In-House Feature Production on the Rise as Streaming Wars Rage
- Writerby Pierce Conran
Apple, Disney and Coupang Hop into Korea’s Busy SVOD Market
Long before the onset of the pandemic, a gigantic change was afoot in the film industry as the rise of streaming services had become impossible to ignore. When COVID-19 struck early last year, the trend accelerated only further as theaters shut down around the world, and viewers flocked to their home screens for their latest entertainment fix.
In Korea, Netflix and local streaming services such as TVING, Wavve and Watcha were already locked in battle before last year, but with Korean content, particularly drama series, experiencing a surge of global popularity, the playing field swiftly became more crowded.
Today, the Korean streaming market is unrecognizable from what it was just over a year and a half ago when the health crisis began. This fall, Netflix’s Squid Game conquered the world, and in November, the local market welcomed two major new Hollywood players, Disney+ and Apple TV+, each armed with pricey local content. New local providers such as Coupang Play and KT Seezn also jumped into the original content game, giving consumers a dizzying array of choices available to sample on any screen they can get their hands on.
Yet while drama viewership and production have reached new peaks through streaming, online feature films are also on the rise. Korea’s first mainstream streaming titles hit streaming services early last year when certain theatrical titles pivoted to online distribution amid the pandemic uncertainty, but now streaming services are busy producing their first in-house feature film titles as well.
Following the easing of restrictions for cinemas this past week, the theatrical market is well on its way to recovery, but streaming films are here to stay and will be increasingly prominent as a vast array of major titles debut online next year, though several services will also experiment with day-and-date theatrical and streaming debuts.
Unquestionably the top dog in both the global and Korean streaming markets, Netflix made significant strides during the pandemic and doubled down on their local content production in Korea. Early this year, the streamer revealed that they were investing USD 500 million into the Korean market in 2021, which included buying studio space near Seoul and bankrolling its first in-house original features.
Netflix has also been banking on hiring acclaimed filmmakers to helm the series, starting with Tunnel’s Kim Seonghun directing their first original drama Kingdom. This strategy paid off in spectacular fashion with the unprecedented success of Squid Game, the debut series of Silenced (2011) director Hwang Donghyuk. The show became the first Korean series to top Netflix’s global rankings and quickly outstripped every prior Netflix production on its way to a record opening month, during which 142 million subscribers tuned in around the world.
After abandoning a February theatrical release last year, the dystopian heist thriller Time to Hunt became the first Korean film to launch on Netflix last spring. Subsequent releases have included the acclaimed thriller The Call, the big-budget SF-action-drama Space Sweepers, the gangster drama Night in Paradise, the romcom Sweet & Sour and the occult horror The 8th Night.
Now the streaming service is busy producing its first feature films, which include Park Hyunjin’s romantic comedy Moral Sense and Jung Byunggil’s action film Carter. Other titles on the way include the 80s-set action heist film Seoul Vibe and Yeon Sangho’s SF action-drama Jung-E.
Meanwhile, major filmmakers continue to be involved with drama series, with Yeon Sangho also responsible for the horror-thriller Hellbound, out later this month, and Yoon Jongbin currently working on the crime drama Suriname.
TVING, the streaming service run by CJ ENM which serves as the online home of the cable networks tvN, JTBC and OCN, pursued a similar strategy to Netflix this year when it also took some of the CJ Entertainment’s anticipated titles and launched them online as well as in theaters.
The first of these was the big-budget sci-fi drama SEOBOK with Gong Yoo and Park Bogum. TVING also presented the horror Midnight, which has been drawing acclaim from viewers at film festivals around the world.
The service is also starting to produce feature content designed for streaming, their first major title being the romantic omnibus Happy New Year, from My Sassy Girl (2001) director Kwak Jaeyong. The film features a who’s who cast comprising Lim Yoona, Lee Kwangsoo, Kang Haneul, Han Jimin and Seo Kangjoon, among many others.
Hot on Netflix and TVING’s tail is wavve, the local platform with the most subscribers, which was originally formed as a joint venture between the local broadcasting stations KBS, MBC and SBS, and SK Telecom. Rather than acquire completed projects, wavve is jumping straight into original feature production, starting with Gentleman (literal title) and Dead Man (literal title), both of which are expected next year.
Gentleman, a crime drama featuring Ju Jihoon, Park Sungwong and Choi Sungeun, began shooting in late summer. The film is the commercial filmmaking debut of Kim Kyoungwon, who previously made the indie film The Artist: Reborn (2017). Dead Man, a thriller dealing with illegal political campaign financing, stars Cho Jinwoong, Kim Heeae and Ryu Hyeyoung and is the feature debut of Hah Junwon, one of the writers of The Host (2006).
Streaming service Watcha, which caters to cinephiles with a deep catalogue of classic, international and arthouse cinema, as well as popular commercial titles and series, is also venturing into the original content game with its own feature film project.
Later this year, Watcha will launch the omnibus film Unframed, which will comprise the directorial debuts of young stars Choi Heeseo, Park Jungmin, Lee Jehoon and Son Sukku. The film premiered in the Korean Cinema Today-Panorama section of the Busan International Film Festival in October.
KT Seezn, another fledgling local streaming service, presented its first original production last month. Another Record, from acclaimed filmmaker Kim Jongkwan (Worst Woman, 2016; Josée, 2020), is a cinematic documentary focusing on actress Shin Saekyeong as she walks around a traditional neighborhood of Seoul and shares her thoughts through various conversations.
Apple TV+, Disney+ and Coupang Play
A trio of other major players is also marking big debuts in the Korean streaming market this month, though as yet, none of them have revealed any plans for feature films.
Apple TV+ launched in Korea on November 4, the same day it released its first Korean original series around the world, the SF-thriller Dr. Brain. Based on the webtoon of the same name, the show is the drama series debut of acclaimed filmmaker Kim Jeewoon and features Parasite (2019) star Lee Sunkyun as a brain scientist delving into other people’s minds and memories. Apple is also working on an international adaptation of the Korean immigrant epic best-seller Pachinko, with Youn Yuhjung and Lee Minho among the cast.
On November 12, Disney+ will make its long-awaited debut in the market. Though no local series are as yet known to be available at launch, the streamer is investing heavily in several major programs, including the superhero series Moving. Based on the popular Kang Full webcomic and directed by Park Injae (Moby Dick, 2011), the series features Zo Insung, Han Hyojoo and Cha Taehyun and is being produced with KRW 50 billion (USD 42 million) budget, the highest budget ever spent on Korean content.
Coupang Play, the new streaming service of the giant online retailer Coupang, will launch its first original program, One Ordinary Day, on November 27. Featuring Kim Soohyun and Cha Seungwon, the show has already made waves owing to reports that Kim Soohyun was expected to pock KRW 500 million (USD 421,000) per episode, a record star salary.