South Korean police said on Wednesday that they had found evidence that the box office performance of 323 films over the past five years had been inflated.
Seoul Metropolitan Police said that, as a result, they had referred 69 people from major exhibition chains and 24 film distribution companies to prosecutors. The prosecutors will determine whether or not to proceed with criminal cases.
The force’s anti-corruption and public crime investigation team began probing the sector earlier this year and in June raided the offices of CJ-CGV, Megabox and Lotte Cinema, the country’s three largest cinema operators. At the time, it also emerged that the premises of distributors Showbox, Lotte Entertainment and Kidari had also been visited.
In an update, the police investigators said that they had probed a total of 98 film distributors and 462 movie titles.
“In collusion with film distributors, the accused theater officials allegedly entered inflated ticket sales information onto the Korean Film Council’s box office compiling service [Kobis] from March 2018 to June this year to boost the box office rankings of the movies released at their theaters,” police said, according to the semi-official news agency Yonhap.
“The accused falsely reported tickets at certain show times were sold out and, as a result of the alleged rigging, a total of 2.67 million viewers were overcounted.”
Among the films with inflated numbers were the 2022 documentary “The Red Herring,” featuring former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, and action thriller “Emergency Declaration.”
That film, starring Song Kang-ho, Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Byung-hun, had its world premiere in Cannes in July 2021, but its commercial release in Korean theaters by distributor Showbox was repeatedly delayed. It finally hit screens in August 2022 and, according to data still available on the Kobis site, sold 2.06 million tickets, earning gross revenue of $15.7 million.
Exaggerating box office numbers can be a tactic used to make a film appear more successful than it really is. In the short term, the appearance that a film is doing well may increase audience interest in a title and cause exhibitors to program the movie in more theaters – thus turning fake success into real success. In the longer term, inflated box office numbers may trigger higher fees when a film is licensed for TV, streaming and ancillary market performance.
The alleged ticket sales manipulation also occurred at time when the cinema business was severely disrupted by COVID and KOFIC provided additional subsidy in the form of ticket vouchers.