The recent controversy over the release of director Bong Joon-ho’s film
“Okja” exemplifies changing film consumption patterns in Korea.
Choosing whether to release a film in theaters or online is not just a matter of where the movie is shown;
it is slowly impacting the production and distribution of film and TV content
Released in May this year, “Okja” was the first Korean movie aiming to reach a global audience through a simultaneous release in cinemas and on Netflix’s streaming service. The move earned the film controversy both at home and abroad. Questions were raised at the Cannes Film Festival as to whether it was eligible to enter the competition.
Beneath those doubts, there was a feeling of unease about films streamed online. Those with a certain perception of what a movie should be, who continue to believe that a movie should embrace an experience like that of Toto in the 1988 film “Cinema Paradiso” by Giuseppe Tornatore, were not sure whether a film shown over the Internet could be called a cinematographic work.
At the time “Okja” was released in Korea, the nation’s top three multiplex chains announced a boycott of the film. As a result, the movie was shunned by major theaters and could only be seen at around 90 independent cinemas or on the Internet after signing up for a Netflix membership.
The dispute over the film’s release highlighted the clash between the past and the future of film distribution. Multiplex theaters have monopolized film distribution by optimizing the viewing experience through investment in the latest cinema technology. As they require constant revenue streams, they must have felt that the film’s simultaneous release on Netflix would threaten the core of their business. Others, however, argued that digital viewing is desirable from the perspective of diversity in an age when multiplex theaters have vertically integrated production and distribution, thus solidifying their oligopoly.
Netflix Triggers Innovation
The company’s name is a combination of the words “Net” and “Flicks.” It started as a DVD delivery service in 1997, and has since grown to become the world’s largest video streaming service provider. In 2016, Netflix launched its service in Korea. For a minimum monthly subscription of US$7.99, members can watch and download films and TV shows for which Netflix possesses streaming rights. A higher fee even allows unlimited viewing of popular U.S. shows and Hollywood films, without a doubt the strongest merit of Netflix.
Netflix currently has over 109 million subscribers worldwide, and according to a recent edition of the “Weekly Global,” published by the Korea Creative Content Agency, it aims to reach 140 million subscribers by 2025. However, Netflix is not just a distribution platform for video content; it has also become an influential content developer. The company’s first self-commissioned original content was “House of Cards,” a political thriller series released in 2013. Investing 100 million dollars to create the show’s first two seasons, Netflix landed a major hit and established itself as a successful content producer. The company backed “Okja” with 50 million dollars, making it the most expensive Korean-language film to date.
Netflix’s innovation does not just signify a switch from offline to online video content distribution. It enables customized services by analyzing all data generated from digital distribution. Subscribers who often watch zombie films or dramas, for instance, are then presented with recommendations for similar content, which provides busy subscribers the convenience of selecting from carefully curated content.
In the past, viewers went searching for content they wanted to watch; now, recommendations are pushed in their direction, based on analyses of their preferences. The data generated in this process is then used to produce video content that even better reflects consumers’ tastes, in turn increasing the productions’ chances of becoming successful.
New Medium for Content Distribution
The simultaneous Internet streaming of “Okja” is indicative of a new type of consuming culture in the digital era. There may well be some conflicts at first, but it is an irreversible trend; there is little chance, if any, that the future will bring a U-turn away from online distribution. Despite the recent controversy, video streaming service providers are likely here to stay.
In fact, there are already signs that other content producers are developing a new platform. Disney and 21st Century Fox, which used to provide content to Netflix, are apparently in discussions over a potential deal for the new streaming service Disney plans to launch in 2019. The success of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, another online video provider, has attracted competitors to the expanding market of online video distribution. However, innovations always run into conflict with existing systems. And it is none other than the general public who are the most confused.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan made the famous statement that “the medium is the message.” This means that a change in media means a change not only in the exterior format but also the content. With the emergence of the Internet as the new media, movies that are streamed online must change, too.
Right now, the controversy might be limited to whether the same content should be shown simultaneously in theaters and online. In the future, however, it is conceivable that theater-only movies and online-only movies will have separate production cycles.
Multiplex theaters are slowly turning into experiential theme parks, responding with new technologies to the question, “Why do we have to watch movies at a cinema?” In addition, binge-watching has emerged as a popular way of consuming content. Nowadays, people are often too busy to watch their favorite shows on TV where they are tied to fixed time slots. Thus, more and more people are binge-watching their favorite shows over the weekend or during vacation. Netflix’s model of a single subscription allowing unlimited access to content has already led to the production of content suited to binge-watching.
A New Platform for Korean Flicks
Netflix is currently producing “Kingdom,” a new TV series by famous Korean scriptwriter Kim Eun-hee. This means that works of influential writers can be introduced to a global audience through online distribution, which represents significant opportunities and challenges for writers and content producers.
Korean content producers suggest they need to start a Netflix-like business of their own. Only then would Korean content be available throughout the world on a Korean platform, without any interference from foreign companies, they say.