How K-dramas are made

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NO ONE can deny the current popularity of Korean dramas in the Philippines and the rest of the world. In fact, as an executive of the Korean Creative Content Agency — a government agency that oversees and coordinates the promotion of Korean content — put it, “Korean dramas have become their own genre.” But what does it take to create a Korean drama and what contributes to its global popularity?

A Korean producer boiled it down to two reasons: excellent writing and the resonance of similar cultural values (at least in Asia).

“One big [factor] in the competitiveness of our dramas are excellent writers. Thanks to them, Korea has produced many dramas in different genres through various platforms that blurs boundaries between traditional and new media channels,” Kim Hee Yeol, vice-president of drama production for Pan Entertainment and vice-chairman of the Korean Drama Production Association, said during a webinar hosted by the Korean Cultural Center and Bonifacio Global City (BGC) Arts Center on Nov. 6.

The two-day webinar was held on Nov. 6 and 7 and focused on topics such as what makes Korean dramas popular and how they are written. The webinar included a roster of a Korean drama executive, an executive from the Korean Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), a screenwriter, and two Filipino directors and writers, Laurice Guillen and Jose Javier Reyes.

“Our creativity appeals to the global citizens and specifically cultural similarities between Korea and the Philippines works best to attract more audiences from [the Philippines],” Mr. Kim said before adding that ideas such as filial piety and good versus evil are “the basic [concepts] that attract attention from other Asians.”

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Looking back on the history of Korean drama, Lee Young Hoon, chief of the broadcasting industry team of KOCCA, said in the same webinar that they attribute the rise of Korean drama to Winter Sonata, a 2002 series starring Choi Ji Woo and Bae Young Joon. The series became so popular that Mr. Lee said “it became a social phenomenon,” especially in Japan where it spawned an anime adaptation and a stage musical.

Mr. Kim was one of the producers of Winter Sonata.

Mr. Lee also mentioned Jewel in the Palace (2003) starring Lee Young Ae as another series that propelled the Hallyu wave (a term used to describe the popularity of Korean content and culture in the world).

The show, he said, spurred interest in Korean culture and food as traditional Korean cuisine was the focus of much of the series.

While video games are considered “the number 1 export content” of South Korea, earning nine times more than broadcasting does, Mr. Lee noted that “the influence of [Korean dramas] is bigger” because they make viewers want to visit South Korea, visit the sites where the shows were shot, and try the food shown in the shows.

KOREAN DRAMA PRODUCTION
But what does it take to create a show? According to Mr. Kim, producing a show involves 17 different steps, seven of which are for pre-production and planning and 10 for production itself.

Each production takes months — sometimes years — to develop from idea to screen, and shows are typically produced by independent production companies instead of broadcasting companies.

Pan Entertainment, which Mr. Kim is a part of, has a pool of 35 writers, though they do hire new writers every year. The production company produces five dramas a year.

Each show is given over to a main writer who is responsible for writing the series, with several assistant writers who assist with research and proofreading.

“[Main] writers should carry out writing the drama,” Kim Young Yoon, drama script writer and executive director of the Korea TV & Radio Writers Association, said in a webinar on Nov. 7, before adding that assistant writers are not allowed to write parts of the script and a main writer who delegates writing the script to their assistant is “not professional.”

Ms. Kim explained that the world of Korean writers is one where only the best survive as in the Broadcasting Writers’ Education Centre (the writing institute of the Korea TV & Radio Writers Association), only admits 350 candidates per enrollment season and those that do end up working as writers are whittled down to 7 writers.

The center, Ms. Kim said, is responsible for “producing 90% of screenwriters in Korea.”

Most of the time, she said, writers pitch their own stories and develop them for production, though sometimes broadcasters and production companies pitch popular webtoons for adaptation. This is a very involved process as many writers immerse themselves in the occupations of their character (helping out at hospitals if it’s a medical drama, etc.) to ensure that they get the nuances of the job right.

After the idea and the script are formed, Mr. Kim of Pan Entertainment said they pitch the script to broadcasting networks or streaming services such as Netflix. Usually, he said, networks ask to cast one or two “special grade” actors and several “grade A” actors to ensure viewership.

“Special grade actors” are considered the top-tier actors in South Korea. Mr. Kim said currently there are about 3,000 actors in South Korea, just 40 of whom are considered “special grade,” and 60 who are considered “grade A.” “Special grade actors” are guaranteed a pay rate of between $89,000 to $178,000 per episode, though for productions specifically made for streaming platforms the rate can go as high as $267,000 per episode. “Grade A” actors meanwhile are paid between $17,800 to $44,500.

Though Mr. Kim did not name which actors are considered “special grade,” a July article in The South China Morning Post noted that Kim Soo Hyun (of My Love from the Stars fame) earns $165,000 per episode and is considered the highest-paid actor in South Korea. Also included in the top-paid list are Hyun Bin ($84,000) and So Ji Sub ($84,000). A similar list by Preview.ph noted that Jun Ji Hyun (also from My Love from the Stars) earns $84,000 per episode, making her the highest-paid actress in South Korea. The list also includes Lee Young Ae ($83,000) and Song Hye Kyo ($42,000).

“The reason we pay this expensive guarantee is because it is the best way to guarantee very stable and high viewing rates and also to guarantee advertisement revenue,” Mr. Kim said.

Writers are also graded and their pay reflects that as Mr. Kim said that “special grade” writers — there are 50 of them — are paid a script fee of $445 per 10 minutes and $311 for every episode.   

For a drama that has 16 episodes, eight episodes are typically shot and produced before the show is broadcast and the remaining episodes are shot while the show is already broadcasting.

While the writers and production company do keep track of ratings and audience comments on shows, Ms. Kim said that as writers they are “not swayed by the feedback of audiences and ratings,” adding that a character who is supposed to die but who is popular with the show’s audience will still die — though they can change “minor things” in response to feedback.

“Minor things can be changed like more popular characters getting more screen time,” she explained.

The popularity of Korean dramas, Ms. Kim said, has emboldened Korean writers to be more creative in the way they tell their stories because their market now goes beyond South Korea’s shores. She admitted that writers used to limit themselves to stories and genres that they knew would appeal to South Korean audiences, but now they can have a wider variety of stories and genres because “we are now working for the global market.” — Zsarlene B. Chua

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