The Hollywood Reporter's international producer of the year talks hitting a peak with her Oscar-winning movie, how her multibillion-dollar CJ Entertainment is pivoting in the pandemic, and building relationships with the likes of Jimmy Iovine and Julian Schnabel. Says David Geffen: "She's the big deal."
On a late September afternoon, Miky Lee is sitting in a makeshift office in her home in Orange County, watching footage from the new K-pop reality show I-Land. Sporting a black sweater, white T-shirt, black leggings and a messy ponytail, she pushes back loose strands of hair with her headband as her Japanese Akita named Sasha walks into the frame during the Zoom call. The Tennessee-born, Seoul-raised mogul easily could be mistaken for a SoCal dog walker, given her casual vibe and the quartet of canines in her charge. But looks can be deceiving. Lee, in fact, presides over one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates with CJ Group, which she has built into a globe-spanning media powerhouse over the past 25 years. In terms of female-led entertainment empires, Lee’s kingdom is eclipsed by only ViacomCBS’ Shari Redstone.
In this sprawling house in which Julian Schnabel paintings hang, Sasha competes for Lee’s attention alongside Kyra the Australian shepherd, TJ the Sapsaree and Marlo the Great Pyrenees — fittingly, all girls. Also occupying major mental bandwidth for Lee are CJ’s assets, which generate billions in revenue across film, TV, music, exhibition and live theater. As vice chair of the South Korean giant, the mogul boasts overall revenue of $28 billion, $4.8 billion of which comes from CJ’s entertainment and theater exhibition. Lee’s grandfather, Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, launched CJ as a sugar manufacturer in 1953. But it was the Harvard-educated Lee who steered the company into entertainment in the 1990s by taking a $300 million stake in DreamWorks and forging longlasting friendships with the Sun Valley set, whose expertise she brought back to her home country.
CJ’s footprint now includes 4,222 theatrical screens in seven countries as well as 16 TV networks. On the music front, CJ produces more than 300 concerts and festivals throughout the world each year, bringing the K-pop phenomenon to the masses worldwide. And on Broadway, Lee has bolstered CJ’s presence with the company backing everything from Kinky Boots to Moulin Rouge!
"She’s like a sponge," says David Geffen, who has been close friends with Lee since 1995, when she signed on as an investor in the fledgling studio from Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. "When I first met her, she had no involvement whatsoever in the entertainment business. And today she’s the big deal. She’s very thoughtful, not frivolous or careless in any way," he adds. "She does the work. She investigated the potential for [DreamWorks]. She and Paul Allen had virtually all the investment in the company, and it was a big risk. Fortunately, it paid off and put [CJ] in the entertainment business."
Lee, who this year is THR’s International Producer of the Year, is dominating the entertainment industry both here and abroad. The 62-year-old mogul’s unlikely Hollywood ascent reached a peak in February, when she took the stage and accepted the best picture Oscar statuette for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a film that CJ backed and that she executive produced. In a moment for the history books, the Dolby Theatre crowd egged her on to continue talking after the show’s producers cut her mic for exceeding the allotted time.
"I wasn’t really expecting to give a speech. I wasn’t really prepared," she recalls. "Bong was telling me, 'You should say something.' And I said, 'You should say something.' And he said, 'I’ve done so many, so please.' Then when the microphone went down, I didn’t know that it meant get off the stage. I thought it was technological," she recalls with a laugh. "And then Charlize [Theron] and Tom Hanks were like, 'Go, Miky. Go, Miky.' So I was like, 'OK.' "
Two days after CJ’s Oscars triumph, the company announced that it was taking a $100 million-plus investment in David Ellison’s Skydance Media, raising the latter’s valuation to $2.3 billion. (The deal closed in late 2019, but the announcement was held until after the Academy Awards.)
"I will never forget I had lunch with Miky at Ivy at the Shore [about a decade ago], and the first impression was her intelligence, her taste and really her desire to build something prolific with CJ Entertainment," says Ellison. "This was during the DreamWorks days, and if you look at what she talked about doing then and what she has built now, she has accomplished just about everything she set out to do, which is pretty remarkable."
If Parasite’s success wasn’t enough, Lee’s CJ also launched the comedy Extreme Job in 2019. The film became the No. 2 all-time-grossing film in South Korea and is now being remade at Universal with Kevin Hart starring. Parasite and Extreme Job earned $378 million worldwide combined, punctuating South Korea’s cultural arrival on the world stage.
"The Korean population is 50-some million, and 17 million people came to watch that film," notes Lee of Extreme Job. "And Parasite, big hit, right? Every year is going to be 2019 from now on, right?" she says with a laugh.
Unfortunately, 2020’s coronavirus pandemic ushered in a devastating era for companies like CJ that are heavily invested in theaters, concerts and conventions. (CJ also produces the culture festival KCON, which attracts about 1.1 million attendees in seven countries.) But Lee is nothing if not pragmatic, and she quickly pivoted. With 33 artists on the bill, KCON went virtual this summer, and more than 4 million fans from 150 countries tuned in, marking a turnout 3.5 times larger than a typical KCON.
Likewise, Lee also moved forward with the I-Land reality series in which a new K-pop sensation is assembled and anointed through a Big Brother-meets-American Idol process. Before coronavirus hit, CJ had been building a huge soundstage in a forested region of South Korea that later became an ideal pseudo-bunker for the quarantined contestants.
The program, which wrapped in September with the christening of the boy band ENHYPEN, attracted more than 44 million online global viewers. Moving forward, the production space will be used seasonally for I-Land, so CJ will take advantage of the vacant period by booking COVID-friendly film productions. Lee says she already has identified two projects that will shoot on the campus, which provides sequestered room and board for a cast and crew.
On the hard-hit exhibition front, South Korean multiplexes like those owned by CJ are open, offering an industry bright spot. But Lee is thinking ahead about enticing the post-COVID moviegoer, citing CJ’s investments in 270-degree screens that cover peripheral vision — a technology that could be melded with auteur storytelling.
"In Korean, we have this expression of break it apart and put it together," says Lee. "Even right before coronavirus, it was starting. Like lots of streaming services [launching] and the movie theater going through such a hard time. And Imax and an all-different format is going to be the future. We are having a hard time, the movie theater, exhibition business people. This is the time for breaking it apart and putting [our business] together in different forms."
As a toddler, Lee moved with her family from Tennessee to Seoul. It was there in the South Korea capital that she fell in love with cinema and Western pop culture. One wall of her father’s work studio housed his music collection containing Japanese pop, classical — from Bach to Tchaikovsky — as well as Brenda Lee, Harry Belafonte and Chuck Berry. "The Twist! I remember the vinyl with the black-and-white visual of him doing the Twist," says Lee of the classic song by Chubby Checker as she grows animated, gyrating her body. "I grew up with an abundance of global music."
Decades later, Jimmy Iovine struck up a relationship with Lee after being introduced to her by Geffen. He was always impressed by her musical fluency and sophistication. "I found her to be unique because she had a feel for Western culture as well as global popular culture," says Iovine, who collaborated with Lee on some music projects when he was at Interscope. "I’ve watched her along the years, and I’m not surprised at her success at all because she was ahead of her time. You meet a lot of people who are ahead of their time, but sometimes they’re not the ones to reap the reward. But she had a tenacity and a stick-to-it-ness, and we developed a great relationship."
As a youngster, Lee also became a budding cineaste thanks to her father’s obsession with the masters. By the 1970s, he was collecting pneumatics (a precursor to VHS) of Kurosawa and Hitchcock films and movies starring Yul Brynner, Kim Novak, Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis and Cary Grant. "We grew up watching all these black-and-white movies," recalls Lee. "You just name it. Of course, everything was dubbed in Korean, so we had the voiceover actor who specialized in Cary Grant’s voice and one who specialized in Vivien Leigh’s voice."
But the movie experience that proved to be most cathartic was watching The Sound of Music in a big theater that was a short walk from her house. She was 10. "Every weekend I would sneak out and watch Sound of Music. I ended up watching it like 12 times," she remembers. "I memorized all the songs, all the dialogue." Five years later, it was The Godfather. "James Caan getting killed in the ticket booth with the machine gun, the horse’s head cut off in the bedroom, the scene of the swimming pool," she says in rapid succession. "Still, it’s my favorite film."
In the process, Lee developed a critical eye, gravitating to the era’s bold auteurs. It’s a passion that later fueled her relationship with artist and filmmaker Schnabel, whom she refers to as one of her best friends. "She just has a beautiful mind and a great spirit," he says. “She’s got an amazing amount of energy, and so she’s got a lot of things going all the time, a lot of which I don’t know anything about. But our taste in films is something that we commiserate over. I don’t know if I talk to anybody as much as I talk to Miky."
After graduating from Harvard in 1987 with a master’s in Asian studies, Lee set out to forge her own path in the family business. Following a brief marriage to Kim Seok-ki that ended in divorce in 1994, she became singularly focused on expanding the company from commodities like sugar and flour into the entertainment space. Imax CEO Richard Gelfond, who met Lee about 25 years ago in Hong Kong, remembers that she was interested in learning about the economics of theaters. He left the meeting slightly skeptical. “She was incredibly upbeat, positive and really confident, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little dubious because she had such grand ambitions," says Gelfond, who became one of Lee’s closest friends. "Not only did she pull it off, she maintained her core character and values structure, and she’s even more confident, more outgoing, just an incredibly bubbly person. During the COVID pandemic, my wife, Peggy, and I sometimes will call her because we just need a dose of Miky and her optimism."
On this sunny afternoon Lee is trying to stay optimistic despite the news that coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the planet. In the meantime, the CJ pace won’t abate. The company has more than 20 projects in active development, including Save the Green Planet, an English-language remake of the Korean movie, with the original director, Jang Joon-Hwan, teaming with Midsommar director Ari Aster. On the TV side, the company’s Studio Dragon division has 14 projects in development, including Hotel Del Luna with Skydance.
Lee pauses to rub her hands, feeling pain in her extremities. The titan suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited genetic condition that affects the nerves in the feet, legs, hands and arms. "It’s exactly the same mechanism as ALS, but it stops at your elbow and your knee and doesn’t travel up to the spine," she says. "So I am really grateful. But balancing and mobility is really tough. You lose all this mobility gradually." Lee’s grandmother also had CMT. There’s no cure, but Orange County has some of the best CMT doctors in the world, and she’s feeling, well, optimistic.
"Coronavirus is really disastrous for so many people, but in the midst of all this disaster, I have had time to focus on my therapy. So in that instance, I’m kind of grateful."
And with that, Lee takes a sip of water. The glass is half full, naturally.
CJ Entertainment’s U.S. Adaptation Slate
What will be the next Snowpiercer? Four projects are percolating
In May, TNT’s series Snowpiercer became the latest title to migrate from CJ Entertainment’s library to a U.S. studio or network. Based on the 2013 film directed by Bong Joon Ho, the Snowpiercer series will return for a second season in the winter. With more CJ adaptations in the works, here are four highlights:
SAVE THE GREEN PLANET
It’s an English-language remake of the 2003 Korean movie and will see the original’s helmer, Jang Joon-Hwan, back in the director’s chair. Ari Aster (Midsommar) is producing the film about a man who believes the world is on the verge of an alien invasion and sets out to save the planet.
As perhaps the hottest film prospect on the CJ horizon, Extreme Job is in development at Universal with Kevin Hart starring and producing. The English-language remake of the 2019 Korean cop comedy centers on an undercover police operation that takes "a delicious, unexpected turn." Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver is penning the screenplay.
HOTEL DEL LUNA
CJ subsidiary Studio Dragon is teaming with Skydance for a series based on the 2019 Korean hit that stars K-pop standout Lee Ji-eun. The story centers on an elite hotelier who becomes the manager of an establishment that only caters to ghosts. There is no official network yet, but Studio Dragon has a deal with Netflix.
Showtime is developing this drama series from writer Michael Saltzman (The Boys) and Kapital Entertainment. The original Korean series, created by Ji-woo Kim and Chan-hong Park, centers on an attorney forced to confront his past mistakes and perilous future while racing to uncover a Big Pharma conspiracy that may lead him to a cure that could save his life.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.