Korea’s Cutting Edge: CJ CGV’s Jung Seo reinvents the cinema experience

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Cinemas Features

The Asia-Pacific region boasts some of the world’s most innovative theatre circuits, and among the very best is CJ CGV, the number-one chain in South Korea. And so it’s fitting that CineAsia will honor Jung Seo, the company’s chief executive officer, with the 2015 “Exhibitor of the Year” Award.

“Seo’s revolutionary vision and innovative forward-thinking have dramatically changed the moviegoing culture not only throughout Korea, but all of Asia,” states Andrew Sunshine, co-managing director of CineAsia. “CJ CGV continues to be an industry leader for all to follow and we congratulate them on this well-deserved honor.”

CJ CGV currently operates 127 cinemas with 964 screens in Korea (with a market share approaching 50%), 45 cinemas with 357 screens in China, and 27 cinemas with 178 screens in Vietnam. The circuit also has theatres in Malaysia and Indonesia.

In an exclusive e-mail exchange with Film Journal International, Seo discussed CJ CGV’s formula for success and what lies ahead for this pioneering circuit.

“Providing an experience beyond movies is our mission and it has led to the development of new technologies such as 4DX, ScreenX and SphereX, as well as installation of laser projectors and ultimate sound systems,” Seo declares. “In addition to the improvement of technologies, we also emphasize the importance of customer service in acquiring loyal customers. To make this happen, CGV University has been established in Korea, China and Vietnam, where theatre managers receive special training regarding customer service. We believe this will be a strong foundation for maintaining top customer service and our effort to be the best theatre chain.”

CJ CGV locations offer a broad range of entertainment options. CJ’s branded 4DX, an initiative which has spread to Europe and the USA, is a multi-sensory cinema experience which utilizes motion seats, water, wind, lighting, scents and other special effects to enhance the picture onscreen. ScreenX extends the visuals to the two walls on either side of the main screen, while SphereX offers a more spherical viewing environment. One of the wildest CJ CGV offerings is its Tempur Cinemas, the world’s first reclining-bed cinemas (including “Bed Tray” food service), with locations in Apgujeong-dong and Centum City in Busan, Korea.

“All of these upgrades and developments are done to bring more people into our cinemas, as many have turned to other forms of entertainment such as computers, mobiles and online platforms,” Seo says. “We believe the developments in new technologies and special-format cinemas are keeping us competitive in the market and allow us to expand.”

The circuit’s prime showcase for its varied offerings is CGV Cheongdam Cine City, which opened in Seoul’s trendy Sinsa-dong district in November 2011. “It’s one of our proudest locations, as the site is comprised of all of our core strengths,” Seo notes. “Every single auditorium on each floor is incorporated with a different concept of cinema with brand collaboration. M Cube, located on the third floor, is a multimedia studio which can be utilized for live performances such as music concerts, showcases and parties. Kia Cinema, sponsored by and named after automaker Kia and located on fifth floor, presents ScreenX. Well known for super-high sound quality, the “Beats by Dr. Dre” auditorium located on the seventh floor includes Dr. Dre headsets and displays products in the lobby to create a club-like atmosphere.

“On the ninth floor there’s the Veatbox auditorium, where every single seat includes individual subwoofers that enhance an exciting and more engaging cinematic experience. The name was derived from a combination of ‘vibration’ and ‘beat box’. Sweetbox Premium on the tenth floor presents a wide, luxurious and cozy spot to catch a movie, especially on special nights with significant others. The private cinemas located on 11th and 12th floor, with 40 luxury seats of designer furniture, private restrooms and a lounge area, are perfect for special events such as VIP parties and family dinners. Lastly, the famous 4DX auditorium is on the 13th floor, where the audience can experience moving seats and environmental effects.”

Cheongdam Cine City was the launching pad for a CGV program called “Cultureplex.” As Seo recounts, “The concept of ‘Cultureplex’ was established for the audience to enjoy [an experience] beyond the movies. Since 2011, we have opened a Cine Library at CGV Myeongdongyeok dedicated to cinema-related movie scripts, original scripts, animation, etc. The CGV Myeongdongyeok is located in the heart of the cinema area and anyone can come by and get inspired about a movie. In addition, in the Daehangno area where people can enjoy theatrical plays as well as various performances, CGV Daehangno has opened its ‘Cultural Theater Cultureplex.’ This portrays the regional characteristics, as Daehangno is well known for theatrical plays where the audiences really communicates.”

The wraparound ScreenX concept, meanwhile, has grown dramatically.“Currently, we have a total of 84 ScreenX screens, including seven overseas,” Seo reports. “We plan to expand that number to 1,000 by 2020. CGV is the first and foremost movie platform company. Thus, our aim is to expand our ScreenX screens aggressively while making sure we work with content producers to create the best possible content for ScreenX. In this way, we can make sure our audience is able to experience the full immersive effects of ScreenX, whether you are in the U.S., Korea or China.”

The Veatbox concept is also spreading, with 51 screens in Korea. And speaking of sound, the circuits has a number of immersive audio screens—ten with Sonic Tier, three with Dolby Atmos, two with IOSONO, and one with Auro 11.1.

CJ 4DPLEX, with its 4DX multi-sensory installations, is a thriving division of the circuit’s parent company. As Seo reports, “4DX is expected to operate 225 auditoriums in 35 countries by the end of 2015. In Vietnam, there are now three 4DX auditoriums in Hochiminh, Hanoi and Vivo City. In China, 4DX has 41 screens, having partnerships with eight partners including Wanda Cinemas, UME and CGV, with plans to further grow by reaching 53 total sites in 2015.”

Seo believes that“CJ 4DPLEX holds a great competitive position, able to accommodate more than 40 million moviegoers per year, with sustainable growth planned worldwide in the year ahead. There is high demand from moviegoers, represented by high occupancy rates, and strong partnerships with global theatre exhibitors. Like experiencing a film in 4DX, the future of 4D entertainment is incredibly promising. Overall, CJ 4DPLEX aims to reach 300 4DX theatres by the first half of 2016, as this technology becomes a mainstream option for moviegoers seeking the most immersive cinema experiences available.”

CJ CGV is also involved with trending dine-in theatre locations.“CGV has an excellent dine-in cinema called ‘Cine de Chef’ in two locations at CGV Apgugeong and CGV Centum City, where it serves a customized first-class cinema experience. Cine de Chef offers special French and Italian dishes such as lobster pasta and beef tenderloin steak cooked by our best chefs. Moreover, we offer various selections including beer, wine and cocktails. Additionally, audiences can find welcome package that includes slippers, complimentary drinks, and even cellphone charging services.”

More casual snacking is also taking on new dimensions.“CGV always has plans for new items that will better serve and satisfy our customers,” Seo declares. “Shake popcorn is one of the products we adopted a few months ago. It has gained its popularity for seven different excellent tastes, especially among popcorn lovers. Shake popcorn offers seven different seasonings such as curry, onion, mango, banana and spicy chicken that people choose and scatter on top of a large bag of popcorn. If desired, you can add two seasonings at the same time. We also have plans to extend a number of products at the concession stand, especially for kids and seniors.”

An exciting new venture for CJ CGV has been its entry into Vietnam. “We are making strong and meaningful progress in Vietnam as the top player in the country,” Seo reports. “As of November 6, we are operating 27 theaters with 178 screens and are expecting several more openings within this year. The acquisition of Megastar, which was the biggest multiplex chain in Vietnam in 2011, allowed us to compete with more advantages. Though we implemented CGV’s core ‘Cultureplex’ to further achieve growth and maximize our potential in the market. We had to give local customers enough reasons to come to us. For that, several changes were made qualitatively as well as quantitatively. New items were added to the concession stand and installation of innovative movie technologies such as 4DX and IMAX was done. As a result, profits and revenue increased along with brand recognition.”

The adjustment to a new market has been relatively smooth. “We do not believe there is any huge difference operating theatres in different regions. What we are trying to do is to maximize our strengths to offer the best moviegoing experience, which means that we must pay close attention to the different needs of each market. For example, in Vietnam where the average age of the population is only around the 30s, we are trying different approaches to best appeal to local young customers by carrying more local promotional events and doing social-media marketing, which plays a huge role in terms of communication with locals. In addition, young people in general prefer to be in a trendy place. Therefore, we try to locate our theatres in downtown areas with upgraded design of the building itself, lobby, restrooms, auditoriums and ticket booth. Moreover, we have created a Young Member Card in Vietnam to specially target younger generations.”

Loyalty programs in general play a key role in the circuit’s success. “CGV’s loyal customers can enjoy major benefits such as movie ticket discount coupons, free popcorn and soda, and invitations to premieres of new movies. Also, we have other customized membership cards such as ‘1318 Club’ for teenagers and ‘Art House Club’ for independent and art-film lovers. As to our social-media activities, we use our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to establish meaningful connections with customers, in particular the younger generation. We have more than 1.6 million Facebook fans. There are various posts and content including posts about promotional events that make people want to read and share.”

CJ CJV is also finding some success with “event cinema” attractions. “We have shown alternative content such as rock concerts, musicals, the World Cup and premier league soccer games,” Seo says. “Boy-band concerts normally record high ticket sales. These concerts are sometimes shown in a ScreenX auditorium that utilizes all three walls to give the extra vibe that you are actually there. We program this kind of alternative content in order to give more diversified experiences for the audience, though the revenue from these is less than one percent of total CGV’s revenue.”

Korea’s hot movie industry remains a domestic powerhouse.“In general, Korean movies claim a greater market share in terms of box office compared to Hollywood blockbusters. But several Hollywood blockbusters enjoy popularity in Korea. Programming isn’t simple when you know there are hundreds of domestic and foreign movies released every year. It just depends on how you program to best serve the interests of Korean audience. It’s important to know which movies people like more and how much people like to see.”

And moviegoers will be seeing an even clearer picture in the coming years.“We have plans to install more laser projection systems in many CGV locations,” Seo reveals. “Last month in Korea we installed Christie’s 6 primary laser projection systems in one of the largest screens in the world, CGV Yeongdeungpo Starium. Christie’s 6 primary laser projection systems far exceed any ‘ultra-bright’ industry standards. We will continue upgrading our projection systems to provide a better moviegoing experience.”

Continually exploring new technologies is a must, Seo contends.“We believe that in upcoming years exhibitors have to provide reasons for people to come to theatres, and that is the reason why we invest in innovative movie technologies and high-quality customer service at all times.”

Seo started his career with the Samsung C&T sales management team in 1986,

Later, he moved to CJ O Shopping, one of the biggest home-shopping companies in Asia. There, he was responsible for increasing Internet sales volume and leading the company’s global growth.

And Seo intends to oversee steady growth at CJ CGV too.“We have plans to open more branches in different regions in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and more. We believe that the location, screens, audience, revenues and profits coming from outside of Korea will be greater than that of domestic market in about five years. Our plan is to become the best global theatre chain in the exhibition industry, and our ultimate aspiration is to provide platform globalization of Korean culture.”