A VIOLENT Prosecutor, The Battleship Island, A Taxi Driver… Do you notice any similarities among these films? They were all screened in over 27% of all Korean movie theaters in their first day of screening, compared to the average rate of 2.1%. This “screen monopoly” by multiplexes is threatening the diversity of the movie industry as well as the consumer’s right of choice.
Korea’s movie industry has a vertically integrated structure, meaning that there are companies that invest, distribute, as well as screen movies. This led to big companies owning multiplex theaters to increase their profits. According to the National Audit Committee of the National Assembly, multiplexes take up 80.9% of all movie theaters in Korea. Among those, the top 3 multiplex theaters take up over 50%. Moreover, 98.4% of all Korea movie viewers watch movies by these multiplexes. This structure is creating an environment where big companies are focusing on distributing and screening only their own movies. This has led to a screen monopoly that blocks small and medium-sized companies and independent movies from screening their movies, undercutting the movie viewers’ accessibility towards more diverse movie genres.
This serious problem of screen monopoly has made numerous victims on its way. *How to Steal A Dog*, a film distributed by Little Big Pictures company in 2014, is one such example. Through its solid plot and good acting, the movie received good reviews from critics. However, due to the screen monopoly of the distribution companies, the movie was only able to get hold of a small number of screens. Therefore, its profit plummeted and the movie ended up leaving a deficit. What made this case more pitiful was the resignation of Uhm Yong-hoon, the ex-CEO of Little Big Pictures co., who announced that he will resign to take the responsibility of the financial loss of the company.
In order for the Korean movie industry to diversify beyond the movies made directly by the distribution companies, the industry’s very structure must be reformed. In the past, the United States also had such problem with vertically integrated movie companies, which led to the 1948 Supreme Court Case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. In 1945, five major studios owned only 17% of all the U.S.’ movie theaters. However, a minority of movie theaters were first-run theaters near big cities, so in reality, they took 70% of the profit of all U.S. box-office, and 95% of the whole distribution company’s profit. Because of this monopoly in the movie industry, studios started to screen the movies in their minority of movie theaters and distribute their movies as late as they can to other movie theaters. This unfair structure of the movie industry led the court to force the separation of the movie studios and their theaters. This put an end to the monopoly system of the U.S. movie industry.
Korea can learn from this example. Last October, an amendment of Act on the Promotion of Movie and Video called “Young-Be Law” was proposed, and it largely resembles the Paramount Decree. There are three parts to his proposal. The first part is the regulation of large companies screening and distributing films at the same time. The second part aims at preventing certain movies from monopolizing the screens. Lastly, the third part calls for an expansion of theaters for independent art movies. These amendments will provide an environment of fair competition to all the movies screened in Korea. Moreover, the part of the amendment that tackles the vertically integrated structure of Korean movie industry will hopefully change the priority of today’s profit-oriented Korean movie industry.
Uhm Yong-hoon claimed in an interview with Sisain, “The quality of a movie can be overcome through effort. However, capital and screen are not the problem of effort. It is a problem of structure. It is not a fight with a competitor. It is a fight with the overall structure. That is why it is hard.” Screen monopoly is becoming a serious problem, and it is now time for us to straighten the very structure of Korean movie industry that is the core cause of the problem.