Watching Movies during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic in Korea
October 29, 2020 by Yalea Lee
The movies have always been a classic option for an outing. However, like most activities we had been taking for granted, the movie industry has not been the same since the breakout of COVID-19. South Korea has never explicitly forced a lockdown on the entire country, and even during the strict level 2.5 social distancing campaign, cinemas have never been forced to shut down by the government.
Nevertheless, the Korean cinema has been seeing extreme drops in moviegoers. According to KOBIS, 2,110,630 people went to see the top five grossing films in the box office during the first week of September 2019. By contrast, the first week of September in 2020 saw 1,545,121 moviegoers for the top five grossing films. That is only around 73.2% of moviegoers from 2019. The first week of September was during the 2.5 social distancing campaign, which should have further prevented citizens from visiting the cinema.
The Korean government has been making an effort to keep the movie industry from burning down completely, as it has been a significant influence to the nation's economy as well as Korea’s reputation as a cultural powerhouse. The government has been funding the Korean Film Council with several updates on the financial support policies. The latest update in July 2020 lists a number of programs; not only do they reduce taxes and support funds for disinfection of theaters, but also provide special funding for independent filmmakers.
Theaters that specialize in arthouse/indie films have been taking their own measures to lure in more customers. For example, Arthouse MOMO, an arthouse cinema run by Ewha Women’s University, has been opening and reopening since February. In July, they offered discounts of 6,000 KRW for each movie ticket. This sale has been organized by the #saveourcinema movement. Most indie film cinemas have been partaking in this sale. However, Arthouse MOMO has recently closed on August 26th and currently does not have any plans to re-open. The arthouse cinema run by Megabox, one of the biggest movie theater chains in Korea, Arthouse9, is still open.
Consequently, the public seems to be spending their time indoors to watch movies. Around the world, drive-in movie theaters that were emblematic of the 1950s have made a comeback. Since you can watch a movie from the comfort of your car, you are both safely practicing social distancing as well as enjoying a night out, almost like the days before COVID-19. There are two well-known drive-in theaters in Seoul, Megabox EOE4 is one such business located near Namsan, and another is the Jamsil Drive-in Theater.
An even better way to keep oneself safe from the virus would be to stay completely inside your own house, and with more time to spend than usual, the public has been turning to OTT services (over-the-top media services) such as Netflix or Watchaplay, where users can stream a variety of movies and television shows. According to Netflix in April 2020, they have seen a double in profits after the pandemic outbreak as well as 16 million new members. Watchaplay’s representative Taehoon Park stated in March 2020 that there was a 36.9% increase in the hours spent on Watchaplay.
In fact, Watcha has been providing free trial periods for their streaming service. All citizens who are in mandatory self-quarantine, whether it be in their own homes or in government facilities, are guaranteed full access to the service until they are free to go out again. Those who are not under a mandatory quarantine can use the service for free for up to 3 days.
Given the situation, it seems unlikely that South Korea will be easing up on social distancing measures for a long time, which means the nation will have to get used to these changes in how movies are consumed. Perhaps this new environment will affect the cinema and its distribution system in a positive way, but it is also worrying for the film industry, as they struggle to keep their revenues afloat.