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Darcy Paquet on Korean film

Word-of-mouth during a pandemic

Oct 09, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Darcy Paquet
Darcy Paquet
I think we're all familiar with the phenomenon of a film that turns into a word-of-mouth hit.

Some movies are huge on arrival, filling theaters on the first day with fans that have been waiting anxiously for its release. But others open on a modest scale and then gradually build momentum as viewers recommend it to their friends and share their enthusiasm online. For critics and people who work in the film industry, this sort of word-of-mouth energy is particularly thrilling. When news of a truly outstanding film starts to spread, you can feel something in the air.

In that sense, it's been at turns disheartening and morbidly fascinating to see what happens to the concept of film industry word-of-mouth during a pandemic. South Korea's movie theaters never completely shut down in 2020, but there were long stretches when hardly anything new was being released.

Word-of-mouth essentially died, because there were no new films to talk about (except on Netflix). But by June and July, local distributors once again began to release a mix of high-profile and midsized Korean films, and viewers cautiously began to return to the theater.

Lee Jung-jae in Deliver Us From Evil
Lee Jung-jae in Deliver Us From Evil
Scene from Deliver Us From Evil
Scene from Deliver Us From Evil

Thus the stage was set for probably the clearest example of a post-pandemic word-of-mouth hit: the blood-soaked action thriller Deliver Us From Evil. Although you'd never call it a small release, as distributor CJ ENM gave it a wide opening with plenty of marketing, it's true that positive word-of-mouth pushed the box office much higher than expectations.

The story of a weary assassin who flies to Thailand to save his estranged daughter from kidnappers, the film had striking visuals (thanks to Hong Kyung-pyo, the cinematographer behind Parasite) and memorable characters. In particular, the villain played by Lee Jung-jae set viewers buzzing, thanks to his manic intensity, fashion model vibe and unquestioned ability to dominate a scene.

Deliver Us From Evil quickly amassed 4.3 million in ticket sales (worth 38.6 billion won, or US$33.5 million) before the August resurgence of COVID-19 slammed the door shut on the film's momentum.

More recently, word-of-mouth played a role in the fate of this year's Chuseok holiday film releases. The family melodrama Pawn (in which, coincidentally, the same child actor Park So-i is "kidnapped") opened weakly on September 29 at #2 with 67,000 admissions. But it jumped to #1 the next day, and both its daily gross and its overall box office share grew steadily over the five-day holiday.

High viewer ratings on Naver and other platforms were probably the key factor (critics have been less enthusiastic), but given that moviegoing in general has not recovered to summer levels, it's an oddly muted buzz in the air right now. In normal times, the director and cast would be holding Q&A sessions at sold-out screenings packed with fans, but instead, there is no direct communication or interchange with the film's audience.

In Korea, the word-of-mouth effect on mainstream releases tends to be intense -- more so than in other countries, I'd argue, because of broad public interest in the cinema. Some pretty dramatic swings in box-office fortunes can take place even over the first a day or two of a film's release. For mainstream films it's a fairly straightforward process: like the mythical turbo booster, good word-of-mouth propels a film forward, while poor word-of-mouth is like a parachute that pops out the back of a racecar.

But if we expand our view to include low-budget independent features (the part of the Korean film industry that I find most interesting), we see a different sort of dynamic. Working on a smaller scale, and without access to an expensive marketing campaign, word-of-mouth is everything to an independent release. And that word-of-mouth doesn't just spontaneously happen; it needs to be built from the ground up through persistent effort. It's a bit like trying to light a fire without a match.

Over the years, Korean independent directors have established a kind of template for how to build word-of-mouth for their films. It starts with the film's first screening at a local film festival, usually the Busan International Film Festival in October, the Jeonju International Film Festival in May, or the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in July.

Quite a large number of Korean films premiere at these festivals each year, but those that are especially popular with die-hard film fans and critics attract notice and start being discussed on social media. If the film is similarly well-received by programmers from international film festivals, in the coming months the film may travel around the world or even win some festival awards, which are covered by the local media. Then, perhaps as long as a year or two later, the film receives its theatrical release in Korea.

At this point, press interviews, YouTube coverage, and film reviews help build the sense that this is a film people are talking about, and worth seeing. Finally, there are the Q&A screenings with the director and/or cast members, which are even more important to the box office success of independent films than they are to commercial films.

Scene from Moving On
Scene from Moving On

Incidentally, there is a film in theaters now that traveled this same path, but which is struggling to maintain word-of-mouth during the pandemic. Moving On by debut director Yoon Dan-bi premiered at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival and generated the most buzz among the several dozen new Korean films on offer.

This January, Director Yoon traveled to the Rotterdam Film Festival where she received the extremely prestigious Bright Future Award for up-and-coming filmmakers. Then the pandemic hit. Many subsequent film festivals around the world that had invited the film ended up being canceled, or held online. In the summer, online festival juries awarded Moving On a few more prizes, and then it secured a local theatrical release in late August -- which turned out to be extremely unfortunate timing.

Critics have praised it as the Korean independent film of the year, but drawing viewers to the theater has been a challenge. It has currently amassed a total of 20,000 admissions -- quite a respectable score for a low-budget independent film -- but it might have grossed several times that in a normal year.

The deceptively simple story of a single father and his two children who move into their grandfather's house for the summer, Moving On is an elegantly told, extremely poignant film with some of the most natural acting performances I've seen in years. It's currently screening with English subtitles in Seoul at Emu Cinema, KU Cinematheque and Film Forum.

What concerns me most as a Korean film enthusiast is the fate of the new Korean films that will premiere at this month's Busan International Film Festival. Off-line screenings will be held, although theaters will be capped at 50% capacity, and press coverage will be minimal. I expect that even the best films there will struggle to generate any word-of-mouth. Whether in the coming year they can get themselves noticed and eventually find a broader audience will tell us much about the long-term damage wrought by COVID-19 on the film industry.

By Darcy Paquet

Darcy Paquet is the founder of and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves. A former correspondent for Screen International and Variety, he teaches at the Busan Asian Film School and is a program advisor for the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. In 2014 he co-launched the Wildflower Film Awards Korea, which recognizes achievement in Korean independent filmmaking. He has also translated the subtitles for many films including The Handmaiden and Parasite.
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