prices for the majority of moviegoers who watch movies during the prime hours on weekends.
Some film critics raised the need for the domestic film industry to adapt to the fast-changing media environment.
"You cannot swim against the trend of the times where the ecosystem of films and their consumers have changed," said Jang Ji-wook, a movie critic. "I think the local movie industry are responding slowly to the changes."
Experts say whether "Okja" gets a theatrical release or not Netflix has little to lose either way.
Bong, one of the most trusted and favored movie directors in South Korea, could prompt viewers to subscribe to the online streaming service to watch his new film, even if the movie is not shown in theaters. If shown in theaters, the streaming service can get extra revenue.
Most of all, the noise created by the recent debate could help increase the public recognition of the US brand in the South Korean streaming market, now dominated by big mobile carriers.
Bong said during a news conference to promote the film on June
14 that it was him who attached the condition of the film being shown both on the big screen and on the online platform in Korea.
"The controversy was caused due to my cinematic selfishness. I am the one who provided the cause," Bong said. "I fully understand the multiplexes asking for a minimum three-week hold back.
Netflix's principle for a simultaneous release should also be respected."
He also expressed hope that "Okja" would become a "signal flare" in establishing new rules relating to similarly produced films. (Yonhap)