The Korea Herald


[News Analysis] Star filmmakers flock to streaming

Slow recovery of local film industry, different profit structure lead directors to examine options

By Kim Da-sol

Published : May 9, 2023 - 18:21

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Director Lee Byeong-heon looks into the monitor while shooting for Director Lee Byeong-heon looks into the monitor while shooting for "Extreme Job." (CJ Entertainment)

Movie directors including star filmmakers Lee Byeong-heon and Jason Lee will release their next projects soon after the release of movies “Dream” and “My Heart Puppy,” respectively, earlier this year, but this time as Netflix drama series.

Lee Byeong-heon, known for the hit comedy “Extreme Job” (2019), is expected to release “Chicken Nugget,” starring Kim Yoo-jung and Ryu Seung-ryong, as a Netflix original series sometime toward the year-end.

Kim appears as Choi Min-ah, who turns into a chicken nugget after entering a suspicious machine by accident. His father, Choi Sun-man (Ryu), and Go Baek-jung (Ahn Jae-hong), a man who had a crush on Min-ah, struggle to find her.

Lee’s “Chicken Nugget,” which is based on a webtoon of the same title, has already garnered industry’s attention -- it will reunite Ryu of “Extreme Job” and the director, as well as bringing Ahn of JTBC hit drama “Melo is My Nature” to star again in the director’s project.

Cast announcement of Netflix original Cast announcement of Netflix original "Chicken Nugget" (Netflix)

Jason Lee, who helmed “Midnight Runners” (2017), is also venturing into the world of streaming with “Bloodhounds,” which has been slated for release on Netflix in the second quarter of this year.

The new K-drama is also based on the webtoon of the same title, revolving around promising boxer Gun-woo (Woo Do-hwan) who enters the dark world of moneylending to pay off his mother’s debt. Lee Sang-yi and Kim Sae-ron also appear as figures who work in the powerful and notorious business.

Earlier this year, director Jung Ji-woo of “Eungyo” (2012) and “Happy End” (1999) unveiled his first ever series on Netflix with the thriller “Somebody.”

Director Kang Yoon-sung of “The Outlaws” (2017) also decided to return with another action thriller, “Big Bet,” late last year -- not on the silver screen but via Disney+.

Industry insiders view the slow comeback of Korean cinema as leading star filmmakers to turn to streaming platforms as an alternative.

“It is not an exaggeration that film production has become very difficult after the pandemic because investment (in films) has literally dried up,” an industry insider who has worked at an agency promoting local films for a decade told The Korea Herald.

Director Jang Hang-jun of the sports-comedy “Rebound,” which opened in April, said the film could not have opened without the help of investment from Nexon, as the film had been turned down so many times by investors.

Director Lee of “Dream” also said during the press briefing prior to the movie’s premiere in April that it took eight years to open the film for various reasons, one of them being investment issues.

According to the industry, South Korean films recorded 79.8 billion won ($60.1 million) in sales for the first three months that ended in March, about one fourth that compared to pre-pandemic times in 2019.

In February, ticket sales of Korean films accounted for 19.5 percent of all film ticket sales, the lowest portion in 19 years.

Of the eight Korean films that opened in wide release this year, the majority of them did not come close to their break-even point -- except director Yim Soon-rye’s first-ever action film “The Point Men,” which recorded 1.72 million admissions.

Korean Film Council data showed that approximately 90 Korean films that have received at least 5 billion to 10 billion won of investment have yet to be released, making it difficult to create a “virtuous cycle” of money flow.

“These investors are now cash-strapped because they can’t recoup their money as films are not opening. This makes it difficult to invest in new films, thus the investment is gradually drying up in the broad film scene,” an official with a decade of experience at a local film distribution firm said.

In addition to the stagnant state of the film industry due largely to the yearslong pandemic that kept moviegoers away from cinemas and halted or delayed new movie releases, there is the issue of surging ticket price.

Before the pandemic, many people only needed to decide what to watch at the theater. Now, many are asking whether a film is really worth watching at the theater at all. Movie tickets, which cost an average of 11,000 won in 2020, now cost 14,000 won on average. A night out at the movies for two people with popcorn and drinks could set a moviegoer back some 40,000 won.

A total of 98.6 million people visited theaters from January to November 2022, according to cinema operators. This is an increase of about 89.6 percent from the previous year, when COVID-19 was at its peak and the local film industry was brought to a halt. Despite the increase, the figure is only about 48 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019.

Following in the footsteps of smash hit series “Squid Game” on Netflix, filmmakers are stepping into the world of streaming where they do not have to worry about attracting investment. The profit sharing structure is also somewhat assuring.

In the world of streaming, an increasing number of Korean drama lovers and their attention and love for Korean dramas directly translates into the platforms' sales and profit.

In releasing its first quarter report on April 19, Netflix said that “The Glory” was the biggest reason behind its better-than-expected 3.7 percent on-year increase, raking in $8.1 billion in sales.

Cast and crew shoot a scene for Cast and crew shoot a scene for "The Glory." (Netflix)

“The Glory” was one of 25 works of Korean content unveiled by Netflix, backed by a whopping 550 billion won in investment. Figures show that at least 60 percent of some 230 million Netflix subscribers worldwide had watched at least one K-content in the last year. This year, Netflix will release 34 new Netflix original Korean works.

“We’re even seeing film production companies revising their scripts so they can release the projects via streaming platforms as an alternative to cinema. We need special measures from the government such as sponsoring film productions so that the production firms can pay back the cost once the films start to create profits,” said Park Ki-yong, chairperson of the Korean Film Council.

Despite perks such as large investment and global reach, there are other aspects to working with streaming services that could prove detrimental.

“'Netflix Original’ means the content's intellectual property belongs to Netflix, meaning that no matter how powerful or influential the content is, the original producer or writer cannot gain any benefit. In other words, South Korea’s unique, creative and original contents are slipping through,” an industry insider who declined to be named told The Korea Herald.