By Kim Tong-hyung
The recent buzz in theaters is ``Batman: The Dark Knight,’’ but Kim Seong-gyu, a self-proclaimed movie buff, isn’t bothering to get a ticket. Kim saw the movie twice before it opened in Korean cinemas last month.
``I downloaded it on an Internet peer-to-peer site,’’ said Kim, a 31-year-old office worker.
``I think the picture quality could have been better but you can’t complain too much if you aren’t paying for it,’’ he said.
It is often said that Koreans, regarded as one of the most tech-savvy people in the world, live two or three years ahead of everyone else. However, the movie industry is certainly hoping that the country isn’t representative of the future of film distribution.
According to industry sources, Sony Pictures, which became the first foreign movie studio to enter the Korean DVD market in 1999 by releasing ``Fly Away From Home,’’ is closing its domestic unit this month after enduring a decade of sluggish sales.
Sony was the last among major movie studios to grind it out in the difficult Korean market. Paramount, Universal, Buena Vista and 20th Century Fox packed their bags in 2006 and last year.
``Officials from our U.S. headquarters will visit Seoul soon to handle the withdrawal process,’’ said a representative of Sony Pictures Korea.
Selling DVD products is a challenge in a country with one of the highest broadband penetration rates on Earth. According to a survey by the Korean Film Council, 47.3 percent of respondents said they have downloaded movies from the Internet at least once. The number doesn’t include Internet users who paid for accessing unauthorized clips.
``If we count those who paid 100 won or more for pirated clips, the rate for illegal downloads would be closer to 70 percent,’’ said Kim Jong-ho, an official from the film council.
The Korean market for DVD products and video is expected to be around 328 billion won ($289 million) this year, half of the 773 billion won in 2002.
The mighty Internet is also killing video stores, once ubiquitous in any Korean city but now becoming an endangered species.
The country had more than 10,000 video rental outlets in 2001, but had just 3,500 at the end of last year. The number of ``video rooms,’’ where customers pay to watch a video or DVD title, stood at 800 last year, down from 2,400 in 2001.
Although Internet piracy is more of a concern, movie studios are frustrated about the private DVD copies sold on the streets. Street vendors camped in front of subway stations selling three to four private copies for a single 10,000 won bill are almost part of the landscape. In the film council’s survey, 8.1 percent of respondents said they have bought pirated DVD copies on the streets at least once.