By Kim Boram
SEOUL, May 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's major cinema chains remained in the red in the first quarter of this year amid the protracted COVID-19 pandemic, but the lifting of distancing rules will likely provide them fresh momentum for a possible turnaround in the coming quarters, data showed Tuesday.
CJ CGV, the No. 1 multiplex operator under the wing of entertainment giant CJ Group, said its operating loss reached 54.9 billion won (US$42.9 million) for the first three months of 2022, narrowing from an operating deficit of 62.8 billion won a year ago.
Its sales jumped 29.4 on-year to 233.3 billion won for the first quarter from 172.5 billion won thanks to increased ticket sales of the smash-hit blockbuster "Spider-Man: No Way Home."
Lotte Cultureworks, which runs Lotte Cinema, saw its first-quarter operating loss decrease to 29 billion won from a loss of 40 billion won a year earlier.
It posted 73 billion won in sales over the cited period, up 82.5 percent from 40 billion won a year earlier.
Contentree Joongang, formerly J Contentree, which owns Megabox, also remained in a slump in the three-month period, logging an operating deficit of 31.8 billion won, sharply widening from an operating loss of 3.7 billion won.
Its first-quarter revenue grew 12.8 percent on-year to 135.6 billion won from 120.1 billion won.
Experts said an increase in the number of moviegoers, led by "Spider-Man," helped the local multiplex operators receive better balance sheets than the previous year in terms of quarterly sales.
A total of 11.8 million people went to cinemas in the January-March period, up 44.5 percent from a year earlier, while the aggregated revenues soared 52 percent on-year to 113.5 billion won for the first quarter.
But the rapid spread of the omicron variant at the beginning of this year and strict social distancing rules, including a food ban in theaters, offset the improvement and kept the companies from staying afloat.
The cinema industry, however, is expected to experience a rebound in the coming months, as South Korea's COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, including middle-seat vacancy rules, business hour curfews and a food ban in indoor public places, were scrapped from April 18 as part of the country's efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
At the same time, scheduled releases of foreign and homegrown blockbusters, including the action comedy "The Roundup" and the sci-fi adventure "Jurassic World Dominion," are also expected to play a role in bringing more people back to theaters.
"Now we are on track to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and go back to normal," Min-hoi Heo, CEO of CJ CGV, said in a statement. "Thanks to the releases of Hollywood blockbusters and homegrown films, we expect to make a turnaround in the second quarter."