TBI Weekly: How Korea’s wave is changing course

Grandpas Over Flowers

South Korean producers and broadcasters make regular appearances in TBI news but recent deals suggest the country’s content wave could be moving in a new direction, writes Richard Middleton.

The Korean wave has been lapping shores in the West for almost a decade now, most notably via K-pop bands like BTS, innovative entertainment formats such as The Masked Singer and scripted formats including The Good Doctor.

These brands are well-known in the US and Europe, but Korea’s dominance across Asia stretches back much further, with its high quality scripted shows and unique formats providing a major revenue raiser for nigh on 20 years.

And so on one level, global demand for Korean IP is nothing new. It’s almost eight years since NBC in the US ordered its version of Korean reality format Grandpas Over Flowers and companies such as ITV Studios and Endemol Shine Group (now owned by Banijay) have been striking output deals with creators in the country for years to facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships.

Fast forward to 2021, and recent K-pop deals with HBO Max and MGM underline the growing interest. Netflix has also unveiled its suitably grandiose spending in the country, outlining a $500m investment plan in February with a content strategy designed to attract local and global viewers alike.

But four recent news items suggest that Korean companies are now looking for a more direct approach, with bigger plans that provide them with direct control of IP on a global basis.

Novel stories

First up is South Korean internet giant Naver’s $600m acquisition of Wattpad, which was completed in May. The storytelling platform rose to prominence as a source of IP that also offered baked-in fans, as evidenced in Netflix’s decision to order The Kissing Booth, a novel that debuted on the company’s platform.

Wattpad has also previously teamed with Sony Pictures Television on a first-look TV deal for originals and produced the Emmy-nominated series Light As A Feather with AwesomenessTV and Grammnet for Hulu.

The Kissing Booth

Now, Naver – which operates Korea’s biggest search engine and a streaming service –  holds the keys to the Wattpad IP vault and is looking to supercharge the storytelling platform while expanding its own reach around the world.

The company also owns comic-focused Webtoon, which like Wattpad allows users to self-publish content that can then be developed into series.

Wattpad co-founder & CEO Allen Lau says the Korean firm’s ownership will allow him to hire 100 more staff, adding that combining his company’s 90 million users and Webtoon’s 76 million users will provide an “enormous reach”. It is also a major statement of intent for Naver.

Spending big

Naver is not the only Korean firm spending serious cash on content. Earlier this week, CJ ENM, a ubiquitous mass media brand in the country, unveiled plans to invest more than ₩5tn ($4.5bn) in content creation over the next five years in a bid to expand its global presence.

The company will be familiar to many a TV exec around the world, having enjoyed success with entertainment formats such as I Can See Your Voice, as well as Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning thriller Parasite.

I Can See Your Voice

It is now preparing to become a “comprehensive entertainment company”, according to CEO Kang Ho-sung, who added that ₩800bn ($721m) is to be spent this year alone, dwarfing even Netflix’s planned spend.

The play is simple, as Kang Ho-sung outlined: To “move on to the world stage and compete with global platforms and media powerhouses.”

Pulling it off might be considerably more difficult, but the strategy includes setting up more production studios and offering IP to its streaming sibling Tving. The service, which was founded by CJ ENM but spun off last year, will also play a major role in taking new content to global viewers, with around 100 new shows planned – the aim being to secure eight million paid subscribers by 2023.

CJ ENM also plans to produce more K-pop competitions shows outside of Korea in a bid to unearth new talent. Last month, the company partnered with Mexico-based Endemol Shine Boomdog for the aforementioned HBO Max series that follows the creation of a new K-pop band in Latin America.

Worth also noting that CJ ENM already has a Western sales outlet via European distributor Eccho Rights, which it acquired in late 2018. More recently it appointed Sebastian Kim as director for content sales & acquisitions, another sign that its global push gathers further momentum.

Growing Wavve

Korean streamer Wavve, which was launched by local broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS with the backing of SK Telecom, has also bolstered its content coffers to fuel global growth.

SF8

The company announced in March that it would be spending ₩1tn ($884m) on expanding the service’s original content by 2025, with largest shareholder SKT providing an additional investment of ₩100bn.

Wavve, which has been behind shows such as SF8 and M Topia, is also investing in studio space to develop new original content within the first half of 2021 and will also appoint a raft of producers, as well as a chief content officer, for the new division.

And again, the streamer is eyeing direct access to the global market. It will launch content from the three broadcasters as well as its own originals via the streamer on an international basis, with talks on partnership deals already taking place.

Heading to Hollywood 

Last, but by no means least, was this week’s news that JTBC Studios had taken a majority stake in Mare Of Easttown producer Wiip, marking the entry of the South Korean pay TV firm’s production division in the US.

Mare Of Easttown

JTBC, which acquired its majority stake from Creative Artists Agency (CAA), now plans to strike co-production deals and expand its distribution channels via Wiip, which was formed in 2018 by one-time ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee and former CAA exec Matteo Perale.

Wiip’s expansive slate – ranging from Dickinson for Apple TV+, The White House Plumbers for HBO, Pistol for FX and Toast Of Tinseltown for the BBC – immediately places JTBC in an enviable position in Hollywood from which to expand its operations.

It also underlines the broadening ambitions of Korean companies. As Si Kyoo Kim, CEO at JTBC Studios, put it himself: “We expect this partnership to bring a significant opportunity for JTBC Studios to make our first step into this dynamic market, for which we have yearned for a long time.”

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