SEOUL—A year ago, moviegoers crammed together in theaters to watch the new “Fast & Furious” film, a computer-animated “Lion King” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.”
Now, the biggest summer blockbuster is a South Korean zombie film that is a survival story in more ways than one.
The Korean film “Peninsula,” a movie about human survivors of a mysterious outbreak, has earned more than $48 million at the box office in just under a month, as moviegoers in Asia, where some governments have done relatively well containing the new coronavirus, are returning to theaters.
‘Peninsula,’ out of South Korea, is the only summer release among this year’s 20 highest-grossing films.
Release date and world-wide box office
Bad Boys for Life
Sonic the Hedgehog
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
The Invisible Man
The Call of the Wild
The Man Standing Next
Like a Boss
Gretel & Hansel
Brahms: The Boy II
The Way Back
Month of release of the year’s 20
Without competition from major Hollywood films, “Peninsula” is the closest thing to a global hit right now, even if its total haul only amounts to a strong day for one of last year’s biggest blockbusters. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” grossed $39.3 million its first day in theaters in July 2019—and that is counting only the U.S. and Canada.
The absence of megahits this summer is one of the glaring effects of the coronavirus threat that has kept many people at home. For months, Hollywood studios refrained from releasing new films capable of selling tons of tickets in normal times—Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” or Walt Disney Co. ’s “Mulan,” for instance—as an inconsequential number of theaters around the world have been able to stay open. That is especially the case in the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest theatrical markets.
Box-office revenue for “Peninsula” has primarily been powered by ticket sales in its home country, along with Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and four other places in Asia that have impeded Covid-19 from spreading aggressively.
South Korea, with fewer than 15,000 coronavirus cases among its population of about 52 million and aggressive testing, has fared well compared with many other countries. Most of the country’s movie theaters didn’t close, although attendance declined as much as 90% from February to April, compared with the previous year, according to local cinema chains.
“‘Peninsula’ is evidence that people are willing to go back to the movies,” said Ju Su-yeon, strategy and development manager at the nation’s largest theater chain, CJ CGV Co.
In the U.S., big theater chains such as AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. have remained closed during the pandemic. AMC this week announced plans to reopen more than 100 theaters nationwide on Aug. 20, with ticket prices that day at 15 cents, plus tax, mirroring prices from a century ago when the company began. In Europe, meanwhile, cinemas have struggled to bring customers back without a fresh lineup of films.
It has been different in Asia, where some local films have made their debuts and more moviegoers feel comfortable enough to trickle back into theaters. Most countries require face masks and temperature checks. Singapore limits each auditorium to 50 people. Thailand banned popcorn and beverages.
Safety restrictions didn’t stop 25-year-old Kim Ki-jae from watching “Peninsula” shortly after it premiered July 15 at a Seoul theater. Before the movie started, Lotte Cinema, a local theater chain, played a video reminding viewers to wear their masks and sanitize their hands. The scariest moments, he said, occurred off-screen.
“There was a couple sitting in front of me who took off their face masks,” Mr. Kim said. “It made me a bit nervous.”
“Peninsula” is the only movie to have premiered this summer that ranks among this year’s 20 highest-grossing films, according to Box Office Mojo. That is a rarity this late in the summer.
“Peninsula,” which wrapped production in October, was envisioned by some theater owners as a potential global hit after nabbing distribution deals for roughly 190 nations. The film is a sequel to the 2016 cult horror hit “Train to Busan,” which grossed around $93 million at the global box office before attracting a wider audience on Netflix.
“Peninsula” is set four years after the zombie outbreak in “Train to Busan,” revolving around four survivors who have relocated to Hong Kong but are sent back to the Korean Peninsula on a mission. They encounter a zombie-infested wasteland and human-hunting militia.
Reduced competition in Asian theaters boosted ticket sales for “Peninsula,” according to Next Entertainment World, 160550 2.41% the film’s distributor. The film is expected to roll out this month in Europe and the U.S. It topped the Canadian box office after its debut in more than 10 cities on Aug. 7.
Next Entertainment World handled the local South Korean distribution for “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 film “Okja” and is now enjoying global attention with “Peninsula.” The film was listed as a Cannes Film Festival 2020 Official Selection before the event was canceled.
The success of “Peninsula” in Asia might provide insight into how the first few high-profile Hollywood movies could perform at the box office amid limited competition and pent-up demand. For example, during the first weeks that “Peninsula” was in cinemas, South Korean theater chain CGV devoted the majority of each location’s auditoriums to the film to work with restrictions on capacity.
Many multiplexes in the West plan a similar strategy with director Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” by projecting the film on several screens. Theaters also expect moviegoers to visit theaters during traditionally off times, such as on a weekday or in the afternoon, rather than on a Friday or Saturday night.
Lee Ha-eun, 24, visited a Seoul theater earlier this month after booking her ticket online, putting on a face mask and passing the venue’s thermal cameras. The theater was full of people, though more spaced out than usual.
“I feel like visiting a movie theater at this point is the same as visiting any other public place,” Ms. Lee said. “I don’t see how it’s more dangerous than going to a cafe or a mall.”
Write to Dasl Yoon at [email protected]
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