To retain the IP or not? The Korean drama producers’ new dilemma

“The Squid Game” success has sparked debate over IP rights and whether it is good for local productions to place content rights into the hands of global streamers like Netflix, a topic aborded by K7 Media in its latest report.

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“The Squid Game”

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Earlier this month at BCWW in Seoul, IP was one of the buzziest words and the central topic of the opening session “Prowess and Future of K-Content”. It was not the first time the importance of retaining Korean IPs was taken to the table, according to K7 Media’s latest report.

“The Squid Game” success has sparked debate over IP rights and whether it is good for local productions to place content rights into the hands of global streamers like Netflix. AStory, the maker of the most recent Korean hit “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” revealed that they had turned down Netflix’s offer of making this show another original on the global streamer. Instead, they released the series on the smaller domestic channel ENA, whilst still securing a broadcasting deal with Netflix. “For a small production company like our company, IP ownership is a matter of life and death,”  assured Sang-baek Lee, CEO of AStory.

In another session, Joon-suh Park, from SLL, again addressed the importance of IP when talking about entering partnerships with foreign partners. “Who has the IP ownership is the most important factor. Everything is determined based on IP ownership. When working with the United States, having IP ownership is equal to a strong power,”  he declared.

In the case of AStory, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” went on to become a huge success. The company retained the whole IP, which has allowed them to develop the series into a webtoon, musical adaptation and has brought them multiple remake proposals from countries including the United States and Japan. “From the producer of Netflix’s first Korean original ‘Kingdom’ to a resister who is unwilling to pass its IP to the streaming giant, AStory has set an example for local producers who seek ways to reduce the dependence on global streamers,”  said Trang Nguyen, Senior Researcher at K7 Media and the author of the report.

However, according to Nguyen, the question is whether this will become the norm for local players in the near future. Korean drama has been a dominating power in East and Southeast Asia for years. Yet it is hard to deny the role of Netflix in bridging it with a wider international audience. In many Asian countries, Netflix is just one option for local viewers to access Korean series alongside local streamers and linear channels. Whereas, in many territories where Korean drama has not yet reached the mainstream, Netflix is the main route.

Nevertheless, as the popularity of Korean drama has increased, the financial investment that Netflix offers has become less attractive when compared to the trade-off of the potential extra earnings that local creators could get if their production turns out to be a hit. In the same session concerning the future of K-content, one of the panelists expressed his sympathy for “Squid Game” posing the questions “what if Netflix did not want to produce the second season?” and “what if the streamer decided to work with a different producer and cast?.”

But there is more to the story. Despite having subscribers decrease in the second quarter of 2022, Netflix has 220.67 million subscribers all over the world. Thus, its power to boost the exposure of a specific series still remains. In the meantime, Korean success has inspired and given hope to many of the country’s neighbors who share the same ambition to push their dramas abroad. These countries are more than willing to squeeze into any gaps left by the Koreans. And Netflix, who were able to bring out “Squid Game,” might be able to give the same chance to another Asian non-Korean series. When viewers are more open to watching a Korean series with subtitles, they are also more willing to try a drama from another Asian country with huge endorsement.

“With the increasing demand for Korean series, Korea is definitely in a better position at the negotiating table and could possibly even change the game in the future. However, Netflix still hangs on to its power. One scenario is that both sides will reach an equilibrium point. Or a bolder prediction – for one to maximize profit from their own creations but not lose the global exposure, it is time to grow their own global streamer, a streamer that would never favor a foreign force over domestic interests,”  Nguyen concluded.