A year after its release, 'Squid Game' proves K-content is not a passing trend

From left, VFX supervisor Cheong Jai-hoon, art director Chae Kyoung-sun, actor Lee You-mi, director Hwang Dong-hyuk, CEO of Siren Pictures Kim Ji-yeon and stunt performers Lee Tae-young, Kim Cha-i and Shim Sang-min from “Squid Game” pose with their E

Two years after “Parasite” rewrote the history of Korean cinema by winning four Oscars, “Squid Game” rewrote the history of Korean small screen productions by taking the Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Lead Actor awards in the drama category of this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 12 in Los Angeles.

Outstanding Directing went to "Squid Game" creator and director Hwang Dong-hyuk, while Outstanding Lead Actor went to Lee Jung-jae.

The Emmy Awards, hosted by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS), is one of the four major American awards for performing arts and entertainment on television and streaming platforms. The award show is divided into two parts, with the Creative Arts Emmy Awards that honors behind-the-scenes personnel, and the Primetime Emmy Awards for actors and directors.

At the Creative Arts Emmys which took place on Sept. 5 in Los Angeles, “Squid Game” garnered four awards — Outstanding Guest Actress for Lee You-mi, Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour Or More), Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode and Outstanding Stunt Performance.

This is the first time ever for a non-English drama series produced completely outside of a Western country to win multiple awards — let alone be nominated in major categories — in the Emmy's 74-year history. Foreign television productions were traditionally ineligible for the awards unless it was the result of a co-production between U.S. and foreign partners, with the intent to air on U.S. television.

Massively popular foreign productions such as French mystery series “Lupin” or Spanish caper series “Money Heist” — which still sits as one of Netflix’s 20 most-streamed series of all time — were therefore not eligible for the Primetime Emmys.

Instead, foreign series had to settle for the International Emmy Awards, a separate annual award ceremony usually presented in New York in November, since 1973.

“Truth is, not enough Primetime Emmy voters watch most foreign-language series at a level to score nominations,” American media outlet Indiewire wrote in its 2021 article titled, “Want to See Foreign Language Content at the Emmys? It’s Time to Elevate the International Emmys.”

“Designed to give recognition to international shows, they are largely ignored here in the States, but add traction in each local market.”

The traditionally strong locality of the Primetime Emmys is what makes the wins and nominations of “Squid Game” more significant, and serves as palpable proof of the cultural impact the series had across the globe.

A picture of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wearing a costume inspired by “Squid Game” [INSTAGRAM]

Los Angeles city council recently designated Sept. 17, the release date of the series on Netflix, as “Squid Game Day” to commemorate the massive influence it had on American pop culture.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti praised the series’ success as “a victory in the fight to grow representation of the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community in film and entertainment, exposing audiences to Korean culture and traditions while paving the way for other AAPI communities to also have their stories told.”

The series has not settled as a passing syndrome, but rather has become a game changer for the local content industry.

Actors shine

“What I felt as I stood on the global stage of Cannes is that cinephiles and countless fans worldwide are recognizing Korean content,” Song Kang-ho said at a press interview for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Korean-language film “Broker,” for which he won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes. “Wherever I go, they talk about Korean films and content.”

Back in the early 2000s, Korean actors had to knock on the doorsteps of Hollywood if they wanted global recognition, which is essentially what Lee Byung-hun, Jung Ji-hoon, Kim Yun-jin and Bae Doo-na have done. Fluency in English was a must, only adding to the barrier for foreign actors hoping to debut in Hollywood.

Kim, a Korean-American actor active in both the United States and Korea, was the first Korean celebrity to star in lead roles of American television series, in “Lost” (2004-10) and “Mistresses” (2008-10).

Kim, at a press interview for Netflix Korea’s remake of “Money Heist: Korea ― Joint Economic Area” in June, said the set of the series “felt surreal” to her.

“It’s like a dream come true, to be able to work with Korean actors, writers, directors, to communicate and perform in Korean for a Korean production and have it be available for streaming worldwide,” she said.

Lee Jung-jae, left, winner of the award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series, and Jung Hoyeon, winner of the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for Netflix’s dystopian hit “Squid Game” pose

Through the success of “Squid Game,” the beckoning of Korean acts to Hollywood has been altered: From model and actor Jung Hoyeon to veteran actor Lee Jung-jae, fresh and well-established names are being welcomed to Hollywood with open arms.

Jung, who had her screen debut with “Squid Game,” instantly shot to global stardom for her character as Kang Sae-byeok, or player No. 687, winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor this year.

After signing with American talent and sports agency Creative Artist Agency (CAA) in November, the actor was reported to have landed roles in Apple TV+ series “Disclaimer” directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron and American film “The Governesses” by Joe Talbot.

Lee Jung-jae, the main protagonist of the series, also signed with CAA in February and was reported to have been cast as the male lead in Disney+’s Stars Wars series “The Acolyte” earlier this month.

Other players of the series, such as Oh Young-soo, Park Hae-soo, Lee You-mi, Wi Ha-jun, Heo Sung-tae, Kim Joo-ryung and Indian actor Anupam Tripathi have experienced their share of the global spotlight and began to appear more actively in other Netflix projects or drama series.

Diversification of genres

Netflix definitely paved the way for local content to become easily accessible worldwide, but it is not only Netflix originals, nor survival horror series similar to “Squid Game,” that are now being globally recognized.

Local content is certainly enjoying a heyday, to the point where the public is no longer surprised to see local drama series sitting atop the most popular global charts of Netflix.

Be it rom-com, thriller, action, fantasy, historical fiction or courtroom dramas — such as tvN’s “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha” (2021) starring Kim Seon-ho and Shin Min-a, “Alchemy of Souls” (2022) starring Jung So-min and Lee Jae-wook, “Yumi’s Cells” (2021-22) starring Kim Go-eun, Ahn-bo-hyun and Park Jin-young, “Twenty Five, Twenty One” (2022) starring Kim Tae-ri and Nam Joo-hyuk, SBS’s “Business Proposal” (2022) starring Kim Se-jeong and Ahn Hyo-seop, KBS’s “The King’s Affection” (2021) and ENA’s “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (2022) starring Kim Eun-bin — Korean series have been enjoyed far and wide by global viewers, with some series dominating Netflix charts for weeks at a time.

“The reason behind the popularity of K-content is simple: The world loves Korean films, dramas and K-pop,” Kim Ji-yeon, CEO of Siren Pictures, the production company behind “Squid Game,” said at a local press event at Westin Chosun Hotel in central Seoul on Friday, freshly back from the Emmy Awards.

People dress in costumes inspired by “Squid Game” to celebrate Halloween in Hong Kong on Oct. 31, 2021. [AP/YONHAP]

“Before, [local creators] used to think only local viewers who understood Korean would watch our content. But now, there is a passageway that can connect us to the rest of the world, and viewers in other countries can enjoy [our productions] anytime they want. Through the internet, people have a better understanding of different cultures from different continents.”

Kim emphasized that securing the environment of creative freedom for local creators was the most important.

“From my experience, trying to deliberately target or create K-something, in the long run, can actually lead to a disappointing outcome,” Kim said. “It’s more important to have patience to give more opportunities for local creators and wait for their achievement, and invest in both tangible and intangible assets to provide a creative environment.”

Hwang points out the dynamicity of Korean content for its global popularity.

“BTS, ‘Parasite,’ ‘Squid Game’ and more, we’ve always tried to put our content overseas,” he said. “[The Korean economy] lived primarily off of exports, more than domestic demand for our in-house products. It’s the same for culture as well. K-pop has been targeting the global music market, and local content as well bloomed to its fullest with the fast-changing media environment. Because Korea is such an intense and dynamic society, the content that comes from within it is also dynamic and reflects society, which is why I believe Korean content has been receiving so much love and attention.”

The importance of IP

After “Squid Game” hit the jackpot that is Netflix subscribers, becoming the platform’s most-watched series after being streamed for more than 1.65 billion hours, attention gradually shifted toward its profit. The series that took $21.4 million to produce has generated $891.1 million for Netflix, according to Bloomberg’s article published last October.

A replica doll of Young-hee, a large motion-sensing animatronic doll from “Squid Game,” was installed between the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in Sydney from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1. [YONHAP]

How much did the cast get? One-time bonuses to compensate them for their work on the most-popular show in history on Netflix. According to the Bloomberg article “'Squid Game' Team Didn’t Get Rich From Season 1. What About Season 2?” the bonus that the cast received was less than what the stars of HBO series “Succession” get paid for one episode.

The deal with Netflix is that, while the streaming platform shoulders the entire financial responsibility of a project, they also take charge of the global distributing rights and Intellectual Property (IP) of the show it invests in.

This means that for all official merchandise related to “Squid Game” or from the upcoming reality show “Squid Game: The Challenge” based off from the series — none of the creators or local production company will get a hand in the profit.

Lee Sang-baek, CEO of the local production company Astory behind the hit “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” said at a local press conference of Broadcast World Wide (BCWW 2022) in August that the primary reason why he decided to air the series on newly-found cable channel ENA was so that he could have the sole rights to the IP. Astory is also behind Netflix’s zombie horror hit “Kingdom” (2019-), written by Kim Eun-hee.

A replica doll of Young-hee, a large motion-sensing animatronic doll from “Squid Game,” was installed between the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in Sydney from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1. [YONHAP]

“After ‘Kingdom,’ my longing to go overseas with local content grew," Lee said. "Netflix proposed to have ‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’ made as its original series, but I turned it down and only decided to sell distribution rights. I chose ENA because we could preserve the show’s IP, even though the channel was newer. The only way production companies can survive lies in holding the IP rights.”

“Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” which topped Netflix’s global weekly charts for weeks all throughout its airing, is being made into a webtoon, and will eventually be adapted into a musical as well. Lee also revealed at the event that the show is also up for a remake, proposed by numerous companies from the United States, Japan, China, Turkey, the Philippines and Germany.

“We are still in the works on the details [of the remake] from other production companies, and Astory will actively partake in the production of any remakes as well,” Lee said.

According to Kim, the contract for Season 2 of “Squid Game” was a better deal than for Season 1.

“We cannot reveal the specifics of the contract for Season 2, but we believe it’s a good deal,” Kim said. “The rights over the show’s IP is a newfound paradigm between the person financing the show and the show’s creator […] which is why it has become more important for production companies to have power and influence over their capital. Currently, the size and capacity of local production companies are small [compared to overseas], and if private and government-led organizations can support them, companies would have more power as they gain their own capital.”