SEOUL, March 5 (Korea Bizwire) — “It’s so convenient, since I don’t have to go all the way to Jeonju anymore.”
So said one elderly woman standing before the entrance of the small cinema in Gimje City, North Jeolla Province. Surrounding her was a small crowd of fellow seniors and families with children, all waiting for the doors to open.
Saying that he was there with his young children, 47-year-old Kim echoed the elderly woman’s sentiments. Smiling, he said, “Before, I would have to make the 30-minute drive out to Jeonju to see a movie, but since this small cinema was established I’ve been able to save on time and expenses. It’s very convenient.”
The Gimje cinema, which opened in September 2013, is one of 32 that have popped up in smaller cities and rural counties across the country as of late February.
According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, by the end of this year the total number of small cinemas could reach 50.
The first official small cinema began screening movies in Jangsu County, North Jeolla Province in 2010. Named “Hannuri Cinema”, it quickly earned strong popularity with the locals for its affordable pricing (5,000 won per ticket for 2D and 3D films, roughly half the ticket price at a major movie theater) and convenient location.
With small cinemas becoming the subject of greater attention, the government became involved in 2013. Thanks to state funding, communities that are often agricultural, relatively underpopulated and financially modest are gaining access to movie theaters at a rapid pace.
Also referred to colloquially as a mini-theater, the small cinemas are designated as such for their limited seating, which typically ranges from 50 to 100 per screening room.
Since these establishments show new releases almost at the same time as major movie theater chains in the bigger cities, the need to make a long distance trip to catch the latest blockbuster is far lessened, as locals like Kim and the elderly woman at Gimje’s small cinema had attested to.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s goal is to ultimately bring small cinemas to the 60 or so cities and counties that still do not have a movie theater. By doing so, the expectation is interregional differences in the number of moviegoing experiences will be balanced out.
Per government figures, a resident of Seoul goes to the movies six times per year, as opposed to a resident of South or North Jeolla Province, who does likewise only twice in the same year.
The previous lack of sufficient movie showing options is likely a prominent factor in the success small cinemas are reaping in North Jeolla. Of its 14 provincial cities and counties, nine host small cinemas.
The management and supervision of a majority of these establishments is entrusted to a social cooperative, with the remaining few either run by a local organization or by the municipality itself.
The organizations that have been entrusted with the small cinemas pass on 40 to 50 percent of the ticket revenues to the municipality, and the rest is devoted to overhead and other necessary business expenses.
Overall, the small cinemas have proven to be a hit with provincial audiences, though as their successful run continues, concerns loom ahead.
In a study undertaken by the government in December of 2016, satisfaction with the ticket prices was high across regions and age groups.
However, whether prices can continue to be controlled at affordable rates is uncertain, with some cinemas already choosing to raise them.
Last January, Jangsu County’s small cinema increased its fee by 1,000 won, and the Gimje County location followed suit starting this month by raising its 5,000 won entry charge to 6,000 won for 2D movies (8,000 won for 3D pictures).
Reasons for the price hike were rising prices and the problem of unfair advantage the low fees presented for small cinemas in relationship to larger movie theater chains. The latter issue is expected to become a more contentious one as small cinemas continue to grow in number.
The growing presence of small cinemas is reflected in the figures; in 2013, .08 percent of all seats were at small cinemas, a percentage that had in 2016 reached 0.58 percent.
With prices they cannot hope to contend with and a burgeoning presence, larger movie theaters may come to view small cinemas as a threat to their business down the line.
The problem with cheaply priced tickets is also behind-the-scenes.
Small cinemas remit 65 to 76 percent of what major movie theaters pay to film distributors for screening rights, cutting into the bottom line of the film industry.
One insider at a film distributor said on condition of anonymity, “It is difficult to comprehend why profits generated by small cinemas go to local governments or supervisory organizations. If they were operating at a loss perhaps, but in situations where they are turning a profit there is a need to normalize the commission percentages.”