Tue. Jan 9th, 2024


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How Netflix Plans Total Global Domination, One Korean Drama at a Time

12 min read

They met in a 20th-floor conference room in Seoul named for one successful project with Korean talent — “Okja,” a 2017 film of one girl’s devotion to a genetically modified super pig — to discuss what they hoped would become another hit.

Quickly, the gathering of Netflix’s South Korea team became an unhappy focus group, with a barrage of nitpicks and critiques about the script for a coming-of-age fantasy show.

One person said the story line pulled in too many fantastical — and foreign — elements instead of focusing on character and plot. The creative components struck another person as too hard to grasp, and out of touch.

Finally, the executive who was championing the project offered a diagnosis: The writer had watched too much Netflix.

Inspired by the streaming service’s success in turning Korean-language shows into international hits, the writer wanted this show to go global, too, and thought more far-fetched flourishes would appeal overseas.

The fix, the executive said, was the opposite. The script needed to “Koreanize” the show, ground it in local realism and turn some foreign characters into Korean roles.

Netflix wants to dominate the entertainment world, but it is pursuing that ambition one country at a time. Instead of creating shows and movies that appeal to all 190 countries where the service is available, Netflix is focusing on content that resonates with a single market’s audience.

“When we’re making shows in Korea, we’re going to make sure it’s for Koreans,” said Minyoung Kim, Netflix’s vice president of content in Asia. “When we’re making shows in Japan, it is going to be for the Japanese. In Thailand, it’s going to be for Thai people. We are not trying to make everything global.”

Netflix’s 2023 Emmy nominations — a respectable if not record-breaking haul for the streaming service — tell one story of its ambitions: It received nods Wednesday for its prestige drama “The Crown,” its comedy-drama “Beef” and its reality shows “Love Is Blind” and “Queer Eye.”

In addition to that wide spectrum of English-language programming, Netflix’s ambition is to grow in relatively untapped regions like Asia and Latin America, beyond its saturated core markets in the United States and Europe, where subscriber growth is slowing. It is allocating more of its $17 billion annual content budget to expanding its foreign language programming and attracting customers abroad.

But the company is also betting that a compelling story somewhere is compelling everywhere, no matter the language.

This year, Netflix developed “The Glory,” a binge-worthy revenge saga about a woman striking back against childhood bullies, which cracked the top five most-watched non-English-language TV shows ever on the service. Before that, at one point “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” a feel-good show about a lawyer with autism, was in the weekly Top 10 chart in 54 countries. Last year, 60 percent of Netflix subscribers watched a Korean-language show or movie.

The overseas content has also taken on greater significance with the Hollywood writers’ strike, in which Netflix has become a focal point of frustration for the ways streaming services have upended the traditional television model. In April, before the writers went on strike, Ted Sarandos, one of Netflix’s co-chief executives, said that he hoped there wouldn’t be a strike and that he would work toward a fair deal. But he also promised, “We have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world," adding that Netflix had to “make plans” for a worst-case scenario.

In building an audience abroad, Netflix has a head start on other major streaming platforms, although Disney and Amazon have announced plans to build their catalogs of international content. In many Asian markets, Netflix is also competing with a local streaming option — often created by broadcasters wary of ceding control to foreign media giants.

Asia, Netflix’s fastest-growing region, is a key battleground because customers watch a higher percentage of programming in their native tongues. Netflix already has shows in more than 30 Asian languages.

That’s where Ms. Kim, 42, comes in.

Ms. Kim joined Netflix in 2016. Her job is, essentially, to help Netflix do something that has never been done before: build a truly global entertainment service with shows in every market, while selling Americans on the appeal of foreign-language content. If she is daunted by the demand, she doesn’t show it.

She is chatty and direct, with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Korean television dramas. But perhaps most importantly for her task, she is the woman who gave the Netflix-watching world “Squid Game.”

‘Don’t expect miracles’

In 2016, Netflix rented Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a Seoul landmark and futuristic exhibition space, for a red-carpet affair featuring the stars of one of its biggest shows at the time: “Orange Is the New Black.”

The hors d’oeuvres were served, on theme with the show, on food trays meant to mimic prison. Netflix was arriving in Korea’s entertainment industry with a big splash. But the tongue-in-cheek humor felt inhospitable and culturally out of touch, according to industry people who attended. It left the impression of an American company that did not understand Korea.

It was a clumsy start. A few months later, when Ms. Kim began in her role as Netflix’s first content executive in Asia with a focus on South Korea, she warned the company’s executives: “Don’t expect miracles.”

Ms. Kim said she needed to make Netflix feel less foreign and sell creators on why they should work with the company.

She traveled to visit producers at their offices instead of summoning them to see her. She arranged regular boozy dinners with producers — the custom in South Korea — knowing that it was difficult to gain their trust until they got drunk with her.

Over lunch, where she had a steaming bowl of beef offal soup, she described her strategy.

“Here, you first have to build a relationship,” Ms. Kim said. “At the time, I think the way we approached things felt very transactional and aggressive. When it comes to Asian partners, oftentimes it’s more than just the money we put on the table.”

Early in her tenure, she came across a movie script called “Squid Game” by Hwang Dong-hyuk, a respected local filmmaker. He had written it a decade earlier and could never find a studio to finance it. She said she immediately loved the irony of a gory “death game” thriller based around traditional Korean children’s games. She thought the concept might work better as a TV show, allowing for more character development than a two-hour film.

But it seemed like a strange choice for one of her first big bets. Similar titles were in the young-adult genre, such as “The Hunger Games” or “Battle Royale,” a Japanese cult film in which a group of students fight to the death.

“Who wants to see a death game with poor old people?” she recalled being asked by a member of her team.

But after she saw the set designs, she was convinced that it would be a big hit in Korea. Netflix decided to change the English title to “Round Six” to appeal to an international audience. Near the release date, Mr. Hwang asked to change the title back because he felt that “Squid Game” was closer to the show’s essence.

Much to everyone’s surprise, “Squid Game” garnered an enormous number of views in South Korea and across the world. It was a sensation that broke into the cultural zeitgeist, complete with a “Saturday Night Live” skit and Halloween costumes. And Netflix finally threw the right kind of party for the show’s Korean cast: an after-party, after dominating last year’s Emmy Awards.

“Squid Game” changed everything. It became the most-watched show ever on Netflix, and it spurred interest in other Korean content. In April, to coincide with a visit to the United States by South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, Netflix said it was planning to invest $2.5 billion in Korean shows and movies in the next four years, which is double its investment since 2016.

After decades of Hollywood’s delivering blockbusters to the world, Netflix is trying to flip the model. Mr. Sarandos said that “Squid Game” proved that a hit show could emerge from anywhere and in any language and that the odds of success for a Hollywood show versus an international show were not that different.

“That’s really never been done before,” he said at an investor conference in December. “Locally produced content can play big all over the world, so it’s not just America supplying the rest of world content.”

‘Green-light rigor’

Global expansion requires a guiding principle. For Ms. Kim, that’s “green-light rigor,” a mind-set she brought to Netflix’s office in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, where she moved last year to oversee the content teams in Asia-Pacific except for India.

In some Asian countries, she explained, Netflix has a more limited budget, so the company has to select only the “must-haves” and pass on “nice-to-haves.” Green-light rigor also means not pandering to what Netflix imagines viewers across the world want.

How that discipline played out in practice was on display when the Japanese content team met to discuss whether to option a book for a show in late January.

The book in question was a love story set in a dystopian world with elements of science fiction. A data analyst said that based on the show’s projected “value,” he wondered whether Netflix would recoup its investment because of the sizable budgets usually required for science fiction.

Kaata Sakamoto, who heads the Japanese content team, said he worried about the mismatched expectations of viewers who might come expecting a romance drama and then find themselves in hard-core science fiction.

“It’s like someone who goes into a restaurant and they are served food that is different from what they want to eat,” he said. “If this is a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tale, do we need a big sci-fi world setting? It feels like mixed soup.”

The executive pitching the project said the writer watched “a lot of Netflix” and was aware of what was popular. So instead of a pure love story, he wanted to infuse elements of dystopian science fiction — a popular genre on Netflix.

But Mr. Sakamoto, who played an active role in producing some of Netflix’s hits from Japan, seemed unconvinced.

“My question is what is it about this project that is uniquely Japanese?” he asked.

Netflix’s Tokyo office exudes an American vibe, but very little English is spoken in the creative meetings. This was the case when Mr. Sakamoto met with Shinsuke Sato, creator of “Alice in Borderland,” a science-fiction survival thriller that was Netflix’s biggest hit in Japan, to discuss a coming project.

It was a free-flowing discussion that touched on minute details of the project, from character development to plot twists to which scary animals would work best in computer graphics — reptiles could be easier than furry creatures, suggested Akira Mori, a producer who works with Mr. Sato. (“Maybe an alligator?”)

Later, Mr. Sakamoto said that in the past, a lot of talented Japanese who were successful in Japan had struggled to break through in Hollywood because they didn’t speak English well.

“But what Netflix has allowed is that creators can make work in their own countries in their own language, and if the storytelling is good and the quality is there, they can reach a global audience,” he said. “This is a major game changer.”

Vision come to life

The increased expectations are apparent throughout Netflix’s high-rise office in Seoul. The meeting rooms are named after its prominent Korean movies and shows. In the canteen, a human-size replica of the doll from “Squid Game” looms over a selection of Korean snacks and instant noodles.

Ms. Kim’s vision of creating a diverse slate of Korean shows has come to life. “Physical: 100,” a gladiator-style game show in which contestants fight for survival and a cash prize, was in the Top 10 of non-English shows for six weeks. This year, at least three Korean shows have been among the top-10 foreign language shows every week.

“It’s exciting, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the pressure,” said Don Kang, Netflix’s vice president of content in South Korea, who has succeeded Ms. Kim in overseeing South Korea.

Mr. Kang, who is soft-spoken with a baby face, joined in 2018 after heading international sales at CJ ENM, a Korean entertainment conglomerate. When he started, Netflix was still operating out of a WeWork office.

He said that before Netflix, he thought there wouldn’t be much international interest in Korean reality shows or shows that weren’t romantic comedies.

“I was very happy to be proven wrong,” Mr. Kang said.

Netflix’s slate of Korean programs runs the gamut from romantic comedies to dark shows like “Hellbound,” an adaptation of a digital comic book about supernatural beings condemning people to hell. Yeon Sang-ho, the director of “Hellbound,” said such niche content wouldn’t be made by Korean broadcasters because the audience wasn’t big enough to justify the budget.

“Netflix has a worldwide audience, which means that we can try more genres and we can try more nonmainstream things, too,” Mr. Yeon said. “Creators who work with Netflix can now try the risky things that they wanted to do but they weren’t able to.”

Netflix’s success has reshaped South Korea’s entertainment industry. TV production budgets have increased as much as tenfold per episode in the last few years, said Lee Young-lyoul, a professor at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, and there is growing concern that domestic broadcasters will struggle to compete.

Production companies need Netflix’s investments to hire top writers, directors and actors, creating a “vicious cycle of dependency,” according to “Netflix and Platform Imperialism,” an academic paper published in The International Journal of Communication this year.

The extraordinary success of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” highlights the tensions.

AStory, the show’s production company, rejected Netflix’s offer to finance the entire second season, because of its previous experience with the service. AStory made “Kingdom,” a hit Korean zombie period show, as a Netflix original, meaning Netflix owned all the show’s intellectual property rights in exchange for paying the full production costs.

“While it’s true that Netflix helped the series get popular, our company couldn’t do anything with that,” said Lee Sang-baek, AStory’s chief executive. “There are lots of regrets there.”

Mr. Kang said that Netflix had a good relationship with AStory and that the situation was complex. He said Netflix had been “very, very generous” in compensating creators and actors but emphasized the need to grow in a “sustainable” way.

“You do sometimes hear those types of concerns: Is Netflix taking too much from our industry? But you can’t be in this business and operate that way,” Mr. Kang said.

‘Too Hot to Handle’ around the world

One by one, Ms. Kim rattled off the unique traits of audiences around the region. Korean audiences prefer happy endings in romance. Japanese dramas tend to portray emotion in an understated way. Chinese-language viewers are more accepting of a sad love story. (“The Taiwanese staff always says a romance has to be sad. Somebody has to die.”)

Ms. Kim understands that local stories share universal themes, but the key to Netflix’s work is to understand these cultural differences.

When Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle,” a tawdry reality dating show with contestants from the United States and Britain, did well in South Korea and Japan, the company decided to make its own shows in the respective countries. But instead of programs replete with sex and hooking up, Netflix’s versions in South Korea (“Singles Inferno”) and Japan (“Terrace House”) were more suited to local sensibilities: only hints of romance with minimal touching or flirting.

Storytelling can also differ. Impressions of the first episode of “Physical: 100” were divided by geography. Ms. Kim said she found that in general, American audiences thought the extensive back stories about the contestants slowed the show. Korean audiences liked the back stories because they wanted to know more about the contestants.

Ms. Kim recalled how Netflix’s U.S. executives asked her why the first Squid Game contest did not come until the last 20 minutes of the first episode. She was puzzled, because this was fast for Korean audiences — but not fast enough for American sensibilities. In South Korea, the action often does not start until the fourth episode because shows often follow the cadence of a story arc suited to a 16-episode broadcast TV schedule.

Ms. Kim said she thought that audiences would tolerate work that defied their expectations or values when it was foreign, but that it must be authentic when it was local.

So far, that philosophy has been successful. “Squid Game” proves that. But it also shows the new challenge that awaits Netflix — once something is a global hit, there are global expectations.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a fan, and Mr. Hwang, the writer-director, even teased that the Hollywood A-lister could join the “games,” a boost that most people chasing global domination might find hard to resist. But Netflix did manage it — for now.

Last month, when the cast was announced, it featured all Korean actors.

Daisuke Wakabayashi is an Asia business correspondent for The Times, based in Seoul. More about Daisuke Wakabayashi

Jin Yu Young reports on South Korea and other countries in Asia from the Seoul newsroom. She joined The Times in 2021. More about Jin Yu Young

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