Korea


The Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Korea Game Industry Agency have just released the latest whitepaper on the Korean game industry – The Rise of Korean Games 2007.

The document contains industry figures for 2006 (a shame to be just getting this now!) and outlines government policy trends and strategies for the industry. It can be downloaded from the Korean Game Industry Total Information Service System website.

An addendum, the volume does appear to be published mid-2007. It has only just been listed on the GITISS website as of 8 September 2008, so perhaps this publishing date refers to the original Korean language version?

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Changes to media ownership laws have been proposed by the Korea Communications Commission according to a Variety article on 3 September.

Korean President Lee Myung-bak has followed this up with a statement that indicates the government’s desire to have a globally competitive media player with the scale to make an impact in international markets.

The government should create an environment to enable the advent of a world-class media firm with global competitiveness by drastically loosening the string of regulations on the broadcasting and communications sector.

From the KCC report, the government’s strategy to achieve this appears to be not through lifting foreign investment limits but by loosening cross-media ownership laws.

The stringent regulations on ownership and multiple ownership prohibit the broadcasting sector from expanding through new investments and mergers and acquisitions”

New media environments have challenged the legitimacy of incumbent cross-media ownership laws, but one does have to wonder if the way to a more globally competitive media conglomerate would not be best achieved by relaxing foreign investment restrictions, no matter how unpalatable that may be.

In other words, despite ideological resistance in Korea to opening up the media industry to foreign players, this may provide an avenue of providing greater diversity in the Korean media while not restricting plurality and freedom of speech. This is particularly the case in Korea where censorship law are stricter than in many other democracies, and a further concentration of power in the media – and big business groups in general – is precisely what successive administrations have been fighting to reform.

Japanese, Korean, and recently Chinese TV dramas have all boomed in export markets, if only for short-lived waves. But with all nations eager to increase exports of creative content, focus from within the industry has been drawn to intra-regional co-productions.

In an article in the Daily Yomiuri, Yoshikazu Suzuki outlines the prospect of a joint Japanese-South Korean TV drama production mooted at the third TV Drama Forum of East Asia held in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.

Such collaboration could see Japanese scriptwriters, for example, teaming up with Korean creative, technical, and acting talent.

The project emerged as momentum grew among the Japanese and South Korean participants toward jointly producing dramas. The project involves seven popular Japanese scriptwriters, including Yoshikazu Okada, Yumiko Inoue and Shizuka Oishi, who will write original scripts with settings in South Korea, as well as South Korean directors and actors. The project calls for each episode, which will last up to two hours, to be broadcast by TV stations in both countries after being shown in cinemas.

This would allow entry of Japanese co-produced drama onto Korean terrestrial broadcast, (the article indicates Japanese drama is still banned) and provide the Korean industry with an injection of writing talent.

It would be interesting seeing a similar use of scriptwriters filtering through to other sectors of the Korean content industry such as animation, where studios have often been met with great acclaim for their technical prowess but have fallen short of receiving similar praise for the stories that hold together original home-grown animation.

CEO of Synergy Media Eugene Kang has issued a press release detailing some of the challenges and opportunities in the Korean animation market. (see Newswire Today)

While the Korean animation market is facing rising cost for OEM production meaning production has become cheaper in other countries, Kang believes Korea is becoming a place for producers to turn to for original content.

Another challenge Kang mentions is new distribution channels such as IPTV, which make the distribution environment ‘obscure’. This is a valid point, given that while IPTV and other internet channels are often looked to as proliferating the number of channels thereby increasing distribution options, the audiences of each of these channels is likely to be small. Therefore unless they have a well established niche viewership that is attractive to potential advertisers, these channels are likely to be filled with low-cost content that has already recouped it production costs rather than new and original content that has yet to earn revenue. Because the channels are not yet established, the operators would be unlikely to pay pre-sales for a new production unless they have very deep pockets.

Further, despite the shrinking of the domestic market, due to its talent in producing high-quality animation and supportive government programs, it is an ideal country to engage with for co-productions.

This certainly seems consistent with my impression of this industry in Korea. While there seemed to be a lack of talented scriptwriters, the sophistication of many animation studios combined with the entrepreneurship of producers suggests that a co-pro that employed foreign writing talent with Korean design and technical skills may produce properties that are successful internationally.

Korean content producers, supported by government, are looking to extend their reach further into international markets, beyond Asia.

An article in Variety

  • Korea’s content industries are likely to produce ‘more nuanced’ properties rather than relying heavily on the local star system, . Big names appear not to be getting the pre-sales that they were overseas.
  • Film commissions in Seoul and Busan are becoming more aggressive at establishing Korea as a viable shooting location.
  • The film industry is looking to the US and Hollywood both for distribution and co-production opportunities
  • The technological savvy of local firms is helping to give Korea a leg up in certain sectors like special effects and new media.
  • Korean animators, who have gained technical expertise through years of outsourced U.S. work, are becoming strong contributors. KOCCA and other government organisations provide significant funding for training in the industry.

My question though, is how developed their storytelling ability has become, and to what extent government policies are aiming to develop these non-technical creative skills.

Things are looking up for the character business in Korea, according to an article in the English Chosun.

Industry size. The sales volume of the character industry in Korea totaled W4.288 trillion in 2005, with Korean characters claiming a 41 percent share of the market, up 6 percentage points from three years before.

Trade Surplus. According to data on character-related products, the export volume of W163.6 billion surpassed the import volume of W123.4 billion in 2005. This is a turnaround from the previous year. 2004 figures suggest exports were W134.2 billion and imports W148 billion.

International collaboration.

The successful overseas debut of Pucca was the fruit of a multinational collaboration. Korea’s Vooz Character Systems developed and marketed Pucca, the U.K.’s Jetix put up the funds, Canada’s Studio B produced the animation, and an American writer took care of the story. Korea’s advanced information technology did its part in the development of the character.

While North Korea more often makes headlines for nuclear tests and programs, economic sanctions, and human rights violations, the nation often described as reclusive and impoverished appears to have an emerging animation industry, according to an article from December 2006 on the Radio Free Asia website. The article indicates that North Korea is becoming a “significant player in the global business of animation and cinema—exporting cartoons throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.”

According to the article, the state-run SEK studio is one of the largest in the world, employing 1,600 staff who work with “state-of-the-art equipment.” The North Korean studio has worked on Pororo from South Korean, and US animated features such as The Lion King and Pocahontas, as well as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

The article also reports that South Korean animators have been collaborating with North Korean animators to produce some of their animated TV episodes.

The volume of these cross-border transactions (any data on exact numbers??) makes sense on a variety of fronts. From an outsourcing (both economics and supply chain manangement) perspective, North Korea uses the same language, is in close geographic proximity, has cultural similiarities at least historically. Vitally, one would expect enormous cost savings for South Korean firms to outsource animation work to the north. Politically, the South Korean Government has been eager to engage with the North so we could hypothesise at least that firms would face few political roadblocks on the Southern side. Political issues and transparency issues in the North not withstanding, the only key issues left would be quality of workmanship and the ability to communicate clearly to contractors what work is required.

On the quality front, animators featured in the article seem to think there is no problem:

Choi Jong-Il, president of Iconix Entertainment believes the technical skill of North Korean animators is well developed.

“North Korea employs animation to deliver various messages to the public, and North Korean animators have been sub-contracted by Japanese and European companies. That is why technically they are strong.”

Nelson Shin, founder and president of of Akom who has worked on animated television series including “The Simpsons,” “The Pink Panther,” “X-Men,” “Invasion America,” and “Arthur” and has directed “The Transformers”, was surprised by the quality coming out of North Korea.

“The first time I watched North Korean animation, I simply thought that if we tried our best, there might be a possibility to work together, but I had no idea North Koreans would turn out to be such outstanding animators,”

Yet Choi believes they fall down on their ability to communicate, which appears to be hampered by the lack of freedom of movement of people in and out of North Korea.

“To come up with work plans, one needs a steady flow of communication, but communication with North Korea has been very difficult,” Choi said. “Short of traveling there, the best one can do is to communicate via fax, but they’re not very enthusiastic about doing that either. This wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem, if we could travel to North Korea freely, as we do to other countries.”

Shin however, is more positive about communications between the two nation’s animators.

“With South and North Korean animators working together, there are no misunderstandings or miscommunication. For three years, South and North Korean animators worked hard together and conversed well.

Shin has had his latest North-South co-production is 39-episode animated TV series titled “The People of Koguryo,” approved by the North Korean Ministry of Culture and the South Korean Ministry of Unification.

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