Webtoons Are an Evolving Successful Export

김민경, 최윤서l승인2020.03.02l수정2020.03.02 14:05l376호 1면

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  ‘Itaewon Class’ is a drama based on a popular Korean webtoon of the same name. A Webtoon is a cartoon that is distributed on the Internet. Their popularity has led to many of their storylines being used as the basis for serial dramas and films in Korea. The much anticipated TV drama version of Itaewon Class was launched on January 31, 2020 and stars ‘Park Seo-joon’, a major Korean celebrity, who was cast to play the lead. Korean dramas and movies based on webtoons have garnered growing attention since 2014 when the first webtoon ‘Misaeng’ was transformed into a serial drama and quickly rose in popularity both domestically and around the world.

▲ Webtoon-based Drama 'Itaewon Class' was launched on January 31, 2020. (Photo from JTBC)

  The reasons webtoon-based dramas and movies are so popular are as follows. First, they are considered familiar serials. People who read the webtoon version feel a different sense of connection watching these dramas over conventional serials and movies. Dramas based on webtoons have people wondering how directors will represent the original online story, while ordinary dramas and movies excite people with their anticipation of new content. Second, anticipation for the casting of webtoon characters in the serial dramas generates excitement for the production. Webtoon characters that were created in the author’s imagination are represented in each episode making the casting a hit or miss for fans. For example, the TV serial of ‘Itaewon Class’ was highly anticipated because of who was cast to play the lead. Expectations of the actors credibility as the character has meant the drama is now enjoying huge popularity, with ratings surpassing 10% (9.4% nationwide and 10.7% in the Seoul metropolitan area) after just 4 episodes according to ratings official Nielsen Korea. The final reason webtoon based serials are so popular is because of their originality. Rather than repeating common serial storylines, webtoons have unique content and backgrounds as the writers often reflect their individuality in their work. This easily generates widespread interest.KBS drama director Ham Young-hoon said, “Webtoons that deal with creative and diverse materials are taking the spotlight because the drama is a script flight and competes with fresh stories.” For example, ‘Misaeng’ a drama about a protagonist who only graduated from high school but overcame hardship by landing a job in a company through sheer good luck had a popular appeal. Unlike other dramas, its biggest hit factor was the reality of the storyline. It was a storyline that many people could empathized with.

  The success of Korean webtoon-based movies and dramas has resulted in many webtoons being exported to foreign countries for their production into movies or dramas. For example, ‘KaKao Company’, a large Korean business exports various webtoons to foreign content production companies around the world, including China.. The U.S. drama production company, EnterMedia Pictures, bought the rights to use ‘The Interview’, a webtoon that was published under a series of ‘Daum Webtoons’. Last year, China’s Hwacheon Group bought the rights to Kang Fulls’ webtoon ‘Witch’. Given that the Hwacheon Group is a large entertainment investment company that produces more that 1,000 dramas and films a year in China alone, it is clear that Korean webtoons are highly regarded as having great commercial value. A Kakao official said, “We expect that we will be able to make more profits by making webtoon-based movies or dramas than by simply exporting webtoons.” Based on these examples, it is clear that Korea’s webtoons will serve as a strategic export product and not only as a ‘source of reading entertainment’ in the future.

  When webtoons are made into movies or dramas, there are certain factors that will determine its success or failure. To be successful, it is important to produce a drama or movie that focuses on  the needs of the webtoon's subscribers. This is not as easy as it seems. Sometimes a webtoon is so overly dramatized, it loses its original characteristics. Attempts to increase ratings by excessively changing details and leaving only the framework of the webtoon, elicits a negative reaction from viewers who argue the creators failed to make the original story stand out. For example, ‘Orange Mamalade’, a popular webtoon drama, has historical content in the drama edition that was not included in the original webtoon. The second reason a dramatized webtoon can fail is poor casting of characters. When it comes to transforming webtoons into dramas, the most interesting part for readers of the webtoon is the casting. The reason is that if the credibility of an actor playing a webtoon character is not high, viewers’ immersion into the drama will be low as they fail to deliver on the subtle emotional lines of the characters. Producers who prioritize profit by casting actors with high popularity but low probability of synchronicity, such as idols whose acting skills are not proven, dampen viewers' interests and eventually leads to negative feedback from the audience. If these factors are contained, the dramatization of webtoons may develop as a strong leaders in the global entertainment industry. In the meantime, further attention is needed to develop Korea's webtoon products into a larger market by considering the failure factors listed above along with replicated other examples of success. To do so, it would be helpful for the producers to review the dramatization of webtoons and seek practical ways for improvement. With all the advances we see in the spread of entertainment on the Internet and through social media, focusing our efforts on the dramatization of popular webtoons will do a lot to generate more export driven income for the Korean economy.

▲ Sometimes a webtoon is so overly dramatized, it loses its original characteristics. (Photo from ab Entertainment blog)

김민경, 최윤서  dankookherald@gmail.com
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