Why South Korean Filmmakers Are Adapting Local Webtoons Into Movies and TV Shows

Love Alarm Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Kye Young Chon

Wildly popular online graphic novels have become hot properties, and now China and Netflix are getting in on the action: "I see it as a very positive sign."

It came as little surprise to South Korean locals when Netflix picked up the romantic drama Love Alarm as its first South Korean original series earlier this year. Based on a story by Kye Young Chon, one of the country’s most popular graphic novelists, it is among a string of film and TV drama projects that are based on local "webtoons," or comic strips published online. The 12-episode series is expected to premiere in 2018.

Spanning no more than 30 episodes, widely ranging in terms of genre and readily available to smartphones users, webtoons have emerged as go-to source material for Korean — and increasingly Chinese — filmmakers, similar to how Marvel and DC Comics continue to fuel Hollywood franchises or how manga inspires Japanese cinema. Chinese and Korean film versions of the fantasy love story The Witch are underway as part of a co-production deal between Korea’s NEW and China’s Huace. Along With the Gods, the first Korean film project to be conceived as a franchise from the very beginning, is due to be released in two parts, the first in December and the second next summer. The ambitious fantasy is based on the smash-hit webtoon of the same name. Featuring an all-star cast, the two films in the Lotte Entertainment project were shot simultaneously.

"I see [the rising number of films based on webtoons] as a very positive sign,” says Along With the Gods producer Won Dong-yeon. “The number of original scripts in Korea is unusually high compared to other film industries such as Hollywood or Japan. This is very risky from a business point of view, especially when you consider blockbuster-scale projects, and I am interested in fostering a healthy industry environment. It’s the first time that this [shooting two serial films] is happening, but I was confident about the huge fan base of the webtoon and the universal appeal of the story.”

According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, the value of Korea’s webtoon market was estimated at about $152.2 million in 2014, but shot up to $265.6 million just a year later. Since Korea’s largest portal site Naver began providing webtoon services for free around the early 2000s, some 17 million Koreans — in a country with a population of 50 million — are now reading these comic strips regularly. Last year, its number of foreign users surpassed its domestic outreach, with more than 18 million reading webtoons in English-speaking territories as well as China, Taiwan, Thailand and others.

Some 20 Naver webtoons have been adapted for the small and big screens. Daum, another Korean portal, has an even larger library of 500-plus webtoons, of which more than 100 have been adapted onscreen.

The Busan International Film Festival launched market program Book to Film six years ago in order to help publishers connect with filmmakers, and the number of webtoon titles has grown significantly, according to organizers. In 2015, market organizers introduced the Entertainment-Intellectual Property Market (E-IP), which has since attracted scores of Korean and Chinese buyers and potential co-producers.

Korea-based NHN Entertainment’s Japanese pay service NHN Comico, which features works that include violent and sexually explicit content for adults, recently announced that the teen drama roughly translated as Wounded Devil will be getting a movie adaptation. Other works are slated to receive animated feature film, TV or musical adaptations.

“The one source, multi-use capability of webtoons is highly appealing, especially since you know there is a fan base out there,” says Jeong Tae-Sung, CEO of CJ Entertainment, the film giant that has been behind such webtoons turned films as Late Blossom. “More importantly, these comic strips are original, with strong narratives that are usually genre-specific.”