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Transforming local audio-visual culture
Backed by its distribution power, Netflix has invested in the production of cultural content, both in film and broadcasting. As briefly explained, Netflix has funded several local cultural products. In Latin America, Netflix revealed its plan to make a $200 million investment in Mexico in order to create content in the country in 2020. Netflix has confirmed that it will launch 50 series and movies in the country during 2020 (Bertran, 2019). In Asia, Netflix has big plans for India. In 2019, CEO Reed Hastings explained that the streaming video giant would spend $400 million on Indian content for 2019 and 2020, which will cover both originals and licensed content. Reed understands the global acceptance of Bollywood movies, and he clearly indicated that some of the Indian content on the platform is finding wider acceptance beyond India. He cited, for example, Indian animated children’s show Mighty Little Bbeem, which he said has been viewed by 27 million households outside of India. Since its launch in India in 2016, Netflix has been building up its local slate, starting with its first Indian original Sacred Games (Bhushan, 2019; Jin, 2021).
Most of all, in Korea, Netflix provided the entire budget of $50 million for Okja—which was a film directed by Bong Joon-ho—released in July 2017. People in 190 countries were able to watch it via Netflix. With the
Netflix transforming global cultural norms 85 release of this film, Netflix hoped to stand out in the Korean market, as it had been struggling to gain ground there during the early stage of penetration (Kim, J.H., 2017). The investment seems like a lot, “but it is part of a larger international gamble that could help the company grow outside the U.S.” (Sims, 2015).
Since then, Netflix has funded a series of programs to produce Korea-originated content. In January 2017, it revealed a plan to turn popular Korean webtoon Love Alarm (webtoon title: Joahamyeon Ullineun)—a comedy fantasy romance school drama with a love triangle—which started in 2014, into a 12-episode drama series. Netflix started to air the drama in August 2019. In March of 2017, Netflix also revealed another plan to produce an eight-episode drama dubbed Kingdom (Kim, J.H., 2017). Netflix invested in a Korean variety show, Busted: I Know Who You Are, which was released on Netflix in May and June 2018. Netflix has continued to invest, produce, and release several dramas and variety shows, including My First Love (drama, 2019), YG Future Strategy’ Office (variety show, 2018), Yoo Byung Jae: Discomfort Zone (stand-up comedy, 2018), and The School Nurse Files (drama, Bogeongyosa Aneunyeong, 2019). According to one report (Hwang, 2018), there were only 60 Korean products that Netflix distributed until early 2018; however, there were as many as 140 television programs and 400 movies by July 2018. This is not mainly due to Korean subscribers but for Asian audiences who love Korean cultural content. More importantly, in 2019, Netflix released its first original Korean drama series, Kingdom. It is a genre-defining six-episode zombie mystery thriller set in the last Korean kingdom of Joseon. It took nearly eight years to produce the series, with its production cost reaching 2 billion won (US$1.7 million) per episode (Yonhap, 2019a; Jin, 2021).
What makes the Korean cultural industry unique for Netflix is the recent growth of the Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, which is the rapid growth of local cultural content, including television programs, films, and K-pop in both neighboring countries and the West (Lee and Nornes, 2015; Jin, 2016; Yoon and Jin, 2017). Netflix believes that the Korean cultural market is exceptionally important, which demands that the company not only penetrate this particular local market but also work with Korean creators. As Korea has talented content creators, and cultural products, from dramas to K-pop, are globally popular in the midst of the Korean Wave phenomenon, Netflix continues to invest in the Korean cultural market. In order words, Netflix is purposely riding the Korean Wave.
Of course, one of the major reasons for Netflix’s entrance to Korea and investment in several local programs, including Kingdom, “is seen as an attempt to gain influence in China instead of trying to enlarge the OTT pie in Korea,” and
that is why they invested in Korean original series like Kingdom that will likely become popular in China. The appearance of Korean rivals will make it difficult for Netflix to air their original content, possibly hindering its plan to raise its presence in the Asian market, where Hal-lyu works.
(Jin, M.J., 2019)
As Netflix’s next major target is China, it seemingly uses Korea as an advance base of operations while pushing toward China.
Consequently, Netflix has deeply influenced the Korean entertainment industry. Up until now, most Korean dramas known overseas were in the romantic comedy genre. However, as Netflix has invested and is interested in various genres, including thriller (e.g., Stranger), zombie (e.g., Kingdom), and stand-up comedy (e.g., Yoo Byung Jae: Discomfort Zone), Korean creators are also developing these genres, which is unprecedented. Netflix has the ability to circulate content that would not have traveled worldwide in the conventional system; therefore, Netflix pushes Korean creators to go beyond the boundaries of traditional media content offerings (Sohn, 2018). Due to Netflix’s strong interest in these genres, Korean entertainment firms have unconventionally developed these new forms of cultural content. For cultural creators, the local market is not the only target anymore. For them, the global reach of their content is the new norm, and they hope that Netflix will help them to take off in the global cultural markets. As Stangarone (2019) correctly observes, “Netflix’s success is being driven by its catalog of content, but also by the development of original Korean content, something local artists find appealing.” Therefore, “Netflix is committed to making shows for foreign markets that are domestically authentic and then promoting those shows abroad.”
Against this backdrop, local creators have to contemplate Netflix’s effects because the rituals embedded in Netflix would lead local entertainment sectors and audiences to “abandon their traditions wholesale in order to adopt Western modernity wholesale” (Kraidy, 2010, 138). By understanding “the production cultures and how the work of production itself is reoriented to accommodate, challenge, and overcome the novelty and appeal” of Netflix, they may comprehend how local producers mediate forces of global digital platforms and what that means in terms of the audio-visual culture in the local cultural market (Ganguly, 2019, 33).
When SBS in Korea created a television mini-series Vagabond in 2019, again, it certainly utilized Hollywood action styles in order to appeal to global audiences. The drama is about a mysterious airplane crash that kills over 211 civilians, and a stuntman ends up discovering a national corruption scandal in the process. In the 12th episode, aired in November of the year, stuntman Cha Dal Gun (acted by Seung-gi Lee) brought a key witness in the tragic airplane crash to the Korean court; however, corrupt National Intelligence Service and police who were behind the accident together blocked them on a street in Seoul. In this particular scene, about ten policemen fired guns, including automatic rifles at them, which was unprecedented for a
Korean drama. This moment reminds people of the many crime action films produced by Hollywood like Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). One of the major reasons for this unrealistic scene in the Korean context is the release of this drama on Netflix, which targets global audiences, not Korean viewers only.
Another recent drama, Arthdal Chronicles, also aired internationally on Netflix in 2019, although it was produced by the Korean cable station tvN and Studio Dragon. In the drama, Jang Dong Gun as a warrior wants to be king, while Song Joong Ki plays the dual roles of an inspiring hero and a diabolical prince. Unlike previous history dramas, Arthdal Chronicles is set in the Bronze Age mythical kingdom known as Arthdal, which in its greed attempts to dominate neighboring people. Due to its unusual historical background, when it aired, it was compared to the popular U.S. production, Game of Thrones. While there were initially some similarities in the plot and setting, Arthdal Chronicles went in its own distinct direction, creating “a complex storyline with a multitude of characters” (MacDonald, 2019). However, it is certain that the producers planned to develop a program, comparable to Netflix-produced blockbuster-scale drama, in order to target global viewers. As such, some Korean media companies, including Studio Dragon and JTBC, have pursued a studio system focusing on program production instead of advertising for their major revenues, which are influenced by the Netflix model (You, G.S., 2019).
For the Global South, including Korea, it is not necessary to challenge all foreign-based digital platforms. The recent production costs in the Korean cultural industry—as can be seen in Arthdal Chronicles (540 billion won, 2019), Mr. Sunshine (450 billion won, 2018), and Vagabond (250 billion won, 2019) compared to My Love from the Star (132 billion won, 2013-2014) and Descendants of the Sun (130 billion won, 2016)—have continued to soar while the advertising revenues of network broadcasters have been decreasing. In order to produce big budget dramas that appeal to sophisticated audiences in the Netflix era, broadcasters and film companies must secure alternative revenue sources, and they work with OTT service providers, including Netflix (Lee, S. M., 2019; Kim, J.H., 2020). Netflix has transformed the local entertainment industry, which used to heavily rely on advertising as its major revenue source, to focus on the content-centered market (You, S.M., 2019). As detailed in Chapter 4, local cultural firms and creators have deeply engaged with Al and big data in production; however, in the realm of production, local cultural creators and companies still adapt and develop local cultural products based on local identities and norms in the age of Netflix. Due to heavy impacts driven by Netflix as a global digital platform, they are reorienting their production norms to greet the new world that Netflix designs instead of creating local content based on local cultural values.
From a critical perspective, however, what is significant for local cultural creators is to maintain and advance locally oriented cultural content. For example, Parasite by Bong Joon-ho won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and four trophies at the 2020 Oscars to earn global popularity, mainly because of its emphasis on Koreanness, not foreign elements. The movie is about a story of a rich family and a poor family, which is a universal theme portraying “the conflict between haves and have-nots.” However, “certain elements of the movie are particularly South Korean, including its architecture” (Ulaby, 2019). This means that cultural content representing local values still works well, both nationally and globally. The problem is that cultural creators now understand the significant role of Al-driven recommendation systems. When they create cultural products showing similar subjects, trends, and genres, these cultural products are highly recommended by OTT services, which make them take the fastest track. Cultural creators heavily rely on Westernized cultural content, in terms of genres, themes, and special effects, driven by Netflix and for Netflix.
Global platforms arguably continue to destroy local specificities and identities, both culturally and structurally. Local OTT platforms in many countries mainly adapt and slightly modify global norms driven by Western forces. Unlike the 1980s and the 1990s when Western cultural firms dominated the global cultural markets with their popular culture, the early 21st century is witnessing the increasing dominance of Western players, now digital platforms, equipped with capital, Al, and cultural content. This level of dominance is far deeper and larger than that of the previous decades. “All or nothing” and “die or survive” are the mottos ruling the local cultural industries instead of collaboration or cooperation between the global and the local in the age of Netflix.