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With Korean films and dramas continuing to find mass success among the American mainstream — Squid Game, Parasite and Extracurricular to name just a few — veterans of the Seoul entertainment world gathered at the Busan International Film Festival on Sunday to discuss how their industry achieved such milestones, as well as strategies for even further future development.
Hosted by Busan’s Asia Contents and Film Market, industry experts debated the ongoing global trajectory of Korean entertainment at a panel session titled, “The Definition and Destination of K-Story.” The talk was moderated by Jaewon Choi, CEO of Anthology Studio, with participants including Keo Lee, Netflix Korea’s director of content, screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung and Hyejung Hwang, chief content officer at TVing, CJ Group’s growing streaming service.
“Korean content was well prepared [for this moment],” said Lee of Netflix. “I don’t believe that Korean content was globalized thanks to Netflix alone. Well before Netflix, Korean content was already global. Korean music and movies have attracted worldwide attention. But enhanced accessibility via Netflix helped us to globalize further.”
Screenwriter Chung, who co-wrote the screenplay for Park Chan-wook’s latest film Decision to Leave and the hit drama series Little Women, said the strength of Korean drama and film lies in its complex handling of real-life social issues at home.
“I enjoyed recent Korean films and dramas such as Parasite and the Netflix original series Extracurricular,” Chung says. “I was moved by the way these works vividly dealt with the problems and the confusions experienced by Korean society today. But to bring these issues to life, you need high-production quality, the confidence of investors and the audiences’ favorable reception. I feel that all these currents have come together with many Korean dramas and films that have recently come out.”
TVing is likely to be one of the entities driving further growth in Korean entertainment. The service was launched in 2010, but the company started its original series production in 2021 — and since then, sales revenue has grown by 300 percent, according to Hwang.
“In terms of content, Koreans are familiar with the Hollywood style of storytelling but the sense of realism is very potent in Korean films and dramas, especially in their depiction of family and social relationships,” said Hwang. “I think millennials and Gen-Z viewers globally sympathize with that sentiment. Parasite and Squid Game are thrillers on the surface, but they are actually stories about family and love, and I think their message about relationships and resilience connected to the younger generation.”
The panelists agreed that Korean audiences’ sophisticated taste in film also has helped to elevate the quality of content production at home.
“I feel like the Korean audience is very well trained,” said Chung. “They analyze, discuss and capture a story from different angles. I am often challenged by my own interaction with my audience. They have a deep love for content.”
Lee from Netflix Korea explained that global platforms often face steep expectations and burdens when targeting their content to the Korean viewership.
“Hwang Dong-hyuk, director for Squid Game, also said that Korean audiences have high standards,” he said. “For me, it’s more important to consider what Korean viewers think about a work than audiences in a distant country. Ultimately, what’s Korean is what’s global.”
From a marketer’s point of view, audiences have become choosier and more cautious in their selection of content, the panelists explained.
“Maybe because theater ticket prices have gone up, but people don’t seem to go to and see a movie right away as they used to when a film was released,” said Hwang. “In the past, reaction on the opening day of a film release became a news story. Now, people wait and see if it’s really worth seeing. They take an active role in choosing the content they want to see. Marketers can easily fail in this environment. You can’t just put it out there. It requires a high level of marketing strategy depending on the platform.”
The competition among platforms has naturally enhanced the quality of content as well.
“It’s very important to respect the audience,” said Lee. “They seem to immediately notice it if they feel that the creators are looking down on them or lowering their standards. No matter how well you package it, people seem to tell if the creators made it in an easy attempt to please them. People’s preferences change quickly, and that speed of change is twice as fast in Korea today.”
The speed of reaction from the audience also has changed the way the creators approach their viewers.
“I feel closer to the audience than I was before,” said Chung. “Even when I’m writing, I feel I’m talking to someone close to me rather than speaking on stage. But that intimacy and level of honesty also becomes a problem. There was a scene in Little Women where a colleague said to one of the female leads, “Did you grow up poor? Your level of tolerance seems high.” And some people were offended by the line. But I want to talk to my audience the way I talk to a friend.”
For some, the transition between traditional and new platforms raises mixed emotions.
“It’s a confusing period for traditional producers,” said Lee, the session’s moderator, who has produced hit Korean films such as The Attorney and Age of Shadows. “It raises questions like, which platform should I go to? Who should I meet to pitch a new work?”
But the competition among diversified platforms continues to push many producers to pursue the highest quality work.
“I try not to let go of that tension,” Lee said. “I wish for people’s relationship with Korean content to continue to be full of expectation instead of nostalgia.”
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