Can the success of K-content also lead to the downfall of K-content?


Can a work be too successful?

It’s been four years since the release of “Parasite” (2019) and a year and a half since “Squid Game” (2021), but audiences and the Korean government alike continue to search for “the next ‘Squid Game,’” while reports revisit the record-breaking honors received by “Parasite” every time a local film misses out at an awards show.

The success of the two milestone works may have opened the doors for Korean content to earn global acclaim, but the struggle of the entertainment market to repeat these feats sheds light on the downfall of such success.

Creators and investors alike increasingly fall back on guaranteed success stories in fear of failure, while consumers are becoming less willing to give experimental content a chance amid the rising prices of cinema visits and online streaming services.

A notable change that has taken place over the last decade is that dramas and films used to be treated as two separate genres, but the two markets have come to mix with the advent of streaming services, namely Netflix, where movies and dramas get the same share of views.

A scene from the hit Netflix series "Squid Game" [NETFLIX]

The advent of streaming services like Netflix and its competitors opened an opportunity for smaller creators to make their mark in the industry, but also started a battle among creators to win over viewers.

Investors and production companies in film and drama don't like to gamble — meaning that industry money-holders are putting their bets on “already confirmed to succeed” big names, including directors who have already hit it big several times, actors who are well-known, and productions that are adaptations of works that have seen success or are sequels.

Investment in films that are categorized as blockbusters and dramas that are adaptations of already published novels or webtoons took up more than 80 percent of the total production costs of all works last year, according to a report by the Korean Film Council (Kofic).

Out of a total of 197 films that opened in theaters in Korea in 2022, 36 commercial blockbusters took up 448.3 billion won ($345 million) of production costs, nearly ten times more than the production costs of the remaining 161 films combined.

A scene from director Bong Joon-ho's award-winning film "Parasite" [CJ ENM]

This makes it hard for alternative or independent content to find its footing. Viewership for independent and alternative productions took up a mere 5.9 percent of the total views of films in Korean cinema last year, according to another report by Kofic. Less works are being made, with the number of independent or alternative productions shrinking from 143 in 2020 to 118 in 2021. A total of 19 arthouse or indie cinemas closed across Korea last year.

Korean content may not be seeing worldwide success because films and dramas that have the potential to rise above with never-before-seen perspectives are being overlooked in favor of focusing on creators who have already made it big, say experts.

“Streaming services should provide a variety of opportunities for creators and viewers alike, but there is a phenomenon of favoring ‘proven’ production personnel,” said critic Kim Heon-sik. “You keep seeing the same names — directors, actors and writers that are already well known. I do not think that streaming services are the future because they are too commercialized and this phenomenon is quite deep rooted. We should also give domestic streaming services a comparative advantage if a Korean content brand is to be made.”

Some argue that the video content industry including films and dramas has become just that — an industry; it is no longer about art anymore.

“The cinema is as good as dead,” said Yu Gina, a film critic and professor of film studies at Dongguk University. “The same stories and same narratives continue in Korean video content and there is not much to connect — a ‘bridge,’ so to speak — the mass audience with new, independent or alternative content.”

The obsession with blockbusters, million-ticket selling films and box office numbers is self-explanatory, argues Yu. The video content industry including films, dramas and reality television shows has become a huge money-making market, and that is where the problem lies. It is no longer about telling candid or new stories, but about selling more tickets and merchandise.

“Take ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’” said Yu. “That film hit over ten million ticket sales in Korea, and it was a very trite and predictive narrative. The cinema has become a theme park. It is not about telling new or candid stories anymore. It is a numbers game and in the context of capitalism where alternative and minor things do not receive enough attention, it is the role of critics and journalists to bridge that gap between the masses and creators. But that has gone also.”

The lack of a bridge between the masses and new or alternative content creators has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Kim.

A theater in central Seoul is crowded with moviegoers on Jan. 23, 2023. [YONHAP]

“There has been a particular disconnect due to the pandemic,” said Kim. “We cannot expect independent and alternative works to become hits just because they are good, but opportunities should be given so that there is at least a way upward for such films and creators. If we do not act upon this problem now, works carrying new perspectives and narratives could be lost.”

Some critics say that in a way, shows such as “The Glory” and “Physical:100,” which climbed to the top of the non-English language list on Netflix in the first couple of months after their releases this year, have followed in the footsteps of “Squid Game” and “Parasite.”

“It could be our obsession that there has to be hits all the time,” said Oh Dong-jin, a film critic and columnist. “I would say that popular culture also needs training, to see what is out there and discern what to watch. But people do not have the time and money for that. Such a phenomenon — of flocking to the big names and blockbusters — is a result of neoliberal habits of our society.”

Korean content known worldwide was able to garner so much viewership and commercial success because it touched upon universal issues from a unique perspective, according to experts, and that universality is not something only Korea can do.

“'Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game’ were global successes because they dealt with universally deep-ridden aspects of any society,” said Hwang Jin-mee, a critic and contributor to domestic film magazine Cine21. “Class, racial and monetary issues are anywhere, and those works said something about that from a perspective that was new to the English-speaking or global audiences. So they were given awards and attention. But once global audiences become interested, it is about moving on from there. People cannot be kept interested in one frame for long.”

Although Korean society and its politics, social sophistication and development have universal aspects that can engage global audiences further, Korea is also a very specific setting, argued Hwang. That means that it is not sustainable to expect the country to churn out hit films and dramas that can have an element of universality every time.

With the advent of streaming services, diversity and universality have been sought in content as these service platforms have given opportunities to smaller production companies and creators, according to research by experts.

As services such as Netflix have started investing in and producing more “originals” — where services do not just distribute ready-made content through their platforms but take part in the actual making of films and dramas — middle-scale production studios have been on the rise.

“Middle-scale production studios have been given a never-before-had advantage with the pandemic and an increasing number of originals produced by streaming services,” writes Lee Sung-min, an assistant professor of media studies at Korea National Open University in a paper titled “Changes in Content Production and Distribution Systems Due to Streaming: Focusing on the Studio System” (translated).

But these opportunities for middle-scale and smaller production studios have dwindled down over the years also, as Netflix has seen its subscriber numbers shrink with the trend of audiences dispersing to other streaming services such as Wavve, Tving and Watcha for domestic providers and Amazon Prime, Disney+ and others for international streaming providers.

With so many things to watch nowadays, audiences are also bent on “not failing” with the content that they choose — more and more we rely on an algorithm to show us what to watch, or just re-watch works that we are already familiar with.

But audiences need to be aware of the possibilities of “other” content — alternative or independent works that can really tell a new and never-seen-before-seen story — and keep their eyes and ears open.

“We need an overhaul and upgrade of the utility and value of popular culture,” said Yu. “Culture needs to be sustainable, and for that, there needs to be more attention given to the minor, and the bridge between the mass audiences and creators needs to be built, and a convergence of the analog and digital needs to happen.”

While there is a reason that viewers flock to certain works and people want to watch “easy” content, there is also chronic boredom and discontent with the same productions and a craving for something new, according to Kim.

“We are always looking for something that can move us, that can give as a new perspective,” said Kim. “To find that is work, and people do not have the time and energy for that nowadays. But someone needs to try.”