More than 1.7 million Korean Americans live in the United States, and CJ Entertainment America is seeking to lure a good percentage of them — as well as the wider art house cinema crowd — to theaters starting Friday for "My Way," touted as the most expensive South Korean movie of all time.
Opening in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, "My Way" tells the story of two rival men, one a poor Korean and the other Japanese royalty, who end up fighting together against the Chinese and the Soviets during World War II. But it is hardly a buddy story; Japan occupied the Korean peninsula for much of the first half of the 20th century, and the film is scathing in its portrayal of the Japanese.
The drama, made for about $23 million, has already played in South Korea and Japan, taking in $16.5 million after opening in December (in South Korea) and January (in Japan). It was produced and distributed by CJ Entertainment & Media, part of the Seoul-based global conglomerate CJ Corp. whose products include animal feed, boiled fish and golf courses.
In bringing the film stateside, CJ Entertainment America, the 7-year-old show business arm of the corporation, faces some of the same obstacles other U.S. distributors of Asian cinema must overcome — primarily, convincing potential patrons to stop watching pirated DVDs and buy a movie ticket.
The backers of "My Way" hope it will get a boost from its ambitious action scenes, including violent battles, massive explosions and enough military hardware to fill a couple of football stadiums. CJ Entertainment & Media boasts that the nearly yearlong production used 57,500 bullets and employed more than 16,000 extras (many of them Latvian, as some filming took place in the Balkan nation).
"This movie is a little bit different from the other Korean movies that are targeting Korean Americans," said Joon Choi, chief executive of CJ Entertainment America.
For all its epic scale, "My Way" will have to succeed in small steps.
While Korean Americans are concentrated in California and New York, there are large pockets in Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Virginia and Washington, according to census data, meaning that the distributors will have to pick their theaters carefully. In a couple of weeks, "My Way" is set to open in Dallas, Seattle, and Baltimore.
At the same time, CJ Entertainment America will also court art house audiences, the kind of highbrow, metropolitan ticket buyers who patronize films such as"The Artist"and"A Separation."In the L.A. area, "My Way" will play this weekend at the ArcLight Hollywood, as well as Laemmle's Monica in Santa Monica and the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Next week it will play at CJ-owned CGV Cinemas in Koreatown.
"What we are doing with this movie is a hybrid," said Angela Killoren, a CJ marketing executive. "The movie has great potential for people who love foreign-language films."
CJ Entertainment America has released a number of South Korean films in the United States before, but only a handful have generated material returns. Two years ago, "The Man From Nowhere," a violent revenge thriller, grossed more than $500,000 stateside — respectable for a film that only played in 19 theaters. But that take was small compared with the film's worldwide haul of more than $43 million.
Reviews in the U.S. for "My Way" have been mixed to negative, which could limit its prospects. Variety said the film used "every trick in a very well-worn book" while the Hollywood Reporter said "My Way" was "so bloated that it's forever on the verge of bursting."
In some ways, CJ Entertainment America is mirroring the efforts of China Lion, which imports Mandarin-language productions and targets Chinese American audiences. Two years ago, China Lion's "If You Are the One 2" grossed $427,000 in the U.S., but many of its releases have failed to crack the $100,000 mark. The distributor said it has struggled to persuade potential ticket buyers to reject pirated videos and visit the multiplex.
"We think we have a similar challenge to China Lion," said CJ's Killoren, "in getting those people back into theaters."
To minimize box-office losses caused by bootleg DVDs, CJ Entertainment, like China Lion, is trying to release its films in domestic theaters closer to their premiere dates in South Korea.
Choi said Korean Americans are so interested in major Hollywood movies that the company will subtitle some U.S. productions in Korean, and show them at its CGV Cinemas L.A. theater on Western Avenue. The Koreatown multiplex is now showing subtitled versions of"The Hunger Games"and"Wrath of the Titans"; next month "The Avengers" will also play there with Korean subtitles.
The long-term goal, Choi said, is to create similar excitement about imported productions like "My Way," because positive word of mouth can spread just as fast for a foreign-language movie as an English-language one.
"If there's buzz for a movie," Choi said, "most Korean Americans know about it right away."