The third decade of the millennium is quite different for the Korean entertainment scene compared to a few years earlier.
In March 2020, “Parasite,” a Korean-made noir film, made history by winning three Oscars, including Best Picture. The following year, Korean veteran Youn Yuh-jung won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in “Minari,” while in 2022, “Squid Game” frontman Lee Jung-jae seemed ready for Emmy accolades.
K-pop has erupted into a phenomenon dominating charts, filling stadiums and airwaves worldwide, and the social media warriors of BTS, who call themselves “ARMY”, even claim to have had a small influence during the last US presidential election. .
In TV and streaming, Disney and Apple are now major investors in Korean programming. They proudly tout their K-cred as they find themselves in a race to catch up with global, regional and even Chinese operators such as Netflix, Viu and Tencent’s WeTV, respectively, to lock in and leverage some of the most exportable in the world. world. IP.
“To see this as new is to reveal your own cultural bias,” says Jeong Taesung, former CEO of Korean movie giant CJ Entertainment and now running his own startup in Southeast Asia. “Korea has been producing inventive, high-quality films and television productions for over 20 years now, as everyone in Asia has known for years. K-pop idol groups were established over two decades ago. And BTS has been around for the better part of a decade.
It’s a macro view that Asian film, TV and music audiences would largely understand. In many East Asian territories, data shows that Korean content has steadily grown to become more important than English-language movies and TV. Several streamers who misjudged this trend and couldn’t adapt in time went out of business even before the COVID turmoil of 2020.
Since then, below the surface, the pandemic era has forced new changes. These have made Korea’s music and television industries more digitally sophisticated and suited to their increasingly global role.
“You could say that what the Korean industry has done differently is to use digital tools to make their content more accessible,” says Jeong.
For the music industry, COVID has been a disaster and has brought the concert business and the myriad of in-person fan events typical of the Korean contemporary music business to a halt.
“It was a crisis for K-pop. But we were able to recover from that and turn it into an opportunity,” says Kim Hyun-soo, Music Operations Manager of CJ ENM.[in-person] gigs. Generation MZ [millennials and Gen Z] is very used to the digital environment, so we invited them into our digital world. From this experience, we were able to strengthen the fandom of K-pop culture, which led to an increase in consumption.
Kim says the rapid pivot to digital presentation has helped artists collaborate across borders and increased the globalization of K-pop among consumers.
“Previously, KCON events were only for US fans. But during the pandemic, we leveraged our studios and broadcast connections and held online events with different bands around the world in one digital space.
“Similarly, we used our YouTube channel to announce that there will be an online event. everything was done online.
Hybe Corp., the agency behind BTS, is a master of digital promotion. He built his Weverse portal to support the band’s unprecedented fan outreach efforts. The unit now leverages technology, e-commerce and music, and brashly describes itself as “the #1 global fandom platform”. But it’s been so successful that rival agencies want it And in late July, BTS member J-Hope’s solo set in Lollapalooza (another first) scored 14.9 million streaming views and around 180 million likes on Weverse.
As with music concerts, the onset of the pandemic has hit film and television production in Korea hard. Although television and music quickly adapted, but with cinemas closed or restricted, local films remained on ice until May, when major local titles returned to the release schedule. Korean cinema is currently operating at around 70% of pre-pandemic levels.
Beneficiaries of the two-year hiatus were Hollywood films, which returned to theaters months before Korean titles, and video streaming.
In the television sector, producers accustomed to working mainly on location have had to move indoors. “We never stopped producing content, but we had to start shooting in studios. We were finding ways to take advantage of effects and change scenarios to avoid location shots,” says Kim Yong Kyu, CEO of Studio Dragon, Korea’s biggest television producer, But Kim says the shake-up imposed on production was nothing compared to the overhaul of the downstream business.
“There have been more changes in the past three years than in the previous 15 years I worked in this industry. The biggest change was the distribution. It is fair to describe it as a revolution,” Kim says. “Before COVID, [TV] the distribution was divided into two parts, local and international. Once we sold our content overseas, we just sat back and waited for the results. Now we see our content playing all over the world [and get to see how it is working].”
Korean content has become a staple for any streaming platform with global ambitions or hopes of cross-border success in East Asia – this group includes Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, WBD, WeTV in China and iQiyi, the pioneer pan-Asian Viu and Tving and Waave in Korea.
The trendsetter was Netflix, which made an early strategic shift from licensing and co-production to producing originals. The move, underscored by a commitment to spend nearly $500 million on K-content in 2021, quickly paid off in terms of market leadership within wealthy Korea. Shows such as “Kingdom” have made the streamer’s subscriptions a stickier prospect, especially in Asia.
Korean shows also have what Vivek Couto, managing partner of consultancy and research firm Media Partners Asia, calls the “best mobility.” His company reported that last year in Southeast Asia, Korean drama shows accounted for 31% of viewing time spent on premium services and 4% was spent on unscripted Korean shows, compared to 15% for TV. American, 7% for American films and 12% for Chinese drama.
The resounding success has not been lost on Korean producers, Netflix’s streaming rivals, and Korean lawmakers (who want Netflix to pay more taxes).
Apple felt it needed a Korean series — “Dr. Brain,” based on a Korean webtoon and directed by movie ace Kim Jee-woon — for its local streamer launch last year. Disney, which had never before been a major film or TV producer in Korea, launched Disney+ in the country in November and is currently building a slate of K series, including “Grid”, “Link: Eat, Love, Kill, “Soundtrack #1,” “Rookie Cops,” and “Snowdrop,” featuring Blackpink member Jisoo. By presenting a list of content from Hybe Corp., the Burbank studio even seems to have a junior role in a relationship with the master of fandom.
Korean companies have also rallied to grow and operate at a size that suits their newfound influence. Hybe went public at the height of the pandemic in September 2020 and just six months later paid $1 billion to acquire Ithaca Holdings from Scooter Braun. In June, producer and distributor Showbox brought $105 million to Silicon Valley investor Maum Capital to help it diversify from movies to series, games and the metaverse.
CJ ENM, the group behind “Snowpiercer”, “Parasite”, television stations tvN and Mnet, and powerhouse Studio Dragon, have gone the furthest.
Along with a series of new alliances with key Asian players, CJ ENM bought control of Endeavor Content’s scripted television business, massively boosting its English language capabilities. He reinvented in-house streamer Tving, recapitalized it with the help of Naver and JTBC, and gave it a mission to become Korea’s premier video provider. TVing is now integrating Paramount+ in Korea and will merge with the much smaller Seezn, which is helpfully backed by cellular operator Korea Telecom.
If this water growth spurt was not enough, the group also launched a third production hub, CJ ENM Studio, under the leadership of JK Youn, one of Korea’s most emblematic director-producers (“Haeundae”, “Ode to My Father”).
“The traditional theatrical release sector has hit rock bottom under COVID while digital platforms have grown tremendously. It encouraged people in the film industry, filmmakers and actors, to get into operations like this,” Youn says. “Where Korea once had a clear separation between film and television, the two sectors have recently had a lot of exchanges and learned a lot.”
Studio Dragon’s Kim says genre and format lines are now so blurred that “there are no trends” in TV and streaming, and “the only thing that matters is the story”.