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[Lee Sun-young] Nurturing Korea’s Disneys

At my typical Korean home in a Seoul suburb, my two little girls are immersed in everything Disney. 

They eat with spoons and forks that feature Elsa from “Frozen,” and play with dolls, toys, coloring books and puzzles bearing Disney characters. The presence of the U.S. animation powerhouse is palpable in their wardrobe, with the collection ranging from Elsa’s now-infamous sparkling blue dress to Disney princess undies.

Looking at the prevalence of this one American company in my home, I now feel baffled, given my past criticism of some overly generous parents who give in to children’s demands and buy them everything. (Some of my girls’ Disney paraphernalia were gifts from friends and family, but most of them I paid for.)

At the same time, I just can’t help but marvel at how easily Disney has been siphoning money out of my pocket. And it isn’t just me. The company is doing the same to legions of parents here and elsewhere in the world.

This, I think, is a glaring example of how animation can fuel a money-spinning franchise that reaches beyond borders and cultures.

Korean government officials, keen on bolstering exports of local cultural products under President Park Geun-hye’s “Creative Economy” doctrine, must have taken good notice of the lucrative business opportunities, too.

Officials at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports, in announcing a five-year road map for cultivating the local animation and character licensing businesses late last month, spent a great deal of time explaining animation’s potential as a new driver of “hallyu.”

In the plan, which centers on investing 380 billion won ($345 million) over 2015-2019, the ministry envisions the rise of “K-ANIMA,” just like K-pop and K-drama. The cultural and economic impact of K-ANIMA could be greater, the officials touted, because animation largely circumvents the “cultural discount,” the devaluation of a cultural product when it is exported to a foreign country due to the differences in language, tradition and customs.

So, Korea wants to kick-start its animation industry, which is fragmented, underfunded and subsequently suffering from a drain of talent.

When it comes to the question of how, the ministry’s plan seems to lack substance.

Above all, the $345 million that it has committed to spend over the span of five years is not enough. “Frozen,” alone, cost Disney $150 million to produce. It pales in comparison to what other countries with similar ambitions are spending. France, for instance, is running a 688 million euro ($735 million) fund to support homegrown animated content. That is more than double what Korea has pledged for the entire five-year period.

Of course, not all governments need to take the same approach as the French, injecting taxpayers’ money into the private sector. Well-devised deregulatory or tax break measures could help pump private money into the industry. That way, money flows to projects that investors, not some government-appointed judges, deem are more creative and likely to yield high returns.

There is one particular regulation that local animators have long been complaining about as a key hindrance to the advancement of the industry. The rule prohibits TV commercials that use characters of animated TV series from being placed right before or after the shows. The ban, which applies only to terrestrial broadcasters, weighs down on the broader market of all homegrown cartoon works, many of which are tailored for TV broadcasting and target toddlers.

Because broadcasters are barred from seeking full advertisement opportunities when they air animated programs, they tend to allot the programs to the least popular hours of the day. This leads to a vicious circle of insufficient investment, tight production budget and marginal returns. The broadcasting rights of an animated TV series trade at around one-tenth of its production cost.

Although I understand the rationale behind the advertising ban, which probably has to do with children not being able to recognize the difference between an advertisement and the show, I believe that a bold step is needed to shake up the market and lay the foundation for homegrown animation success.

Lee Sun-young is the lifestyle desk editor of The Korea Herald. She can be reached at ― Ed.
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