‘Squid Game’: Netflix’s Top Exec in Asia Explains the Show’s Huge Global Appeal

Minyoung Kim, vp content for Asia Pacific, discusses the secrets behind the phenomenon — and the streamer's discussions for what comes next.

The global smash success of Squid Game has become an especially sweet moment of vindication for Netflix executive Minyoung Kim.

Kim joined Netflix in 2016 as one of the streamer’s very first content hires in Asia, where she was tasked with establishing the company’s first small office in Seoul and compelling a skeptical Korean entertainment industry to take a chance on working with the still locally unknown foreign video service. Fast-forward five years and Netflix has not only found a foothold in South Korea, Squid Game is on track to become the service’s most watched show ever, while Kim’s team has committed to spending over half a billion dollars on Korean content in 2021 alone.

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As competition with global rivals like Disney+, HBO Max and Apple TV+ ramps up, many analysts believe Netflix’s strong lead in Korean entertainment to be one of the company’s key strategic advantages. Kim’s profile at Netflix has risen in tandem with her successes. Today, as vp content for Asia, she is responsible for overseeing Netflix’s content decisions across the entire Asia Pacific region except for India — including key growth markets like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand (“She’s such a badass,” one of her colleagues recently told me).

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“The reason Squid Game has such great meaning for us internally is that it’s perfect evidence that our international strategy has been right,” Kim says. “We’ve always believed that the most locally authentic shows will travel best, so having a show that’s about really authentic Korean games and characters become really big not only in Korea but also globally — it’s such an exciting moment for us.”

Squid Game stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-jun and Jung Ho-yeon as a group of outcasts lured by a mysterious organization into playing children’s games for a cash prize — with deadly high stakes. The show premiered on Netflix on Sept. 17 and is currently No. 1 on the platform in 90 countries.

The Hollywood Reporter connected with Kim via Zoom from Seoul to discuss the creative factors that have made Squid Game so explosively popular and what’s coming next for the show and its seemingly franchisable IP.

At what point did you realize Squid Game was becoming this massive global phenomenon, and what was that moment like for everyone involved in the show?

For me, Squid Game was really a learning moment, because it’s difficult to expect something you’ve never experienced before. Something like this has always been our ambition, but I never thought that a Korean-language show, with a Korean childhood game at its core, would be racing toward being our all-time global number one show.

So, when it first launched, it seemed to be getting a lot of attention from our members, but Korean content tends to be pretty popular. So we just said, “Oh, OK, this is another one of our successes. That’s awesome.” We’ve had Kingdom, Sweet Home and others that have also done really well.

But then internally I started getting messages from my colleagues from all over the world — L.A., London, other places — saying they loved the show. So, I thought, ‘Hmm, my colleagues must genuinely be really liking this, because you have to really enjoy something to bother writing an email and reaching out like that.’ But they’re my colleagues, and of course they have their eyes on what Netflix shows are out there, right?

But then I started seeing more and more posts on Instagram and TikTok. And then I watched as Ho-yeon Jung’s Instagram following grew from 400,000 to over 14 million in less than a month. And even on LinkedIn, most of my whole feed started to be about Squid Game, which is really rare.

So, sitting here in Korea, it started to feel very surreal for us. One of the actors told me how he was on a small private plane on a trip to France recently, and he noticed that all three passengers sitting around him — non-Asians — were watching Squid Game. That’s when we started feeling, like, “Oh wow, this is getting really big.” It’s a global phenomenon that has become part of the zeitgeist.

In your view, what is it about the show that’s helped it become such a phenomenon? What elements do you see as the secrets of the show’s success?

Number one, the genre itself is something that has global appeal. The director also wanted to make sure that even if you don’t already know those very Korean children’s games, the barrier of entry would be low and you could still easily enjoy it. He put a lot of focus into making sure the rules of the games he chose were very simple — and I think this simplicity is a big element of the international success. And the whole look and mise-en-scène was something we worked hard to make sure was appealing. We also believe content that’s able to generate conversation has the best chance of getting really big. And Squid Game has a lot of those memorable, meme-able moments that people can play around with, and which drive conversation. So I think that was another factor.

But as a creative executive, I think the essence of the show is its commentary on social injustice — class divisions and financial inequality, or even gender-related issues. These social injustice issues aren’t only Korean — the whole world is struggling with them. These elements made the show resonate strongly outside of Korea as well.

Minyoung Kim, Netflix’s vp content for Asia, in the company’s Seoul office. Netflix

The last piece of Korean screen content to totally take the world by storm, of course, was Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. It’s interesting how both titles thematically revolve around inequality and the morally corrosive effects of contemporary capitalism. What do you make of the similarity?

Well, they are two very different types of content, but I think if you were to draw some commonality between them, both really hit on the social dilemmas of class division — issues that are universal. At the same time, both stories are told in a very appealing and entertaining way. I think that’s what’s really difficult — to have such a profound message, but to make it really entertaining to follow the narrative as it unfolds, even if the viewer isn’t focused on that bigger message.

You mentioned that you think Squid Game‘s genre was key to its success. How would you describe the genre? Death game social thriller?

Well, the comparable titles that we usually talk about are Battle Royale and The Hunger Games — survival thrillers built around games, which global audiences have shown they love. A difference is that typically these stories have been very YA, and Squid Game is not YA — but each character still has a very strong personality and backstory. My personal take on the reason we love YA content is because YA characters tend to have an emotional rawness to them, and they’re generally very true to what they think and feel — they’re not so complicated and they show their true colors. In Squid Game, even though it’s not a YA story, each character really shows their true colors in both ugly human moments and really heartwarming moments. A strong factor of Squid Game‘s success is the way these strong characters combine so seamlessly with the gaming element of the premise.

I suppose the gaming aspect was a stroke of genius in terms of the show’s bingeability, too. There are moments where it’s almost like watching a video game, and you simply want to see who wins.

Yeah, I think the gaming makes it easier for you to come in and stay in. But I would say the art — the set design, costumes and all of the colors that make it look like you’re in a fairyland playing a childhood game, except you’re playing for cash and fighting to the death — was another big piece in making the show successful. The contrast of life-threatening moments and fun music. These were all elements that helped non-Korean audiences enjoy the show, too. The profound social message is just the foundation of the show.

Were there any creative decisions that came down to a debate between cultural authenticity and global accessibility?

Squid Game, or ojingeo in Korean, is a real kids’ game here, but not all Koreans actually know it. My generation knows it, but my niece’s generation probably wouldn’t. So, initially, we knew we wanted this show to travel but we were worried the title Squid Game wouldn’t resonate because not many people would get it. So we went with the title Round Six instead, wanting it to be more general and helpful for telling people what the show is about — there are six rounds to the game. But, later, director Hwang [Dong-hyuk] suggested that maybe we should go back to Squid Game, because it’s a unique show and this game is the essence. I think the more authentic title has actually played really well. The title, Squid Game, together with the eye-catching artwork, really capture interest within our service — especially for audiences who have never watched a Korean show before but are looking for fun things to watch.

It’s hard to even imagine the show being called Round Six now. The quirkiness of “Squid Game” just seems like the perfect hook.

Yeah, I think we tend to underestimate the curiosity that a lot of our members and audience have. In trying to make it really easy to understand what the show is, we could have made a big mistake. I’m so glad director Hwang steered us back to Squid Game — it sparks curiosity and captures the story so well.

Were there other notable aspects of the project where you gave significant notes?

Well, when it came to us, the project was in the format of a film. We felt that the film format, at 120 minutes, would force us to just jam in too many stories. There was so much in the Squid Game story and IP to unspool. Also, as you probably know, director Hwang had written it 10 years ago, and the world had changed since then. So there were some elements that we wanted to update to reflect more of what our audiences want today. So, in turning that film into a series and making it a little more relevant to a decade later, we went through a very collaborative process with director Hwang. He put so much energy into it. It was definitely a good experience for us on the studio side, and I do hope it was enjoyable for him, too.

Can you share the per-episode production budget for the show? Visually, it’s very memorable and it certainly doesn’t look cheap, but from a production perspective, you can see how it was perhaps pretty affordable. The costumes are poppy and eye-catching, but they’re very simple as well — mostly jumpsuits. The same goes for the much of the set design — it’s a very original, candy-colored dystopian world inside the game, but you can tell that many of the sets are rather lightly dressed soundstages. The show must have become a truly phenomenal return on investment.

To be completely honest, for a Korean show, it was among the top for us in terms of budget. If you look at the sets, the ambition was actually pretty big. In order to support the creative vision of the director, the amount of investment we needed to make wasn’t all that small. So, it was big for a Korean production — it’s just that the bet turned out really well for us because the audience who enjoyed it became so much bigger than what we anticipated.

We’re talking at a time when the competition for top Korean content is getting fiercer by the day, with Disney+ and HBO Max about to launch local-language content plans in the region, and various local operators deepening their investments in streaming content. You’re really the architect of Netflix’s pioneering position in the Korean entertainment landscape, so you must be feeling pretty good about the strong lead you’ve staked out. How do you think Squid Game‘s enormous global success will affect perceptions of Netflix within the Korean industry, and how is the competition for Korean content and talent evolving?

Well, I work for Netflix, but simply as a Korean and Asian content executive working here, I knew that by leveraging Netflix’s global distribution reach with the way Netflix really focuses on the creative itself with all content investments, all of this was going to benefit the Korean entertainment industry as a whole.

My ambition has been to really show [Korea’s] high production capacity to the world. Korean content has always been popular in Asia, but people tended to think of K-drama as being all about handsome men and beautiful women falling in love — the romance genre was how people identified K-drama. But there were so many great stories beyond that specific genre, and the production value of Korean drama and film is consistently really high.

I’m very grateful to some of our creators from the early stage who let us help them tell those stories, because we weren’t very big in Korea or in Asia yet. But they chose us because they also saw the opportunity and the possibility. And they also felt responsible for the fact that they had to be the pioneers making Korean entertainment bigger.

Now, because of Squid Game, I see it all as an evolution. We started with content deals with [Korean production houses] JTBC and Studio Dragon and our first licensed shows like Crash Landing on You; and then we did our first Netflix originals, like Kingdom, Extracurricular and Sweet Home. Now, thanks to Squid Game, the whole world, not only K-drama fans, are starting to really know what the Korean entertainment industry can do.

I do believe the success of Squid Game and the interest in Korean content it is generating will probably make my life a little harder. But I do believe that as the competition grows and the demand increases, stronger Korean stories and even better shows will be ready to meet it. Our creators continue to have this desire to up their game at each stage and show the world what they can do, so I think the whole industry will continue to benefit and Netflix will be able to have even stronger shows to please our members.

A lot of people around the world are wondering what comes next for Squid Game. The series is obviously set up for another season and Netflix recently announced a surprise diversification into gaming — and this show has “game” right there in the title. What are you discussing in terms of what comes next?

Well, the good thing about working at Netflix is that we have so many great talents within the company that I can focus on making a great show, and then we have all these other experts looking at different areas of potential. We’ve been getting an overwhelming but happy volume of requests from the organization — from the consumer product department, from the gaming group, from our other international teams. My team’s role is to really look at all of those opportunities together, to create that roadmap for the Squid Game IP. We are looking at multiple different areas — from games, consumer product and others — to really figure out what we can bring to our audiences to increase their affinity toward our content and give them more joy, while staying true to the world that our creator has built. Regarding a season two, we’re still having that conversation with the director and the producer, and hopefully we’ll be able to come back to you with that answer soon. So it’s all in the works, but if you think about it, the show only launched less than a month ago. This is just the start.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.