Squid Game Was Just the Start

Netflix’s The Glory, one of the many new shows and movies coming out of the service’s expanded Korea strategy. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Netflix

It’s been nearly two years since Squid Game debuted on Netflix and became a global phenomenon virtually overnight. In addition to amassing more than 1.6 billion viewing hours during its first four weeks — the biggest launch ever for the streamer — the dystopian drama from creator Hwang Dong-hyuk underscored the global appeal of entertainment content made in Korea. It also offered convincing proof that Netflix execs had been right when, years earlier, they decided to spend a sizable portion of their multibillion-dollar programming budget on series produced outside the United States and Europe. “The exciting thing for me would be if the next Stranger Things came from outside America,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos told me during some reporting I did in 2018, noting that at the time, “nothing of that scale has ever come from anywhere but Hollywood.” Squid Game ended up doing that, and more: When Stranger Things 4 was released last summer, its first-month viewership — while huge — still couldn’t quite match the record set by the Korean thriller.

Not surprisingly, Netflix has reacted to Squid Game’s success by putting even more money into content production from the region. Last month, Sarandos used a U.S. visit by South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol to announce plans to spend $2.5 billion on K-content during the next four years — more than double the roughly $1.2 billion the company has spent in the country since launching there in 2016. While Netflix is sinking so much cash into Korean programming because it drives viewership and attracts subscribers, the streamer has also made it clear it views its global content pipeline as a resource to help weather a prolonged strike by the Writers Guild of America or other Hollywood labor unions. “We have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world [and] could probably serve our members better than most,” Sarandos told investors last month.

The man in charge of Netflix’s Korean expansion is VP of content Don Kang, who will mark his fifth year at the company this summer. A University of Southern California alum whose resume includes a stint working in music licensing, Kang and his team have already scored several follow-up hits post Squid Game. Most recently, the second batch of episodes from drama The Glory topped the company’s global streaming chart for multiple weeks in March; the overall series now stands as the fifth most-popular non-English TV series in Netflix history. Netflix Korea has also expanded into reality TV, garnering global viewing for Physical: 100 and Singles Inferno.

Buffering caught up with Kang a few weeks ago to talk about the company’s decision to double down on original content and what kinds of programs we can expect. He also talked about the possibility of Netflix Korea reality shows getting U.S. spinoffs, the possibility of K-Christmas movies, and, of course, the status of Squid Game season two.

Last month you announced you’ll be investing $2.5 billion on content over the next few years, which is dramatically more than your previous budgets. What’s the basic plan for how to spend it?

It’s both going to be invested in increasing the number of titles, but also right-sizing the investment and putting money where the ambition is big. We want to bring that [money] to the screen and unleash the creative potential of some of the stories that we’re witnessing from Korea.

Squid Game was famously produced for a fraction of what a similar-size blockbuster might have cost were it produced in the U.S. or even Europe. As demand for Korean content has gone up in recent years, are you finding costs are going up as well? Or are you simply just being more ambitious because you’ve seen there’s a broad international market for your shows?

It’s obviously a mixture. The demand is very high for Korean content. But some of the stories that are coming out from Korea now are ones the creators were not able to tell basically because the stories were too ambitious. And I think we are in a unique position where we can commit to making the investment needed to bring those ambitions to the screen. A lot of Korean TV used to be very focused on romantic comedies, more the slice-of-life type of stories. But we are seeing some potential in bringing some of the gravitas from films to TV series, and vice versa. There are many interesting stories that we’re seeing that require a little more investment.

You’re planning to release 34 shows and movies this year, which is more than double the size of your 2021 slate. If you have the same model Netflix in the U.S. did a decade ago, should we expect that in five or ten years from now you’ll have like 500 titles, or some other huge number? I’m kind of exaggerating, but is there some sort of upper limit on how big you want to grow your slate? 

So in terms of volume — there’s so many different tastes out there. Different people like different stories, and we really want to super-serve those different tastes. And we want to get it right in terms of the volume, but we want people to have something to enjoy every day throughout the year. So, it’s a moving target, but we are in the process of figuring out what is the right number of titles that we need to be producing and that we need to be licensing. It’s not going to get to 500 titles per year.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO, has talked a lot over the years about the importance of locally produced content for the service, and how the biggest win for the company is when a show from one of your many territories does really well in its home region but then also “travels.” Post Squid Game, do you look more carefully at whether your shows can travel? Or do you just keep your focus on making sure it works for Korea? 

Don Kang. Photo: Ji Sang Chung

A show is like a living creature. You could have the greatest script, but you might not have the best show at the end of the day. You could have an okay script, but you could end up with a pretty good show. And the only trick that you can rely on is: You have to know your audiences. The people who make Korean shows, both us at Netflix and the creators — we know our audiences in Korea. To imagine you can know audiences outside Korea? To me it almost seems arrogant.

So the best thing you can do is to really hyper-focus on what will work in Korea for Korean audiences. What’s been really fortunate for Netflix and everyone in the Korean entertainment industry is that very often when it works in Korea, it also gets received pretty well outside Korea. It does travel. So it’s a very fortunate thing for us, and we’re really proud and happy that our shows like Squid Game and like Glory — although they are very different stories, they find audiences in Korea and outside Korea as well. So long story short, yeah, we do focus for Korean audiences primarily.

Here in the U.S., as I’m sure you’re aware, the Writers Guild strike is affecting production. I’m wondering if that in the back of your mind, you’re planning to shift your filming deadlines or move up plans for content? 

I don’t actually know much about the strike that’s going on in the U.S. My main focus is to basically do what I do and focus on creating great Korean content for our members.

How does development of projects work in Korea? I know a lot of European countries use a very different system than what we have here in the U.S. 

So the landscape in Korea is a little different than what I’ve seen happening in the U.S. It’s not like the creators or showrunners here would have an agent in place and do a pitch session. I think a lot of the projects happen very spontaneously. We have close relationships — professional and personal — with different creators, different studios. And we spontaneously discuss projects. A creator doesn’t necessarily come into the office to do a whole one-hour pitch session. That’s one difference.

And are you trying to outright own most of your shows going forward, or are you still doing a lot of licensing and co-productions with outside studios? I know early on Netflix Korea worked a lot with a major production company called CJ and its Studio Dragon unit

I think we use various flexible ways to partner with the creative industry and there are different, business-wise, different categories that we can categorize these into. We have some shows which are “pre-buys.” Pre-buys are basically titles that we invest in very early, before they actually get made. And our originals are the titles that we work with creators to develop, to revise, to fine-tune, and produce together. So, it depends on what type category you’re asking this question about. And our partnership with CJ and Studio Dragon is still very strong and ongoing. We just recently renewed the deal.

A lot of the early buzz about Korean content traveling to the U.S. was focused on K-drama. But recently, you’ve attracted big global audiences with unscripted content as well. Physical: 100 and Singles Inferno both did extremely well globally, according to the data Netflix has released. How much bigger do you want your unscripted slate to get, and why do you think it’s resonating now?

So, nonfiction is a big bet for us. If you look at the viewing ratio of shows on TV,  whether linear or streaming, a big chunk of viewing comes from nonfiction shows because it serves different types of emotions and different types of tastes from audiences. We are planning to do about 12 unscripted shows in 2023, which is up from five in 2022. We’re doubling down on our unscripted efforts.

For the longest time, Korean nonfiction shows have not had any traction outside Korea or Asian-Pacific territories. What’s happened with Singles Inferno and Physical 100 is probably one of the first times that has happened to any nonfiction shows from Korea. It’s a very, very positive signal, and it’s been one of my biggest goals. It’s also proof that if we focus on making great shows in Korea and helping the creators tell their stories in the best way possible, and be loved by Korean audiences, it will travel outside Korea.

Netflix has made localized versions of many of its American reality shows. Do you want that for your unscripted series, and if so, is anything in the works? 

Yes, that would be very exciting.  There’s a lot in discussion, but nothing has been decided. But I could totally see something like Physical 100 with U.S. contestants. There could be a U.S. version. There could be a global version. So, we’re talking about a lot of things and I’m very excited about the discussion.

How many of the 34 titles you’re releasing this year will be movies?

I think we are doing maybe six to seven this year.
So that’s about 20 percent of your overall roster. Do you want to change the split between movies and TV and make a lot more movies? Or is that a good mix going forward? 
At this point, we’re not trying to dramatically change the ratio. I think we are fine-tuning, but I don’t think there will be a dramatic change in the investment ratio between the TV and the films that we’re doing right now.

Sitcoms are a huge format in the U.S., and I think there’s a history of them in Korea as well. So much focus these days is on drama, but I’m wondering where comedy fits into your TV gameplan.  

That used to be a very, very popular form in Korea, and I grew up watching a lot of sitcoms. I think as long as you get it right, I think it could totally come back. It’s not our primary focus, but we are trying different forms, including series that run for 30 minutes. We’re not doing that to recreate what the sitcom used to do, but as long as that 30-minute format is the right format to tell that specific story, I think it’s worth looking into.

I was talking to a U.S. agent recently who mentioned to me that U.S. studios have seen a dramatic devaluation of many of their shows because global audiences aren’t, as he put it, “watching all of our American garbage anymore.” You know a lot about Korean audiences. Has American content ever been popular there? And is that still the case?

U.S. content has always been a big entertainment source for Korean people. Maybe during the linear-TV era, we saw less room for TV stations to serve that audience in Korea. But I think services like Netflix, because we produce a lot and license a lot from the U.S., from Europe, from other countries in the world, I think we’re a great outlet for that audience to still have access to great content from all around the world, including the U.S. It’s not going to go away. I think, again, people have widely different tastes and it changes over time. Local content will always be very, very strong.  But people watch different shows from all around the world.

You obviously put subtitles on many of your titles, but I’m curious whether you see a material difference in viewership when your shows are dubbed as well as subbed. Having both those options available obviously makes it more likely a show will reach a wider audience, right?

For our original and branded titles, we do dubbing and subtitles from anywhere between 13 to 30-something languages. Before coming to Netflix, I used to distribute premium content to the world. And the biggest difference — and I think one of the most impactful things that Netflix brought to the Korean industry — is basically lowering the very basic entry barrier of language and making Korean shows available in the native language that people speak outside Korea. That has tremendously expanded the audience base for Korean content.
I think certain countries have a preference towards either subtitles or dubbing. We see a lot of dubbing consumption in countries like Latin America and certain countries in Southeast Asia. I think it maybe has something to do with the characteristics of the language or the viewing habits of the specific country. But even within that country, different people have different preferences towards subtitles or dubbing. Even for myself, I don’t know where this habit comes from, but when I’m watching U.S. shows, I like reading subtitles and listening to the original languages. But when I’m watching certain Japanese anime shows, I prefer dubbing. People have different tastes. We’re all unique human beings.

So tell me three projects on your roster over the next year or two which you think stand a good chance of resonating around the world. What are you really excited about?
One of the strategies that we’re doing at Netflix Korea is, we want to bring that Korean cinema gravitas to the TV series. And I think a very good example is this title called Math Girl that we’ll be releasing in the second half of 2023. This might be too much of a spoiler, but it’s a thriller about a girl who goes through multiple identity changes. I’m very much looking forward to that one. We also have a show that launched May 12 called Black Knight. It’s our take on a near-future dystopian society where air becomes like a currency. And on the film side, there’s a title called Ballerina that we’ll be releasing in the second half of this year. It’s a female-led action thriller.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Christmas is celebrated by many people in Korea. Netflix has had a lot of success with Christmas and holiday movies. Any chance we might be able to get a holiday movie from Netflix Korea?
Do you want one? [Laughs.]

Yes, I do!

[Laughs.] Christmas movies … is that a thing in Korea? Not really, no. But maybe it’s something that we can consider. But that celebratory, make-you-feel-good type of film? I think there is a huge opportunity in Korean cinema. Sometimes there are stories that are underrepresented because traditionally they had relatively smaller audience sizes. For example, it’s very difficult to see romantic-comedy films from Korea. They very often have a hard time getting made, and I see a lot of great scripts from that realm. Maybe one of those could be a great Christmas movie for Netflix.

Before we go, there’s actually a law that says I have to ask you for an update on the second season of Squid Game. How’s it coming along and when will we see it?
I’d be so excited if I could tell you where things are exactly and when we’re launching. [Laughs.] But it’s in progress. It’s in good progress, and we will give you an update as soon as we are ready.

Do you get that question a lot?

I get that question a lot. I use the same sentence to answer that question.

Squid Game Was Just the Start