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Korea’s Movie Industry Warns of Collapse as COVID Restrictions Return

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“Spider-Man: No Way Home” has achieved pandemic-era records in its first two days in Korean cinemas. But Korean theater operators are warning of industry “collapse” as the country adopts revived anti-COVID measures on Saturday.

The new measures were announced on Thursday and mean a return of social distancing measures and restrictions for a minimum of two weeks. These include a maximum of four people in restaurants, a 9 p.m. curfew for bars and clubs, and a 10 p.m. curfew in cinemas and concert venues.

Film distributors have responded by delaying the planned release of some titles. Cinemas have reacted by rescheduling screenings this weekend and reimbursing some pre-sold tickets.

That is certain to mean a slowing of the blistering box office pace seen by “Spider-Man” in its first two days. The film, which has a running time of nearly two and a half hours, sold 635,000 tickets on its Wednesday debut with a gross value of $5.27 million, according to data from the Kobis tracking service. On Thursday, it added a further 391,000 tickets worth $3.29 million.

Film trade organizations including the Producers Guild of Korea, Directors Guild of Korea, The Association of Korean Buyers & Distributors of Foreign Films in Korea, Screenwriters Guild of Korea and Korea Theater Association, published a joint statement on Thursday asking the government to rethink the measures.

They argue that cinemas are not significant health hazards, and that the film industry has been particularly badly hit by the previous anti-COVID measures. Restrictions were only loosened a few weeks ago at the beginning of November.

“Movie theaters have been actively pursuing preventive measures much stricter than what the government has required to provide a safe environment [for audiences to see the films],” the statement said. “The damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years is growing uncontrollably. The operating limits [night time curfews] for movie theaters hinder new films from being released and will spread to the industry itself, ultimately leading to its collapse like a domino effect.”

The new restrictions weigh on the planned release of Hollywood films including Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Resurrections” and Disney’s “The King’s Man,” which are both scheduled to debut next Wednesday.

Several local films have also announced disruptions. Political thriller “The Kingmaker” has canceled its Dec. 29 outing and instead is aiming for a late January start. Action thriller “Emergency Declaration” has ditched its early January release and has not announced a new date. Crime action film “Special Delivery” shifted its launch date from Jan. 5 to Jan. 12, hoping that the restrictions will only be short-lived.

November’s brief interlude between restrictions gave cinemas a glimmer of hope. Aggregate November 2021 grosses reached KRW66 billion ($55 million), roughly double that of November 2020, but only 42% of pre-COVID in 2019. Korea’s annual box office total remains at roughly 2020 levels.