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[Weekender] Will ‘Descendants’ spur film-style TV drama production?

Almost everyone is talking about “Descendants of the Sun,” the latest joint Korea-China television drama project.

Fans have fallen head over heels into the love story between an Army captain played by Song Joong-ki and a doctor played by Song Hye-kyo in a faraway, natural disaster-hit country. Critics, meanwhile, predict that this blockbuster will boost KBS, a network broadcaster that has been lagging behind MBC, SBS and even cable channels such as tvN in dramas.

A scene from “Descendants of the Sun.” (KBS)
A scene from “Descendants of the Sun.” (KBS)

Besides its glitz and glam, with high ratings and heartthrob stars, what got the local TV industry talking about the drama series is its unique production style -- unique in Korea but not so in the U.S.

The entire 16-episode drama series was shot in advance last year before its official broadcast began in Korea and China last month. It had gone through the pre-production, production and post-production stages, securing investment and distribution in an orderly and carefully planned fashion, industry sources said.

“This TV production, which is the way feature films are made, proved not only to be successful but also helped the crew and actors to feel less burdened because it gave them time to prepare and rehearse before production,” said an official of the Korea Creative Content Agency.

This film-style TV production is very uncommon in Korea, where shooting two episodes a week while a drama series is running does not raise eyebrows. Scripts are usually handed over to directors, cinematographers and actors on the day of the shoot, giving actors little time to get into character and prepare for a shot. Editing is completed just hours before an episode goes on-air. Assistant directors scout for locations not months but days before an on-location shooting. Actors and actresses, and even directors have complained about Korea’s so-called “live drama shooting” environment with some celebrities walking off the set.

“There is a saying in TV -- get some experience in TV then jump right over to films as early as possible,” said an industry source, who asked not to be named.

“It’s bit ironic though how China got the industry here to make TV dramas like films as the industry has wanted to for years.”

Song Hye-kyo rehearses her lines for a scene in “Descendants of the Sun.” (KBS)
Song Hye-kyo rehearses her lines for a scene in “Descendants of the Sun.” (KBS)

“Descendants of the Sun,” produced by Next World Entertainment, was shot and edited in advance for two reasons -- the drama needed to go through a rigorous and strict prescreening by China’s TV & film authority to determine if it could be broadcast in the country; and the producer and its Chinese partner wanted to simultaneously release the drama in Korea and China not only to prevent illegal duplication but also to gain a fair valuation of the content.

Hong Kong-based Huace Media Investment, an investment arm of Zhejiang Huace Film & TV owned by billionaire Fu Meicheng, has a 13 percent stake in Seoul-based NEW, which is known for a number of blockbusters, including “The Attorney” and “Miracle in Cell No. 7.”

Should Korean producers seek to show their content in China -- which has become the country’s largest export destination for Korean dramas accounting for more than 30 percent of the total drama exports -- and for which they need to complete the work in advance for approval for distribution in China?

Observers say it will be difficult for the local TV industry to immediately get all its productions to shoot like “Descendants,” which has garnered more than 600 million views on Chinese search portal Baidu’s video streaming platform iQiyi and is enjoying a 30 percent viewer share in Korea.

This is because Korea still does not have the financial infrastructure where producers can secure investments for their projects in time.

“Producing content like ‘Descendants’ is ideal, but unless there is an improvement in financing, it will be difficult, especially for independent production houses, to shoot dramas like that,” said the KOCCA official.

By Park Hyong-ki (