Is Netflix applying true education to Korean directors?
“It took 100 hours to film the two-hour movie ‘The Spy Gone North’ but I had to complete the 6-episode drama ‘Narco-Saints’ within 138 hours. There were many days when we had to film without rehearsals, and everything was possible thanks to great actors like Ha Jung-woo and Hwang Jung-min”.
This is a part of what director Yoon Jong-bin, who challenged producing a drama for the first time with Netflix’s original series “Narco-Saints”, said at the press conference on September 7th. It was hard to believe that he even skipped rehearsals and proceeded with official filmings to save the budget. Netflix is famous for being a distribution company that is quite picky on many things, including deciding on the production cost, but they do not intervene in the filming and editing of the work after making agreements.
Repaying the production team’s efforts, “Narco-Saints” rose to 8th place (according to Flix Patrol on the worldwide ranking on September 12th, three days after its release, and once again proved the skills of K-content. Unlike “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area”, “A Model Family” and “Seoul Vibe”, which failed to impress global drama fans, “Narco-Saints” received lots of compliments. Although “Narco-Saints” could not be comparable to the representative work in this field – “Narcos”, which depicts the confrontation between the Columbian drug cartels and the U.S drug enforcement agency DEA, it deserved praises for the high quality that it achieved with a relatively small budget of 35 billion won.
The growth of Netflix subscribers is slowing down but the power of OTT, which has recently become a trend, will not easily be damaged for the time being. The fact that “Hansan: Rising Dragon” failed to attract 10 million viewers this summer and “Confidential Assignment 2: International” was the only movie released in theaters during this Chuseok holiday was due to the situation that has turned to OTT. No wonder many people are saying that the opponent of “Confidential Assignment 2: International” is “Narco-Saints”, which is aiming at the No.1 position on the drama chart.
Therefore, many drama and film producers are waiting to be chosen at the office of Netflix Korea in Jongno. About 12 investment managers are here to select and screen K-content scripts targeting the global community and it is said that passing these hurdles is as difficult as entering universities in Seoul. Many project proposals, which can be called ‘treatments’, or scripts from episodes 1 to 4 have been submitted for review, but the evaluation is so hard that even the drama version of “Along with the Gods” was rejected at the “Pre-buy” stage. Of course, works with trustworthy directors, screenwriters and actors will be given extra points.
Even if a script successfully passed through the harsh screening stage and finished filming safely, there is a “Netflix rule” that says disadvantages cannot be avoided if the production exceeds its budget.
In Korea, movie and drama distributors cover it with reserve funds and investors also try to protect the directors, but this does not apply when working with a strict distributor like Netflix. This is because a penalty, which is as much as the budget excess, will be applied to recover the stakes of the production company. Take director Lee Jae-kyu’s “All of Us Are Dead” as an example. Netflix made hundreds of billions of won from the drama, but the production company received only 300 million won. This is because the soft-hearted director exceeded the production budget because he wanted to keep the plots of the supporting actors.
The production companies of “Narco-Saints” are Wolgang, the company in which director Yoon Jong-bin owns stakes, and Content Tree JoongAng’s subsidiary Perfect Storm Film. Was it because they didn’t want to become ‘the second Lee Jae-kyu’? Director Yoon Jong-bin set up the cast with skillful actors who have worked with him many times. This situation makes many people wonder “Is Netflix applying true education to Korean directors?” with an uncomfortable view. It is said that South Korea, which has made many cost-effective works with great financial strength, is only seen as a remake supply base.
A movie company CEO said, “We all want K-contents to appear on OTT and enter the global community, but it is necessary to provide more support to directors’ creativity. If they approach them only for cost-effectiveness, this may soon become a lose-lose game”. He continued, “Like ‘Squid Game’. It’s great that they give the production team the opportunity to make a sequel with the same production cost in hope of another successful work. However, more on-site flexibility should be given to the budget”.
There is also an opposite argument. It is quite bitter to say that Netflix’s harsh environment will serve as an opportunity for some directors who are enjoying their high status to reflect on themselves. A producer warned, “In fact, Korean directors have more authority than responsibility, so there will also be controversies in which such directors drop out of projects due to abuse of authority while working with OTT.”