Korea’s CJ Group Sets Unprecedented Dual Theatrical-Streaming Release for ‘Seobok’

Patrick Frater
·4-min read

Leading Korean entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM is to break the theatrical window in the world’s fourth largest movie market with a simultaneous cinema and streaming release for “Seobok,” one of the year’s hottest Korean movies.

The group said that it will distribute the sci-fi actioner in theaters on April 15 and also make it available on its own streaming service, Tving.

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While Hollywood studio Disney has chosen to release titles such as “Mulan” with simultaneous premium video and cinema releases, and WarnerMedia is planning the same for its entire 2021 Warner Bros. slate, holdbacks have remained in place through much of Asia.

Directed by Lee Yong-joo (“Architecture 101”), “Seobok” features “Train to Busan” star Gong Yoo as an intelligence agent charged with transferring the first human clone from a laboratory to a safe place in the real world. Park Bo-gum (“Coin Locker Girl,” “Moonlight Drawn By Clouds”) stars as the eponymous clone.

“Seobok” had been set for release in the peak December season, but coronavirus restrictions and continuing audience hesitation have meant that Korean theaters have been deathly quiet since October. Earlier this month, after “Seobok” was rescheduled, the Korean Film Council named the title as one of the four most anticipated films of 2021.

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“Considering the pandemic crisis, CJ ENM and stakeholders including rights owners have conducted a thorough discussion and concur with the decision that it will be a good opportunity to introduce the film to the audience in as many ways as possible,” a CJ spokesman told Variety.

While the theatrical releases of other Korean films were struck down by the past year’s COVID crisis — Berlin 2020 special screening title “Time To Hunt” and space opera “Space Sweepers” ditched plans for cinema outings and went straight to Netflix — the simultaneous theatrical and VOD release hasn’t been attempted before by a major Korean studio for such a big title. The film’s budget has been reported as KRW16 billion ($14.2 million).

The choice is all the more momentous given that CJ Group, unlike Disney or Warner, is also a major cinema exhibitor, and stands to feel the impact of the decision in another division.

CJ has a controlling interest in CJ-CGV, Korea’s largest cinema operator and the world’s eighth-ranking non-Chinese exhibition concern. CGV lost some $349 million (KRW393 billion) last year, and with nationwide grosses currently averaging less than $4 million per weekend, recovery looks far off.

CJ’s growing vertical integration, however, now also gives it a direct-to-consumer route. According to data published in January by media research firm Nielson Koreanclick, Tving had added 890,000 monthly active users in the last year to give it an average of 2.41 million and rank third behind Netflix and Waave.

The platform, which operates a hybrid business model combining AVOD, SVOD and TVOD, was effectively relaunched in January. It was hived off into a joint venture with another content powerhouse, JTBC, and then bundled with Korean Internet search and social media giant Naver.

JTBC and CJ ENM have committed themselves to spending more than KRW400 billion ($380 million) on original productions for the platform over the next three years. The CJ spokesman said that Tving is targeting 5 million paying subscribers by 2023.

“Seobok” will be an effective calling card that entices users to download the Tving app and try out the service, but the spokesman did not confirm which other film titles will also be offered. While the TVOD component gives access to a large back catalog, Tving only started releasing original series (script and non-script) from Jan. 29 this year. Its first original series is “Highschool Mystery Club.”

“CJ ENM still values theatrical, but at the same time OTT is one of the most powerful ways to meet the audience as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed entertainment industry over the genres and streaming platforms,” the spokesman told Variety. “Creating top-notch original content and maximizing its audience and financial values as much as we can through distribution strategy is CJ ENM’s top priority.”

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