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InterviewRisk-averse culture is forcing daring creators to flee showbiz

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Kim Dong-won, left, president of Yoondang Arthall, and Kim Sae-won, president of the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, speak during a roundtable interview with The Korea Times at its newsroom on Monday. Korea Times photo by Kang Hyun-kyung

Industry insider warns of brain drain and its fallout on show business
By Kang Hyun-kyung

Through decades of experience in show business, Kim Dong-won, president of Yoondang Arthall and a seasoned producer of movies and TV series, came to develop an eye for stories that can captivate audiences if they are adapted into movies or TV series.

Riveting stories are original and so unique that no other creator can possibly copy them, according to Kim.

"I think great stories have one thing in common: they are written by rebellious creators," he said during a roundtable interview with The Korea Times at its newsroom on Monday. "The way each creator tells his or her story is different because it is based on his or her own unique experience, perspective and worldview."

However, Kim said cultural rebels have a tough time selling their stories to film or drama production companies.

Investors are risk averse and, in most cases, they are not ready to gamble on creative works, he said, noting that this is the main obstacle that talented creators face.

"Investors ask who will star in the film and who will direct it. They ask whether the actors are A-listers and if the director is famous. Their questions center around star cast members and directors without paying much attention to other elements like screenplay and visual effects, because they believe the success of films hinge on star-studded casts and well-known directors," he said.

This explains why the salaries of A-listers keep soaring, while creators, visual effect artists, and computer graphic designers, who play a critical role in the success of movies, are poorly paid.

Kim Dong-won, president of Yoondang Arthall / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

In the world of showbiz, there is an unsettling trend of showing little respect for the very creators who bring magic to the screen, Kim said.

Hwang Dong-hyeok, who dircted the Netflix hit "Squid Game," was unsuccessful in pitching the series to Korean production companies because of "short-sighted" investors, according to Kim.

Kim said he had a similar experience when he was looking for investors to finance his TV series project, "Backstreet Rookie," a 2020 romantic comedy that aired on SBS.

"Their initial reactions were insulting. They said the story is weird and childish," he said, adding he had a hard time trying to convince the reluctant investors.

Contrary to such skepticism, "Backstreet Rookie" aired on TV and achieved nationwide ratings of 6.3 percent to 9.5 percent.

Kim said that a brain drain is another problem facing Korea's entertainment industry.

Frustrated by an abusive system, Kim said talented creators leave show business for YouTube to create their own channel and make money.

"I know some of them make good money. But their personal success didn't lead to the growth of show business, which is regrettable," he said.

Kim Sae-won, president of the state-funded think tank, Korea Culture and Tourism Institute (KCTI), who also joined the interview, said the role of the government is to help prevent a brain drain in show business.

She said experts familiar with the industry should be encouraged to take part in the policy-making and decision-making processes.

"The government conducts a feasibility study to determine the feasibility of a certain project," she said. "State-funded think tanks are responsible for the feasibility study. The problem is that in the think tanks, there are few experts who have a deep knowledge of show business."

While Korea's entertainment industry is plagued by a short-sighted focus on profits, Kim, the head of Yoondang Arthall, said the show business sectors in 0ther countries have been undergoing revolutionary changes. He cited the ongoing ABBA Voyage as an example showing how quickly the industry has transformed into a digital-based system.

The virtual concerts featuring avatars of the legendary Swedish band, dubbed ABBA-tars, has been a phenomenal success since it premiered in London on May 27 last year.

Tickets are sold out. The 3,000 seats in the London Arena, a venue built exclusively for the Swedish band's gigs, have been packed with fans. The concerts, held seven days a week, have generated $150 million so far with weekly earning reaching $2 million.

Encouraged by the success, the organizers and people who are involved in the virtual concerts are reportedly discussing ways to expand the performances outside of the United Kingdom, with New York, Singapore and Sydney being cited as possible host cities.

The ABBA Voyage has inspired some industry insiders in Korea to mull the format to help "hallyu" or the Korean Wave make another leap forward.

"We can replicate the virtual concert featuring digital humans for globally popular stars like BTS and BLACKPINK," Kim, the head of Yoondang Arthall, said.

"The virtual concerts will help global fans meet their favorite stars whenever they want to see their performances," he said. "They will also help create jobs for visual effects artists and other staff involved in entertainment industry."

But introducing virtual concerts may be easier said than done.

The virtual concerts featuring digital version of K-pop stars will require a great deal of investments as shown in the ABBA Voyage project. It is one of the most expensive productions in music history. A total of $175 million in investments were poured into the project prior to the first show in May of 2022. The London Arena, equipped with LED lights and 291 speakers, was built exclusively for the virtual show.

Unfazed, the president of Yoondang Arthall said the investments will pay off in the end.

"I'm afraid we will lose out in the global competition if we miss this opportunity," he said. "Foreign investors are interested in the format and they will try to purchase the copyrights of digital humans for globally popular K-pop stars. If this becomes a reality, they will dominate the K-pop industry."

If the industry wastes time weighing the feasibility and possible profits the project could generate, he said Korea will be left behind in the global race to digitalize show business.

Kim Sae-won, president of the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

KCTI head Kim said she also sees the potential benefits of using digital human-based concerts.

"Most commodity goods begin to depreciate once they are in use. But virtual concerts featuring digital avatars have no risk of depreciation costs," she said.

They can become a cash cow for K-pop artists and their agencies, she added.

Kang Hyun-kyung


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