WON Dong-yeon, The CEO of Realies Pictures discusses producing Korea's first film Simultaneously Shot Film Franchise ALONG WITH THE GODS
Oct 12, 2017
- Writerby LEE Hyo-won
“I want to explore this new frontier and show that film franchises can become profit-making tent-poles for both the winter and summer seasons”
In 2007, 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) broke local records for romantic comedies, among both homespun and imported titles, as it hauled in over six million admissions. If the film put producer WON Dong-yeon on the map, his reputation for creating surefire hits was further solidified with the 2012 box-office smash Masquerade. The costume drama remains one of just 15 local titles to cross 10 million admissions—or one-fifth of the Korean population. The CEO of Realies Pictures has his sights set on creating the country‘s first simultaneously shot film franchise, Along with the Gods. The first of the two-part serial, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds will be released this coming winter, followed by Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days next summer. The Lotte Entertainment project has long been creating buzz among the moviegoing public and fans of the “webtoon” (comic strips published online) which the fantasy epic is based on. The 53-year-old star producer sat down with Korean Cinema Today to discuss his visions for film franchises in Korea, changes that need to be made in the local entertainment industry, and why he wants to pay more tax.
Along with the Gods is based on the popular webtoon of the same name. What drew you to the story?
A friend of mine recommended me to read it back in 2011. It asks a very universal question about death and life after death. It’s something anyone can think about, regardless of religious belief. The story basically suggests that everything one does during one’s lifetime is part of a chain reaction that continues even after death, and how important it is to be good and just and to cherish relationships with others. The fact that the film is based on a successful webtoon demonstrated its narrative potential. A major broadcaster also bid for the script, and actually offered more money than us for the remake rights. But the writer JOO Ho-min was more interested in film.
Along with the Gods is among an increasing number of local movies and TV dramas that were adapted from existing sources such as webtoons. How do you view this trend?
I see it as a very positive sign. The portion of original scripts in Korea is unusually high compared to other film industries such as Hollywood or Japan. This is very risky from a business point of view, especially when you consider blockbuster scale projects. Also, I believe in helping foster a more creator-oriented industry. There are too many writer-directors in Korea, and this can be a problem because it prioritizes directing overwriting, where many filmmakers write in order to direct. We need more professional writers, and it has been a big priority of mine to support writers.
You've supported writers and other crew members by pushing forth standardized contracts. How did you become involved?
I was vice-president of the Korean Film Producers Association for a long time until about four years ago. Many film crew members were making less than USD 20,000 a year, and that simply does not make sense for commercial films. So I wanted to help set the minimum standard so that they would work no more than 12 hours a day, five days a week. I also pushed to give writers more incentive for their work. The Korean film industry can no longer revolve around the investors. As I said before, it needs to become more centered on the creators.
Along with the Gods is in the fantasy genre, which has only recently become popular in Korea.
Korea has recently seen the rise of diverse genre films. THE WAILING (2016) showed that occult films can do well in Korea, while TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) also showed the possibility of zombie movies. We hope that our movie will create new tides for fantasy films, which remain to be explored here. One of the reasons we are able to realize the film version of Along with the Gods now is the great leaps in local VFX technology. Dexter Studios is handling the VFX, and I am really proud of the afterlife scenes that are being created. I am excited about the prospect of showcasing a whole new level of VFX. But technology always comes second. The power of the narrative is first and foremost, and Along with the Gods has stunning visuals to help tell a very strong story. I’ll also add that moviegoers can look forward to the music. I’ve purchased the rights to a David Bowie song, though I can’t reveal which one just yet.
You‘re not new to exploring new cinematic technologies, such as special makeup effects in 200 Pounds Beauty or the maritime action in Marine Boy (2009). You seem to enjoy these added challenges.
It’s definitely something that keeps me going. It’s very important for me to introduce something new when it comes to producing movies. The special makeup effects in 200 Pounds Beauty and underwater scenes in Marine Boy are prime examples, as is the fact that WARRIORS OF THE DAWN (2017) was a rare Korean film to be fully shot in outdoor locations, sort of like The Revenant.
In addition to starring the country's A-list actors, including HA Jung-woo (Assassination, 2015), CHA Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl, 2001 & My New Sassy Girl, 2016), JU Ji-hoon (Asura : The City of Madness, 2016) and Don LEE (TRAIN TO BUSAN), the film stars K-pop idol DOH Kyung-soo. You recently made headlines for tweeting compliments about DOH's acting skills.
I supported the casting of DOH Kyung-soo as an actor, not as D.O. of the K-pop group EXO. DOH is really a talented actor, as demonstrated in the film Cart (2014). The Korean entertainment industry is so conservative that many singer-turned-actors have yet to be fairly criticized. I cherish him so much as an actor that his character in Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds was named after me.
The release date for the first film has been set for December 21st, which was announced in August. This is much earlier than the norm, which is about a month or so before. This seems like a bold move.
Expectations are extremely high for the film. This does concern me a bit because it’s always difficult to live up to super high hopes. However, I feel confident that Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds will dominate the winter holiday season. The early announcement was a declaration of sorts. It is a warning to other players in the film industry so that other distributors can release their titles accordingly. It’s a gesture targeting major distributors, challenging them to compete with our film or to avoid it all together.
This also seems to be in consideration of smaller, independent films.
Yes, setting our release date well in advance will greatly help smaller indie films as well as imported titles so that their marketing plans can be made ahead of time. It’s very important to foster a healthy market, and major distributors have an important role to play in that regard.
CJ Entertainment is known to have helped develop the film. Why did you decide to go with Lotte Entertainment?
I want to emphasize that parting ways with CJ Entertainment was not due to creative differences, but because of very realistic concerns over the budget that I completely understand. It’s true that we developed the film with CJ for about three to four years. However, I insisted that the two films in the series had to be shot simultaneously; in the long run, that would help lower the budget, such as the cost of rebuilding the set, etc. CJ thought this was too risky; normally sequels are created after the first film does well. Lotte, on the other hand, okayed the idea of shooting two films at once.
You are simultaneously shooting two serial films a film franchise for the first time in Korea. How do you think this will influence the industry?
Frankly, I am in the entertainment business to make money. I am probably among the first generation of Korean filmmakers that prioritizes the business side of things, compared to elder filmmakers who had a “sacrifice all” attitude when it came to making movies. I am here to create jobs and to help the Korean film industry grow. As a producer, I want to design projects that can make money. I believe that Along with the Gods can become a milestone film that exemplifies how costs can be saved through shooting more than one film at once. As a more seasoned producer, I want to explore this new frontier and show that such projects can become profit-making tentpoles for both the winter and summer seasons.
You have worked with a number of different investor-distributors, unlike many Korean filmmakers who tend to stick with one company. Why is this?
When it comes to work, I think it’s important to forge ties with the optimal partner that offers the most appropriate and ideal conditions, rather than being drawn to personal ties as it has long been the custom in the Korean film industry. That is essential to the success of a film. In 2013 [after Masquerade dominated the box office], I was known to have paid the most tax among Korean filmmakers. I am extremely proud of this. My goal for 2018 is to pay the most tax.
Are there plans for spinoffs of Along with the Gods?
We are planning to do a TV series and go into production after the second film is released next summer. I am envisioning a seasonal series that is faithful to the original webtoon. The broadcaster hasn’t been set yet, and I’m also open to the idea of working with Netflix, Amazon or other international companies.
You will be creating a Korean remake of the Spanish thriller film Invisible Guest. How did that come about?
I saw the film and was immediately drawn to the characters and the surprise twists in the storyline. My heart thumped very hard, and the tension was so intense. I became curious about what it would look like with a Korean twist. The original film is opening in September after its Korean premiere at the Jeonju International Film Festival this spring. The script will be completed soon for the remake.