Universal to bring King Kong, Spider-Man to South Korea

SEOUL Tue May 22, 2007 5:38am EDT

SEOUL (Reuters) - King Kong and Spider-man are coming to South Korea.

Universal Studios said on Tuesday it would build a South Korean park featuring characters from blockbuster movies by 2012, becoming the latest Hollywood firm to expand in Asia's burgeoning entertainment market.

The project, announced a day after U.S. film giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) unveiled a plan for a Shanghai park, highlights Hollywood's push to take the world's most popular entertainment to the world's most populous region.

Asia's theme park industry accounts for nearly half of the global $23.5 billion market and is expected to see a 25 percent jump in visitor numbers by 2010, according to research firm Euromonitor.

"We want to put you side by side with your favorite heroes," Thomas Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Studios Parks & Resorts, told a news conference in Seoul.

"Korea has grown into an attractive market in many necessary and critical aspects for theme park and resort development in terms of income, population, consumer interest and growth of the entertainment industry," he said, adding that the Seoul park could be larger than its Hollywood and Japan ventures.

The plan puts Universal on a collision course with long established theme park operators Everland and Lotte World, owned by two of South Korea's top conglomerates -- Samsung Group and Lotte Group.

Over 8.2 million people, or one out of every six South Koreans, visited Everland in 2006, making the park owned by Samsung Group the third busiest in Asia after Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan.

"It's too early in the process. It's very hard to make forecasts, considering interest payments and large depreciation costs," Williams told Reuters when asked about potential revenues and profits of Universal Studios Korea.

Universal Studios, operated by NBC Universal Inc., a unit of General Electric Co., opened its first Asian theme park in Japan's Osaka in 2001 and is developing two other parks in Singapore's Sentosa island and in the Gulf emirate of Dubai.

Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which opened in 2001, posted its first full-year profit in the latest financial year ended March 2007 after five straight years of losses, but is saddled with debt exceeding its yearly revenue.

USJ's visitor numbers fell from 11 million in the first year of 2001 to about 80 percent of that in the 2006/2007 financial year, only a third of the annual 25.3 million visitors for Tokyo Disneyland, which got a headstart as it opened in 1983.

Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened in September 2005, was the only one to flag a fall in first-quarter revenue among Walt Disney theme parks around the world, which generate more than quarter of the entertainment firm's operating income.

In its debut year, Hong Kong Disneyland missed its annual attendance target of 5.6 million by 10 percent, overshadowed by local rival Ocean Park.

Universal's Seoul park may also have to compete with Hollywood's Paramount Pictures Corp., owned by Viacom, which said earlier this month it would explore developing a South Korean theme park, its first outside North America.

Universal Studios, which will jointly develop the Korean park with a consortium including South Korea's POSCO Engineering and Construction, said it was looking at a number of locations and had yet to set the size of the investment. POSCO Engineering is part of steel giant POSCO

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