Korean Entertainment’s Global K-Wave

Korean Entertainment’s Global K-Wave

Call it a tsunami.  Top streamers, distributors and exhibitors are scrambling to ride the wave as South Korea becomes a global source of entertainment content that is already sweeping the world.  Why is South Korea so good at this?

Recent global headlines have heralded the success of South Korea’s music, TV and film industry on the global media stage.  K-Pop musical talent has already swept the world with acts such as BTS (aka, the Bangtan Boys) toping the US Billboard 200 in 2018 and charting four US number-one albums in less than two years (rivalling the Beatles). 

Now CNN has led reports that Netflix is doubling down on South Korea with plans to invest $2.5 billion over the next four years to produce more K-dramas, movies and reality shows, double the amount the company has previously invested in this fast-growing production market. The streamer is unveiling six new K-romance titles coming over the next five months in addition to a slate of the 34 new and returning Korean titles announced in January.

BTS and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaking at the daily briefing at the White House on May 31, 2022. Image: courtesy, The White House.

Netflix itself reports a huge demand for Korean content. The streamer has revealed that global viewership of its K-romance (Korean romantic drama) titles, including shows such as Crash Landing On You and Extraordinary Attorney Woo, have tripled between 2018 and 2022, with more than 90 per cent of this audience coming from outside South Korea. 

Netflix is not alone.

As always, there is a story behind the headlines. Here at The Bridge we have witnessed the rise of South Korea’s creative industries first hand. The Bridge has been involved throughout South Korea’s journey from relatively obscurity to global media powerhouse. When we first began representing South Korean companies and pitching Korean programming and formats to global broadcasters we couldn’t actually secure meetings.

We certainly do now!

Today there is no doubt that Korean creativity is strong.  South Korea has consistently ranked amongst the Top 10 most innovative nations for years according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations.  However, in our view, this is about more than simply talent.

The result we are now seeing out of South Korea, on the world stage, comes from a combination of factors, including a social emphasis on hard work and an insatiable national appetite for ‘the new’.  South Korea’s domestic entertainment market is highly robust, driven in part by their leading broadband capabilities and early adoption of wide-scale commercial 5G service. But there is something else too. Unsurprisingly, investment! For over a decade the South Korean government has led a considered and deliberate investment policy into its nation’s creative industries.

Every nation has its own creatives: highly talented producers, directors and artists who can, with relevant, strategic support processes in place, reach and compete on the world media stage. South Korea’s thriving independent TV and film business comes from a strategic combination of government planning, strategic investment and individual skillsets combined with an internal, national ‘opportunity infrastructure’. 

This environment supports creatives practically and financially while a global network of government bodies foster international networks to grow the nation’s creative industries beyond their domestic markets.  It’s this government-led and financially backed coherent support infrastructure for the creative industries that, in our view, has led to the results we are seeing proven.

Bong Joon-ho, Oscar for Parasite.
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho accepts one of the four Oscars for ‘Parasite’ during the 92nd Academy Awards. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

The wave of ‘HallyU’, the term for South Korea’s outward push of Korean drama and K-Pop music, is impossible to ignore.

Some brief stats:

  • In 2020 total sales of South Korean creative content reached $128.3 trillion Korean Won, roughly equivalent to $11 billion USD.
  • In 2021, the South Korean TV and film industry was valued at 1.02 trillion Korean Won with 776 completed films being exported from the country.
  • Last year, South Korea’s gaming industry was valued as one of the largest in the world.
  • The Korean film, Parasite (2019) won the Oscar for “Best Picture” at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020, the first non-English language film to ever do so (it also won Oscars for “Best Director”, “Best Original Screen Play” and “Best International Feature Film”).

South Korea’s clever and targeted use of its cultural soft power investment into TV, film and gaming has resulted in an industry bigger than even its agricultural or cosmetics industries, both of which are global high performers.

It’s challenging to directly credit South Korea’s creative industries with rises in the nation’s inward tourism, business relationships and global cultural exchange, however it is clear that they have been a corner stone of the nation’s solid, average 7% growth on the world scale up until 2022. That is what “soft power” does.  Remember, South Korea is a country slightly larger than the US State of Indiana with a population of around 52 million.

Korean K-Drama series, Queenmaker
K-drama series, Queenmaker (2023), created by Oh Jin-seok & Moon Ji-young staring Kim Hee-ae, Moon So-ri and Ryu Soo-young. Image: courtesy Netflix.

There are some specific reasons the South Korean entertainment industry has prospered overseas. First, the local market is tough. The audience rules.  If South Korean audiences don’t like a new film, TV show, or song, it will disappear quickly. The domestic competition among entertainment companies is intense.

South Korean audiences demand high-quality content, high production values and a constant stream of fresh entertainment product. Unlike in the United States, where even unsuccessful TV shows span multiple seasons and spawn franchises, it is rare for hit shows in South Korea to last for more than one season. South Korean audiences are in relentless pursuit of “the new” and South Korean media executives are in tune with this.

The South Korean domestic market acts like a form of “shark tank” as companies battle for a limited number of commissioning dollars. This constant pressure guarantees a pipeline of high-quality shows and movies at a pace most other countries haven’t matched.  This offers enormous product for international markets that cannot meet global demand for content, particularly new content. 

This has not been lost on leading international streaming services in an increasingly competitive environment.  For example, Netflix released Squid Game in 2021 to both critical acclaim and international attention.  It remains Netflix’s most-watched series after becoming the top-viewed show in 94 countries with 142 million Netflix subscribers contributing to 1.65 billion viewing hours in its first four weeks alone. Four of the eight-most watched non-English Netflix series of all time are South Korean. South Korea is a perpetual content engine tuned to the latest societal issues of our times.

South Korea’s size has something to do with its constant cycle of creation and improvement. With just 52 million people in the Korean market, growth for entertainment companies depends on creating movies, TV shows, and music that will fare well internationally. In some ways the South Korean entertainment industry has become too big to be contained within national borders.

This is by design.

South Korea has made the entertainment industry a national priority in terms of seed funding, establishing numerous international film festivals and teaching filmmaking in schools. The entire entertainment ecosystem has been carefully cultivated.  In South Korea, the industry treats its behind-the-scenes production staff as importantly as stars. It’s worth noting in light of the writer’s strike in the US, Korean writers can command status and salaries commensurate with the country’s on-screen stars.

South Korea has carefully cultivated its people’s skill at innovation into national economic policy and commercial practice.  It is likely to remain at the top of world rankings because the country values, nurtures and financially stimulates it’s creative output. There is a relentless appetite for ‘the new’ in South Korea and its domestic entertainment market has become a test bed for television programming, films, games, music and technology advances that translate internationally.  

“If any trend is going to move from overseas to the U.S., I would put South Korea at the front of the line in terms of who is likeliest to be that springboard,” Andrew Wallenstein, the president of Variety Intelligence Platform, has told the New York Times.

Korea is seeing the huge success that it has long deserved in its creative industries, and this is no accident!