Dawn of the Age of Korean Streaming Films
- Writerby Pierce Conran
Netflix and TVING Lead the Way for OTT Features
Throughout the year, especially during its busiest weekends, the box office sets the stage for big showdowns between local films. In the midst of the pandemic, these showdowns have been few and far between, but while we wait for cinema admissions to return to normal levels, we now have a new venue where we can witness these cinematic face-offs - the Internet.
Last week gave us the first of what may be many showdowns in the future as viewers in Korea were presented with a pair of new horror films to choose from. Local streaming service TVING released its third original film Midnight both in theaters and on its streaming service on Wednesday, June 30, while global streamer Netflix launched The 8th Night, with Lee Sungmin and Kim Youjung, exclusively on its platform two days later on July 2.
Netflix has been releasing Korean original films on its platform since April last year, while TVING followed suit in April of this year, but this was the first time that two major Korean films debuted online in the same week, indicating that the Korean film streaming market is now in full swing.
However, though billed as TVING and Netflix ‘originals’, neither Midnight nor The 8th Night is a project that originated with those respective streaming services. They were initially intended as theatrical titles, but those release strategies were altered during the pandemic.
Ever since Netflix entered the Korean market, many expected the company to eventually start offering original Korean films, but while they launched their local drama series with Kingdom in early 2019, there were no official plans to do the same with films by the time the Covid-19 pandemic struck the peninsula in February of last year.
Time to Hunt (2020)
With theaters almost empty and a pipeline of feature films suddenly confronted with grim release prospects, Netflix swooped in to buy its first major feature title. Yoon Sunghyun’s SF heist thriller Time to Hunt (2020) with Lee Jehoon and Choi Wooshik, was initially scheduled to open at the end of February but had its release postponed just three days before opening day.
Soon after, Little Big Pictures pivoted their release strategy by selling the film to Netflix. Since the film had already been sold internationally, a dispute arose between Little Big Pictures and foreign sales agent Contents Panda, but once that was resolved, Time to Hunt became the first major Korean film to debut online when it launched on Netflix on April 23.
It took seven months for the next Korean film to launch on Netflix, which was the timeslip horror-thriller The Call (2020) with Park Shinhye and Jun Jongseo, which opened on November 27. Originally scheduled to open in March, The Call was also a Contents Panda title, who was handling the film for their parent company Next Entertainment World.
The pace sped up significantly this year, with the comedy What Happened to Mr. Cha? launching on New Year’s Day, followed on February 5 by Jo Sunghee’s big-budget SF-action film Space Sweepers, with Song Joongki and Kim Taeri, which had originally been scheduled for the Chuseok holiday last year by distributor Merry Christmas. Next was Park Hoonjung’s gangland action-noir Night of Paradise, another Contents Panda/Next Entertainment World film, which launched on April 9 following its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last year.
A week later, on April 16, local streaming service TVING, owned by CJ ENM, jumped into the film streaming market with Lee Yongju’s big-budget SF-drama SEOBOK, starring Gong Yoo and Park Bogum. Originally scheduled for release in December of last year by CJ Entertainment, SEOBOK became the first Korean film to launch simultaneously in theaters and online. It was the top title on TVING for two weeks and welcomed close to 400,000 viewers in theaters.
On June 4, Netflix launched Lee Gaebyok’s romantic comedy Sweet and Sour from distributor kth and TVING parried on the 17th with Shark: The Beginning, a webtoon adaptation that combines the high school fight film and the prison film, two subgenres that have been popular in the local IPTV (VOD) film market.
This brings us to the current Midnight vs. The 8th Night showdown, the first time Netflix and TVING have directly competed with each other. Yet beyond the speed at which the rival services are launching new titles, the near future has a few more big changes in store.
Up until now, all the streaming films that have launched in Korea were not intended to debut online, but earlier this year several streaming services, including Netflix, TVING, and Watcha, announced plans to produce original films.
In February, Netflix staged a large presentation where they announced their drama release slate for the year and revealed their plan to spend USD 500 million in the market in 2021 alone. Also, parts of the presentation were the streamer’s first two original feature films developed in-house. Those were Carter, an action film from The Villainess (2018) director Jung Byunggil, and the romcom Moral Sense, from Like for Likes (2016) director Park Hyunjin. Netflix also announced Seoul Vibe, a major action film starring Yoo Ahin, in June.
Just a few days after launching SEOBOK, TVING revealed that it was developing Happy New Year, a star-driven romantic drama from My Sassy Girl (2001) director Kwak Jaeyong featuring Han Jimin, Kang Haneul, and Lim Yoona, among others.
Also joining the fray is local steaming service Watcha, which recently announced plans to invest significantly in producing original content. Part of their upcoming slate will be the omnibus project Unframed, which will feature short films by four actors debuting in the director’s chair - Park Jungmin, Son Sukku, Choi Heeseo, and Lee Jehoon.
As viewing habits evolve, certain film genres seem like a natural fit for online platforms. Looking at what has already been released, mid-level genre films, such as horror, romantic comedy, or edgy thrillers, seem to be favored by streaming services. That said, Netflix hasn’t been shy about acquiring or developing big-budget genre content that would traditionally be expected to play on big screens, like the tentpole Space Sweepers or the upcoming Seoul Vibe.
Though the pandemic will eventually die down and the theatrical market will hopefully return to its former strength, there’s no doubt that the streaming market for original films is here to stay. Other big streaming spenders like Wavve, Coupang Play, Apple+ TV, and Disney+ may be focusing on lucrative drama series for the moment, but Netflix and TVING are clearly betting on the future of films online.