Netflix’s K-Drama Library Could Soon Be Impacted by This


The Big Picture

  • Squid Game‘s success on Netflix has highlighted the exploitative nature of the streaming giant towards South Korean talent, with no residuals and forfeiture of intellectual property.
  • The South Korean entertainment industry has a history of labor activism and protests, such as the clashes over the screen quota system, which resulted in meaningful improvements in working conditions.
  • Netflix’s disregard for local labor laws in South Korea puts the company at risk of facing a labor protest similar to the historical protests that have occurred in the country, potentially damaging its reputation further.

The South Korean series Squid Game, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, was a portrait of the human condition under the relentless grind of capitalism. Its wrenching, relatable drama helped make the show a record-breaking success for its distributor Netflix. We’d overcome Bong Joon-ho’s “one-inch tall barrier” and opened ourselves to an exciting new world of entertainment. It would be a victory, but of course, Squid Game was also dubbed. And from the perspective of Netflix, foreign content was suddenly a viable fallback in the unlikely event that American film and television production stopped. However, writers guilds from around the world – Ireland, Italy, Australia – declared their solidarity with the WGA upon the writers strike in May 2023. So, what about South Korea? If Netflix has to make nice with anyone, it’s the country whose industry it’s invested billions of dollars over the past decade. And yet, Hwang told The Guardian that Squid Game only made him enough money to “put food on the table,” despite increasing Netflix’s value by an estimated $900 million. Just as Karl Marx said of capitalism’s capacity for self-destruction, it appears that Netflix is relentless in cutting corners, even after it’s carefully laid the track.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Korea Broadcasting Actors Union was having it out with the streaming giant. Or rather, whatever comes before the “out,” as Netflix won’t even pick up the phone. Union president Song Chang-gon is frustrated that the streamer doesn’t pay royalties – or “residuals” – to South Korean talent. As much as it’s true that Squid Game wouldn’t have been made without Netflix, the green light extracted enormous concessions: no residuals, and a forfeiture of intellectual property, which surely means that Squid Game 2 was happening with or without his involvement. Hwang was an established film director at the time, so it follows that conditions are even more severe for below-the-line workers: 52-hour work weeks, unpaid overtime, chronic understaffing. Most production staff are technically independent contractors, leaving them vulnerable to this kind of exploitation. And anyway, Netflix doesn’t technically employ South Korean talent, to begin with, outsourcing its productions to local companies, and therefore isn’t obligated to talk with unions. Technically, which as we know, is the best kind of correct.

RELATED: What Is the WGA Actually Striking For?

The Netflix Problem Is a Window to South Korean Culture

Image via Netflix 

Netflix has compiled a massive library of South Korean titles, both licensed and original. They’ve had major hits in a variety of genres, from romance K-dramas like Crash Landing on You and Extraordinary Attorney Woo to more R-rated “prestige” programming like Hellbound and My Name, and even reality shows like Physical: 100 and Single’s Inferno. With hundreds of these titles every year, Netflix has clearly found a workhorse compatible with a business model that prioritizes the acquisition of intellectual property. In fact, they were only taking advantage of an existing exploitative infrastructure. Even before Netflix, as Max Kim writes for the Los Angeles Times, “production crews were paid a day rate, but a day was defined as one unbroken stretch of filming, even if it lasted more than 24 hours.” In 2016, TV producer Lee Han-bit died by suicide, and left behind a note that protested these conditions.

For fans of hallyu, South Korean pop culture, a tragic story like that is shocking but not surprising. K-pop will make global headlines as often for a major world tour as it will for the suicide of a high-profile idol. In K-dramas, scenes and discussions of suicide are frank and recurring, reflecting a national rate that’s the highest among OECD countries. It’s the dramatizations of classroom or workplace competition that lead to bullying and violence. And then there are immigrant stories like last year’s Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once, which offer the shorthand that Asian parents are so machine-like because it was difficult in the old country, nevertheless creating a binary between generations liberated from or trapped by Asian heritage. It’s easy to draw conclusions as even empathic outsiders, that there are immovable systems in place and people trapped within them – a kind of one-dimensional victimhood.

Potential Labor Action Wouldn’t Be South Korea’s First Protest

Image via Netflix

However, workers in the South Korean entertainment industry are no strangers to fighting back, as indicated by the historical clashes over the screen quota system. In 1967, a little over a decade after the armistice agreement with North Korea, the government introduced a quota system, mandating that movie theaters show South Korean movies for a certain number of days per year. This is a familiar practice to non-American film industries as a protection against the monopoly of Hollywood. If every screen is playing Avatar or Avengers: Endgame, how does a nascent industry ever develop? On the flip side, the quota system becomes a frequent point of contention in trade agreements with the U.S., and in 1999, the U.S. government applied enough pressure to abolish the quota system that it sparked a massive protest among Korean filmmakers. How massive? According to the Korea Times, in addition to protests in the streets and head-shaving, protestors were even releasing snakes into screenings of American movies.

Choi Min-sik, the star of Oldboy, took part in the protest when pressure mounted again in 2006, and the South Korean government considered reducing the quota from 146 to 73 days as part of a U.S. trade agreement. He dropped out of the film industry, which cost us four years of world-class performances. And for however unfortunate Lee Han-bit’s method, Max Kim notes that “increased public scrutiny and labor activism that emerged from [Lee’s] death led to some meaningful improvements in working conditions.” In 2021, “legislators scrapped a provision that had exempted drama productions from complying with a labor law that sets a standard work week at 40 hours and allows no more than 12 hours of overtime.” It’s simply that Netflix flouts the local laws, ensuring the old country stays old. And so, the streamer cultivates the conditions for labor protest in America, then turns to South Korea, where it’s similarly cultivating. This sound business strategy calls to mind the famous quote, “First they came,” and then there’s no one left to speak, with Netflix playing both victim and perpetrator. If it continues to press its luck, we could have a repeat of history, but hopefully, with fewer snakes this time.



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