Squid Game Isn't Netflix's First Korean Hit, and It Won't Be Its Last

The Rise of K-Drama

K-dramas have been commercially successful across Asia and Latin America for a while now. That being said, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a healthy market for K-dramas within the U.S. for much longer than Netflix or the mainstream media has been paying attention. Long before Parasite won the “Best Picture” Oscar or Squid Game claimed the top spot on the U.S. Netflix Top Ten, teen girls and women were binging Boys Over Flowers on DramaFever and re-upping their Viki subscription. As with many mainstream hits, Korean entertainment was embraced by those underserved demographics before other segments of the U.S. population got on board. While this is perhaps more famously true when it comes to K-pop, it also applies to K-dramas, which have been a successful market for decades but has been largely ignored by Hollywood’s major distributors until the last few years.

When people use the term “K-drama,” they are often referring specifically to the romantic melodrama format the Korean entertainment industry has perfected—a format that the American entertainment industry traditionally undervalues within its own culture, traditionally tapping into the massive commercial potential of romance-forward stories for the Christmas season but neglecting them for the rest of the year. In part because of this vacuum in U.S. offerings (and in part because K-dramas are so damn good), the K-drama has had an audience in America for as long as the internet has been broadly accessible, with distributors like Netflix and Amazon tapping into that audience only in the last few years. Granted, Squid Game is a very different show from Boys Over Flowers, with very different strengths and ambitions, but its creation and success are also inextricable from the global foothold the Korean TV industry has built on the back of its K-drama format.

Netflix Steps Onto the K-Culture Bandwagon

Squid Game may be the first Korean series to claim the #1 spot on U.S. Netflix Top Ten list, but it is not the first Korean drama to claim a spot on the list. Last year, horror Sweet Home became the first K-drama to make it onto the U.S. Netflix Top Ten List, with romantic drama Crash Landing On You soon following. (Notably, Korean space opera film Space Sweepers also made a splash globally and in the U.S., though it didn’t rank on the U.S. Netflix Top Ten List.)

Netflix has a pretty solid catalogue of Korean content, with much, much more on the way. The streamer has been seriously investing in the Korean entertainment industry since 2016, investing $700 million in the country in the past five years alone. They have a multi-year content partnership with CJ ENM/Studio Dragon and JTBC, and, earlier this year, they started leasing two of the country’s largest production facilities. As Netflix continues to both grow globally (especially in “emerging economies” in Asia) and invest more heavily in the Korean entertainment industry, the “next Squid Game” is not a question of if, but when… and when… and when.

Netflix will continue to release many Korean dramas that don’t have as broad appeal and/or quality but that continue to find a passionate audience, but as for more major hits, I have my eye on Hellbound and Silent Sea, both set to come out before the end of the year. Hellbound is a November release from Train to Busan writer-director Yeon Sang-ho. Based on a webtoon, it is a supernatural horror in which creatures materialize on Earth to drag humans to hell.

In December, we’re getting The Silent Sea, a science fiction thriller set on a future Earth that has undergone desertification. The story follows members of a special team sent to recover a mysterious sample from a deserted lunar research facility. The group includes a scientist whose sister was killed in the accident that led to the facility’s abandonment. The Silent Sea stars Squid Game face-slapper Gong Yoo and Sense8‘s Bae Doona, and is one of my most-anticipated releases of the year.

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