By James Do
With the success of Korean popular culture reaching many countries around the world, especially Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, video streaming service Netflix is trying to capitalize on the success of Korean entertainment. By riding on the popularity of its original content (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black) and incorporating Korean media into their library, Netflix is now in a prime position gain a market share in the entertainment industry in Korea.
Since Netflix expanded its service globally, the company began to offer more Korean movies and television shows onto its streaming library. Many of its programs tend to be more recent releases such as the movie Tunnel or Train to Busan, which both premiered in Korean cinemas in 2016. The company has also picked up several Korean television shows including The Sound of your Heart and My Only Love Song. In addition, many older famous Korean movies and television shows such as Assassination, Old Boy, and Descendants of the Sun are currently available to watch. In fact, Netflix now offers more Korean movies or television shows than Japanese or Chinese content.
We can see this trend continuing with Netflix’s investment into its upcoming film, Okja. Directed by the renowned Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snow-piercer), Okja serves as Netflix’s official entry into the Korean entertainment market. Okja is a movie about a young country girl, Mija, (Ahn Seo-hyun) who stops at nothing to defend her newfound friend, Okja, a pig-like animal genetically created to be used for human consumption. During her adventure to save her beloved friend, she takes on an evil corporation led by a powerful CEO (Tilda Swinton) who seeks nothing but to profit from Okja and her species. Mija befriends animal rights activists (Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins) who assist her in her quest to save Okja.
While the plot of the movie evokes a sense of adventure, the film itself is without controversy. Netflix recently announced that the film would be released both in theaters and online in Korea, a first for the company, which has never pushed to have their own content released through cinema or television broadcasting. After the announcement, major Korean theater chains opposed Netflix’s plan to release the movie simultaneously, as movies there are typically screened in theaters and made available online after a few weeks. CGV, Korea’s largest cinema chain, refused to screen the film, while Megabox and Lotte Cinema are still debating.
Bong Joon-ho, Okja’s director, explained that while trying to cater to its subscription base, Netflix went against the existing norms and systems of the existing Korean film industry. However, although the film remained controversial to big theater outlets, many independent theaters agreed to premier Okja.
In addition to Netflix’s controversial role in the Korean film industry, the film also garnered attention at the Cannes Film Festival. While the film was invited to be premiered at the festival, it was omitted from award consideration, since the movie was not planned for theatrical released in France – a rule that was introduced after the lineup for this year’s festival was settled. Bong stated “[The festival] invited us and then caused a stir, making us embarrassed. They should have put the rules in place and then invited us. How can I as a filmmaker study local French laws while making films?”
With all the controversies over Okja, what will the future of Netflix and the Korean film industry be? The popularity of Korean entertainment globally has influenced Netflix to ride the Korean wave by entering a market that continues to grow immensely not just in Korea but abroad. As Netflix hopes to increase its user base, it’s possible the company will seek to invest in other films and television programs in countries where online streaming remains popular.
With streaming becoming ubiquitous among younger generations, film industries must change their business model to incorporate more recent trends. The way we watch and engage in film and televisions has already immensely changed from the previous decade. To meet the needs of contemporary times, companies and organizations need to develop an environment where filmmakers are motivated but also given more recent standards of support. With its innovative model of simultaneous physical and online premieres, Netflix is at the forefront of these changing times. Now it is up to the film industry and its community to change their policies to reflect current digital trends.
James Do is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy focusing on International Security Studies and Pacific Asia and an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from TFurban’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.