Mark Murphy, Director: Netflix Success with South Korean TV Series

Mark Murphy, Solar Productions company director, has worked on a variety of critically acclaimed movie and TV productions, including The Comedian’s Guide to Survival and For Love or Money. Mark Murphy, director, writer and producer, also worked on Casanova’s Love Letters, a six-part TV drama series staring Patrick Bergin and Armand Assante.

This article will look at the astronomical popularity of South Korean dramas among Western audiences and why the partnership between Netflix and Korean filmmakers is likely to thrive for years to come.

For the South Korean entertainment industry, 2020 and 2021 were magical years, with South Korean productions seeing huge success abroad via streaming platforms like Netflix. With the COVID-19 pandemic restricting people’s movements and confining many to their homes, consumers turned to streaming platforms to keep them entertained, whiling away the hours by binge-watching TV series and films online. While the virus had a devastating impact on many industries globally, for Netflix and South Korean content makers it created new opportunities.

Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, most viewers limited themselves to watching one or two episodes per day. However, with consumers spending days and weeks confined in their homes, many found themselves watching one or two series per day. At the height of the pandemic, Korean movies and dramas started appearing everywhere, breaking record after record. But precisely why did dramas like Hellbound and Squid Game create such a buzz so quickly?

Netflix was launched in Korea in 2016. However, it was not until June 2018 that the platform launched Mr Sunshine, a 24-episode historical drama and its first-ever original Korean content.

In reality, the Korean entertainment industry has a long history of creating high-quality productions. Nevertheless, Mr Sunshine rocked the entertainment industry with its stunning cinematography, changing the landscape of Korean film and television production.

Subsequently, Netflix became Korea’s leading streaming platform, attracting an astounding 4.1 million paid subscribers across the country by 2020, representing a 108% increase on the previous year. This sudden surge in Korean audiences led to Netflix developing an aggressive marketing strategy, with the company leaning heavily towards creating as much original Korean content as possible. In 2021, 15 original Korean movies and television series were produced, with at least 25 scheduled for release the following year.

Western interest in Korean film and television making predates the pandemic. In 2017, Netflix invested $50 million dollars in the film Okja, which was produced by the Bong Joon-ho, an Oscar-winning director. Netflix also spent $25 million on the 2020 apocalyptic series Sweet Home, as well as $17 million on Kingdom, a hit zombie drama. Kingdom and Sweet Home proved a huge success in Europe and the United States, with the two series creating a whole new universe of Korean monsters, zombies and dark fantasies that were unlike anything Westerners had ever seen before.

In April 2023, following a meeting with the South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Netflix announced that it would be investing a staggering $2.5 billion in the creation of Korean films, series and unscripted shows over the course of four years. This amounts to approximately double the amount the platform had invested in Korean dramas since 2016. In a statement, Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, highlighted Netflix’s confidence in the Korean creative industry and its ability to tell great stories, reflecting that Korean entertainment was ‘now at the heart of the global cultural zeitgeist.’

Eastern entertainment has become incredibly popular with Western audiences, in no small part driving Netflix’s staggering increase in profits, which rose from $5.2 billion in the third quarter of 2019 to $6.4 billion by quarter three of 2020 according to data from Statista. Of all the content available on Netflix, it is hard to find a genre that had a better year than Korean drama in 2020 – but what exactly makes Korean productions so popular among Western audiences?

Experts point to high-quality production as an underlying factor, with the vast majority of South Korean dramas streamed via Netflix benefiting from high production value, making them extremely watchable and providing quality assurance to viewers.

From filmmaking to set and costume design, Korean television and movie productions have benefited from a huge amount of investment, enabling filmmakers to focus on the finest details and making productions a spectacle to enjoy. Take for example Kingdom and its high-resolution, show-motion cameras; detailed sets and historically-accurate costumes; and hundreds of extras in terrifying makeup. Combined, these are cognisant of a Hollywood blockbuster rather than a streamed original series.

In addition, editing and music is also consistent across different Korean series, which is astonishing consider the vast number of different studios involved in production. This notion of high-quality production extends across virtually all Korean Netflix content, with countless titles boasting incredible filmmaking and visuals – presenting a feast of visuals and storytelling that experts predict will entertain viewers for years to come.