THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

Features

Once upon a time in a land not so far away, a young boy grew up with aspirations of being a salary man, a businessman working in one of his country's large chaebols (corporations). These were the days when the pop screen stars of Hollywood and even Japan reigned supreme. The glitz and glamour of the silver screen was only a child's dream-never a career aspiration.

"I didn't expect to be in this business at all," remarks this year's CineAsia Exhibitor of the Year, Woody Kim, president and COO of Megabox Cineplex. "In fact, most of my college friends are stockbrokers or in heavy industry. I'm the first in our group to be in this business.”

So begins the fascinating story of a young man who has worked himself up the ranks in a short period of time to lead one of the most dynamic total film entertainment companies in Asia.

"I joined the Orion Group about seven years ago, where I spent time in the animation division. But I was strictly in planning. I guess the director saw something in me-especially when he said he wanted me to concentrate on the multiplex cinema business, which we knew nothing about. In fact, he thought it better we start without knowing anything about the past," Kim muses over a cool class of ice tea on a hot day at the Pusan International Film Festival (for which Megabox was a major sponsor).

And so the odyssey began to build "the best-ever theatres." Kim and a team of seven others traveled to the USA and visited Loews. "They were the only ones to show any interest in the business we were trying to grow. We learned from them, used their systems and modified them to Korean standards. They have become very supportive partners," Kim declares.

The Orion interest in multiplexes came at a time of major growth in not only the theatre industry in South Korea but in the film entertainment industry as well. Orion, a confectionery business, ventured with Mediaplex in June 1999 and established their first film entertainment division-Showbox, a film production and distribution business.

Since the success of the Korean film Shiri in 1999, Korean film has been unstoppable. To this day, Korean films dominate the market in that country. Shiri, a film about a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul, was the first in Korean history to sell more than two million tickets in Seoul alone. This buoyed Shiri past Hollywood blockbusters The Matrix and Star Wars, domestically motivating the Korean film industry.

In 2000, JSA (Joint Security Area) was a huge success and even surpassed the benchmark set by Shiri. One year later, the film Friend managed the same. In South Korea, the romantic comedy My Sassy Girl outsold The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, which ran at the same time. To date, new films continue to outperform older releases, and most Korean productions are more popular than Hollywood films. Both Silmido and The Brotherhood were watched by over 10 million people, which is a quarter of the Korean population.

With success at the domestic box office, Hollywood woke up to Korean film. In 2001, Miramax bought the rights to remake the successful Korean My Wife Is a Gangster. The 2003 suspense thriller Janghwa, Hongnyeon (Tale of Two Sisters) was successful as well, leading DreamWorks to pay $2 million for the rights to a remake, topping the $1 million paid for the Japanese movie The Ring.

As domestic interest in Korean films increased, so did box-office admissions, with a compound annual growth rate of 25.8% between 1997 and 2003. At almost the same time, from 1999 to 2003, the number of screens increased by 17.8% from 588 to 1,132 in 2003, and to an estimated 1,200 by the end of this year. In box-office revenue, this equates to $592.2 million, with 49.7% of the revenue from homespun Korean flicks.

Megabox was born on May 13, 2000, a joint venture of Mediaplex and Loews Cineplex Entertainment. Megabox has grown in a short four-year period from nearly 20 screens to around 130. Meanwhile, Showbox has consistently turned out blockbuster Korean films-the most recent being Taegukgi, which broke all box-office records.

Presently, Megabox has turned its eye on expansion not only within Korea but China as well, opening a four-plex in Beijing and with plans for an eight-screen joint venture with Loews next year.

Kim maintains that the circuit cannot simply expand, but must be continually improved from within. "We have what we call a 'smiling index,'" Kim grins. Our staff is trained to be customer-service-oriented-we can tell how well they're doing by how well they smile at customers while they are at work. And, of course, we need to motivate staff. People that come to work for us are career-oriented. Our employees are not part-time workers like in the States. We are only five years old, but already some of our staff have become middle managers."

Still, Kim admits his business is not an easy one. "Korean trends and tastes have been changing dramatically. Koreans are fast to adjust to change in our culture and this causes constant change. We need to be a half-step ahead to keep up with trends." Kim shakes his head, probably thinking of his wife Mimi and his 12-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, with whom he probably does not spend enough time.
"Yeah," he grins shyly. "Part of our staff's job is going out to new, trendy restaurants and bars, so we can keep up with creative changes and adapt them to our work culture."

Not a bad job, Mr. Kim. And it all goes toward building one of the most successful and dynamic theatre ventures not only in Asia, but the world.