Shown above is a poster of "Race to Freedom." Courtesy of Celltrion Entertainment

Race to Freedom” becomes Box office bomb

An expensive movie flop may destroy the careers of directors and actors but it will hardly affect the life of a billionaire bio company founder. Yet, the two can be interconnected in a strange way.

On February 27, “Race to Freedom: Um Bok-dong” was launched to great fanfare. With a more than $10 million production budget, it was expected to be box-office gold thanks to a solid cast.

Jung Ji-hoon, better known by his stage name Rain, starred as Um Bok-dong, who beat off Japanese competitors to become a champion in a bicycle race during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea (1910-45).

With director Kim Ryu-sung behind the camera, seasoned actor Lee Beom-soo and rising actress Kang So-ra also put forth great efforts to make the film a huge hit.

Arousing anti-Japanese sentiment typically leads to box office money in Korea, and the movie’s production firm, Celltrion Entertainment, would have obviously expected a success due to this.

That was why the movie was scheduled to open late February, ahead of Korea’s 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, which took place in 1919 in response to the repressive Japanese occupation.

However, this was not to be the case. When it hit cinema screens, the movie was blasted by critics and simply shunned by moviegoers.

In terms of audience figures, it never attracted more than 50,000 a day. A week after its debut, these numbers plunged to below 1,000, and on March 13 it even failed to make the top 20 list.

Its box office revenue only reached about $1 million, although the production budget might be somewhat recouped through so-called secondary markets such as pay-cable and home video. But still, it is likely to end up with a huge deficit.

This starkly compares to “Resistance,” the story of 16-year-old independence fighter Yu Gwan-sun. The movie, which opened the same day as “Race to Freedom,” was made on a budget of less than $1 million but has drawn more than 1 million people so far, earning $8 million. And, it is still on the top five movies list.

Celltrion founder Seo Jung-jin/Courtesy of Celltrion

Celltrion CEO Seo

The failed movie has something to do with Seo Jung-jin, the super-rich founder of bio giant Celltrion, the country’s sixth largest company by market capitalization.

Celltrion Holdings, the holding firm of Celltrion, and its affiliate provided all the funding for the movie while Celltrion Entertainment was in charge of distributing it.

Seo himself attended the preview of the movie on February 26 and said that the film was not about making money but about respecting Korean’s ancestors who withstood the brutal rule by the Japanese.

However, this irritated Celltrion shareholders, who have become wary of late over Celltrion’s declining share price.

They complain that a listed company’s funds should not be channeled into a movie that is not aimed at making money.

The problem is that Seo is ready to channel more funds into the entertainment industry, and as such, the controversy is expected to continue for the time being.