Netflix exec behind ‘Squid Game’ wants to invest more in the ‘K-Wave’—and hints at a possible season 2

October 21, 2021, 5:37 AM UTC

When Hwang Dong-hyuk—creator, writer, and director of runaway streaming hit Squid Game—approached Netflix with a script for a Squid Game feature film in 2018, the company was so new to South Korea it was still working out of a temporary office in Seoul.

“When director Hwang approached us, he had been a respected filmmaker for a long time,” says Minyoung Kim, one of Netflix’s first Asia-based content executives who’s responsible for bringing Squid Game to the platform. “Everybody wanted to know what his next project was. But we were early in the business and just opened our office. [I remember] having a conversation with him in our small WeWork office space, with our small [team],” says Kim, who’s based in Seoul.

Hwang, at the time known for Korean film hits like Miss Granny and The Fortress, had been shopping his Squid Game script around for 10 years but hadn’t found a taker. Kim says she and her team knew immediately they wanted the survival thriller. “[W]e were looking for shows that were different from what’s traditionally ‘made it,’ and Squid Game was exactly it,” says Kim.

The director initially pitched Squid Game as a two-hour feature film. But Kim says the story promised “so much more than what was written in the 120-minute format. So we worked together to turn it into a series.”

Netflix’s vision for expanding Hwang’s idea has paid off.

Squid Game is now Netflix’s biggest show ever: 142 million accounts streamed the series in the first four weeks after its release, and the title has generated $900 million in value for Netflix, at a cost of $21 million.

Squid Game’s global success marks a milestone for Korean and Asian storytellers, showing that local stories can triumph internationally. “We continue to see that great stories can come from anywhere, and be loved everywhere,” Netflix said in its earnings release on Wednesday.

It also represents a gratifying moment for Kim, whose 18-year career in the media and entertainment industry has ranged from production to business development. In June, Netflix promoted her to its vice president of content in Asia to oversee all content decisions in the region, excluding India. The new expanded role will give her more bandwidth to find stories that “grow member joy,” which she says is her top priority.

Storytelling and Squid Game

As a kid growing up in Seoul, Kim spent many weekends at local theaters and cinemas watching live plays and movies. When Kim started middle school, she started collecting the leaflet of every film that premiered in Seoul, a ritual she kept up until she entered university.

In a February blog post for Netflix, Kim wrote, “I’ve always loved films and series from all over the world. As a kid, I adored the friendship and adventures of The Three Musketeers. When I was 13, I was mesmerized by a local production of Les Miserables. And of course, growing up in Korea, I watched Star in My Heart, like everyone [else],” she wrote, referring to the hit 1997 family drama.

Netflix-Minyong Kim-Squid Game
Courtesy of Netflix

Kim’s love of storytelling pushed her into a career in the entertainment industry. In 2003, Kim got her first job as a stage manager for Seoul’s Theatre Mong, a performing arts theater. Then she spent five years at Creative Leaders Group Eight, the South Korean entertainment firm behind the 2009 TV hit Boys Over Flowers, first in marketing and later on the production side.

After completing business school in 2010, Kim worked in business development at NBC Universal in France and CJ E&M, a Korean media and entertainment conglomerate. She then joined Twitter in Seoul in 2013, managing content and TV partnerships for the social media giant.

Kim says her previous jobs gave her insight into nearly every aspect of the media and entertainment ecosystem. But Kim “always wanted to get back to content,” she says. When writing a business school essay in which she had to describe her ideal life in 10 years, Kim realized she wanted “the life of reading scripts, meeting creators, and working with different types of people.” In 2016, Kim got her wish, joining Netflix’s Singapore content acquisition team as a senior manager.

Two years later, Kim moved back to her hometown of Seoul to oversee all Korean content for the streaming platform. When Netflix officially green-lit Squid Game in 2019, Kim says she and her team recognized that it would be a hit, but they never imagined that it would become the platform’s biggest-ever show, as Netflix confirmed in its Wednesday earnings release.

During the creation of Squid Game, Hwang’s and Kim’s teams agreed that the show must first and foremost be “authentically Korean—it must resonate with the Korean audience,” she says.

Kim attributes Squid Game’s success to its authentic portrayal of local stories. When Netflix crafts a show that’s true to its roots, there’s a higher chance that it’ll “travel,” says Kim, meaning it’s more likely to strike a chord with audiences worldwide.

The universality of Squid Game characters’ struggles—they’re grappling with social and financial inequalities in a hypercompetitive capitalist society—alongside easy-to-understand childhood games and visually compelling art and music also appealed to global audiences, says Kim.

Netflix users have now spent more than 1.4 billion hours watching Squid Game. The platform expects to add 8.5 million new subscribers in this year’s fourth quarter, driven in part by the Korean hit.

When asked if Squid Game will be picked up for a second season, Kim says she “certainly hopes so.”

“Hwang both struggled and had fun [because] it was the first TV show he worked on,” she says. (In an interview with CNN this month, Hwang said he lost six teeth while filming the series due to stress.) Hwang initially didn’t want a second season, but now he’s “getting all this inspiration on how season two might potentially unfold,” Kim says. “We’re also having a conversation [with Hwang and others] on how to [expand] this world…[to] create different types of products and games,” says Kim. Netflix plans to add games to its platform next year.

Hallyu wave

Even before Squid Game’s success, Netflix was bullish on the “hallyu” wave—South Korea’s cultural exports of film, TV dramas, pop music, and food and beauty trends.

Kim says the company early on “trusted that we needed Korean content to win in Asia,” which is Netflix’s fastest-growing region. The Korean cultural wave, or so-called K-wave, started building in the early 2000s with a series of popular romantic dramas like Autumn in My Heart, Winter Sonata, and My Sassy Girl that found success Asia-wide. Today, the K-wave has grown. Dystopian social commentaries from Squid Game and Oscar-winning film Parasite and K-pop bands like BTS and Blackpink, among others, have developed loyal global followings. Netflix competitors like Disney+ have also built their Asia strategy on a bedrock of Korean content.

“Great Korean stories are nothing new, [with] storytelling deeply rooted in Korean culture,” Kim wrote in her February blog post. “The K-wave is a huge moment of national pride, and we’re proud to be part of it. Audiences around the world are falling in love with Korean stories, artists, and culture.”

Still, when the K-wave first began, South Korea’s fledgling entertainment industry went through a trial-and-error phase. The industry desired a global audience but was still figuring out the formula, says Kim. Now producers, directors, and content executives understand that Korean storytelling has resonated with global audiences because it stays true to its home market but dives deep into universal social themes. “K-dramas,” as they’re colloquially known, have a high production value and “help viewers escape reality…while capturing reality at the same time,” Kim says. “They capture the social issues with thick emotions, helping you empathize with the characters and get absorbed into the stories.”  

Under Kim’s leadership, Netflix’s Asia team has launched 80 Korean titles on the platform, including TV hits like Kingdom, a historical horror story about a Joseon dynasty prince who investigates a mysterious plague, and romantic comedy Crash Landing on You, centered on a wealthy female CEO whose romantic interest is an aloof North Korean soldier.

Netflix has increased its investment in Korean content every year since it entered the market in 2016. This year, the company will spend nearly $500 million on Korean content alone—roughly 70% of its total country spend from 2016 to 2020.

While declining to share specific figures, Kim said Netflix’s investment in Korean and Asian content will only increase. “We need to find what that is that resonates with local audiences [and] diversify our portfolio and genres that we invest in. You can’t satisfy everyone with one show,” she says. The team will also invest more in content from Japan and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia.

The social conversation worldwide—and in South Korea—is also shifting, with viewers searching for different kinds of stories, like those that address social justice issues. “We’re partnering with different types of creators to tell different stories, [whether] it’s those that have been traditionally successful or others from underrepresented groups,” says Kim. She’s proud that many Korean titles on Netflix depict female leads, which she sees as a new direction for the entertainment industry.

In her own professional life, Kim says that she experienced “paper cuts”—small slights that still stung—like instances of gender and age discrimination. Such bias “eats into your confidence, [which] creates self-doubt and builds a glass ceiling for yourself,” she says. “Overcoming this takes strength. And you can’t be afraid to speak up for what’s right.”

Netflix is currently under fire for its handling of internal and public backlash against The Closer, Dave Chappelle’s recent stand-up special on the platform, which critics say facilitates hate speech against the transgender community. In a Tuesday interview with Variety, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said he “screwed up” in how he handled employee concerns and “should have led with a lot more humanity.”

“We are trying to support creative freedom and artistic expression among the artists that work at Netflix,” he said.

A group of company employees staged a virtual walkout over the Chappelle special on Wednesday.

Kim acknowledges that “there’s a long way to go” in fostering genuine equality in South Korea and the entertainment industry at large. But for Netflix, the goal is to understand how to best tell different stories in a thoughtful manner, says Kim. “We’re only just getting started,” she says.

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