How Netflix Is Extending Its Tentacles Across Asia in Search of the Next Squid Game

How Netflix Is Extending Its Tentacles Across Asia in Search of the Next Squid Game

There’s no shortage of metrics to gauge the runaway success of Squid Game. The dystopian South Korean death-or-glory drama is Netflix’s most-watched series of all time, clocking 1.65 billion viewing hours in its first month (equivalent to 190,000 years). It received 14 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning six. Squid Game star O Yeong-su was the first Korean-born actor to win a Golden Globe. It has even spawned a spin-off reality game show, Squid Game: The Challenge, that debuted this week.

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But for Netflix’s APAC vice-president Minyoung Kim, who first greenlighted the script in 2019 in her former role running the firm’s Korean content, the most staggering impact she saw was on shoes. Specifically, the fact that sales of the white Vans slip-ons worn by Squid Game characters soared 7,800% after its release. “It wasn’t product placement; it was just a very basic sneaker!” Kim tells TIME with a laugh. “We really didn’t expect people to react to something like that.”

It wasn’t just viewers that reacted to Squid Game, of course. Transforming a $21.4 million production budget into a $900 million phenomenon turned eyes across the entertainment industry. Squid Game was the ultimate justification for Netflix’s then-nascent international expansion and prompted a doubling-down of the strategy. Today, 60% of Netflix’s global audience has watched Korean content, while 70% of its viewers are outside the U.S.

“The ambition was to break the language barrier and really connect the global audience together,” says Kim. “Squid Game just really proved that.”

Other streaming services followed suit with Disney and Amazon in particular unveiling a growing slate of Korean content. Determined to stay ahead of the game, Netflix announced in April it was investing an eye-popping $2.5 billion in Korean content over the next four years. “I always say to Ted [Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO], ‘You’ve announced it now, no backsies!’” jokes Kim.

It’s a sum that puts “very exciting pressure” on Kim, she says, while underscoring how Korean content will remain a major plinth of Netflix’s future business strategy. Already, Korean shows like revenge-saga The Glory and feel-good lawyer drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo have proven that Squid Game was no flash in the pan.

But Kim says she is more excited about bringing great shows from elsewhere across Asia to a wider audience. Already, Netflix has seen renewed interest in its pre-existing Japanese sci-fi thriller Alice in Borderlands, which developed a large following among Americans inspired by Squid Game to broaden their viewing horizons.

Now Netflix is also investing in films in markets like Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan in the firm belief that the next Squid Game could come from anywhere. Japan, for one, “is just a paradise of imagination,” says Kim. “There’s so many great manga [intellectual properties] out there.”

It’s a strategy that is already bearing fruit. In April, Thai film Hunger rose to the top of Netflix’s global viewing charts. Meanwhile, the widely acclaimed Indonesian love story Cigarette Girl ranks among Netflix’s top non-English language content.

Other productions’ impacts have been more profound; Wave Makers, which follows staffers during a sexually-charged presidential election campaign in Taiwan, sparked a societal #MeToo reckoning that ensnared several top lawmakers. (The show’s fictional presidential candidate, actress Tammy Lai, has since become the real-life running mate of Apple supplier Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, who is running as an independent in January’s election.) “For us, it was an office drama about growth and romance,” says Kim. “But sometimes things happen you don’t expect, because the audience is seeing something that they resonate with.”

But beyond simply discovering great content, Kim’s pitch is that Netflix’s investment across the region can catalyze a resurgent pan-Asian film ecosystem. If taken alone, each nation’s film industry will struggle to produce content of sufficient quality to captivate an international audience. However, by utilizing specific areas of expertise across the region—Thailand’s skill at post-production, South Korea’s mastery of special effects, Singapore for animation—there’s real potential to pool resources to boost overall quality and appeal.  

“In Asia, a lot of creators are motivated to always try new things and push boundaries but are sometimes stuck because of the limitations in their own country,” says Kim. “Netflix is very well positioned to connect the region together.”

It’s not that far-fetched. After all, J. K. Rowling’s insistence that the Harry Potter movies were shot in the U.K. was single-handedly credited for rejuvenating a moribund British film industry, which attracted $7.3 billion in foreign investment last year alone.

Already, the boom of streaming services has prompted standards to rise across Asia’s film industry. “People have had to uplift their skills,” says Kamonthip Tachasakulmas, director of Bangkok-based One Cool Production, whose client roster today is half international and did post-production work on Hunger as well as several other Netflix projects. “For international platforms, your job goes worldwide so you need to keep quality control.”

Still, Kim’s vision may appear slightly utopian when set against the May to November Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes—now-settled industrial action chiefly spurred by dissatisfaction with remuneration under Netflix’s streaming model. Netflix insists that its priority is ensuring adequate compensation for content producers at the outset of a project, so they get paid fairly even if it flops.

Yet the fact that Netflix last month upped its free cash flow projection for the whole year to $6.5 billion didn’t exactly assuage the aggrieved feelings of content producers. Even Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk didn’t receive royalties on top of his original contract flat fee. For some, his macabre allegory of capitalism exploiting the desperate many for the pleasure of a wealthy elite struck a little too close to home.

An additional irony, of course, was that it was Netflix’s overseas production footprint that enabled it to lean into foreign content and mitigate the deleterious effects of the Hollywood strike. That the vast bulk of Squid Game profits went to Netflix became a political issue in South Korea, which announced plans in June to provide 500 billion won ($390 million) to help local streaming platforms compete with global rivals. Since 2018, 17 E.U. countries have imposed levies on streaming services to be funneled into national funds for local films, dramas, and documentaries. 

“There are certain regions of the world where companies got together to say, ‘all right, we need to circumvent Netflix here as they have too much power,’” says streaming industry analyst Dan Rayburn. Kim says that there’s an ongoing conversation to be had about changes that “organically make the industry much healthier … to enable more sustenance, sustainability, and more success for Korean storytellers.”

It’s quite likely that a Squid Game-scale hit would spark similar conversations anywhere. For now, though, the investment of streaming services like Netflix is seen as hugely positive for a Southeast Asian film industry still reeling from depressed cinema attendances owing to the pandemic. “There are some issues, but the larger picture is that streaming is really good for filmmaking in the region,” says Adam Knee, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Media & Creative Industries at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore. “It increases the possibility for Southeast Asian products that have wide success with wide viewership.”

As for issues, Knee raises the possibility for commercially-backed ventures with eyes firmly on profits to shy away from the region’s more locally controversial topics—whether the monarchy in Thailand, political repression in Vietnam, or drugs in Singapore. Already, Netflix has proven willing to kowtow to censorship demands in many countries. “The question is whether we have the same vibrant, artistic expression in the cinema sector when it’s being run by this corporate entity,” says Knee.

But a more insidious danger, he says, is when the chimera of gaining global renown prompts filmmakers to pander to international audiences at the expense of domestic viewers. It’s a risk that’s only too apparent to Kim, for whom confused, watered-down content is anathema.

“Local authenticity is really important,” she says. “If a show really works in that country but does not travel outside, that’s still great for us. What we don’t want is a show that does not work in that country but works outside.”

Of course, until Kim finds the next Squid Game, we’ve still got season 2 to look forward to, filming for which is already underway. Kim knows that, stripped of the first season’s novelty factor, the new story, social commentary, and characters must all deliver—not that she’s worried. 

“It’s going to be much bigger, it’s got new games, and a different angle of how human beings interact,” she says. “I have no doubt that people will really enjoy it.” Just as long as those on screen really, really don’t.

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