Why Korean docs are next to ride the Hallyu Wave

Sam Joyce, 1 December 2023
From TBI

Sam Joyce, acquisitions and content strategist at factual distributor TVF International, explains why Korean documentaries are poised to follow formats and scripted content from the country to take the world by storm.

It’s hardly breaking news that Korea’s content industry produces massive international hits.

While Parasite and Squid Game have marked two of the biggest recent breakthroughs in the globalisation of Korean content, these are merely the latest successes in a long-term trend with its roots back in the early 2000s, when films like Oldboy and The Host gained international acclaim.

Whilst the country’s documentary output has been a little slower to travel, it seems that could be all about to change.

Global platforms like Netflix and Amazon have tapped internationally recognised Korean talent as key fixtures in their recent factual slates, with docs like Blackpink: Light Up The Sky, BTS: Bring The Soul and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Yellow Door unsurprisingly making international waves.

Similarly, Korean formats are travelling the world, from MBC’s global hit The Masked Singer to the recent UKTV commission of Battle In The Box. At TVF International, our own K-Pop doc Mamamoo: Where Are We Now?, which goes behind the scenes with the titular band, has enjoyed a streamer berth with Netflix outside of Korea.

But away from the country’s growing stable of internationally recognised celebrities like Jung Kook, Jennie Kim, Youn Yuh-Jung and Hoyeon Jung, a less talent-centric documentary breakthrough could be in the offing.

With robust sources of government funding, strong incentives for international cooperation, and a significant network of domestic platforms, Korea’s documentary industry contains a wealth of opportunity for international collaboration.

Factual appetite

Korea’s industry is presided over by KOCCA and RAPA, two government agencies who coordinate international events and award funding for production, development and localisation.

These agencies offer strong support for ambitious local productions, while working to platform completed Korean productions at international markets, and to host events that allow for vital connections to be forged between producers, broadcasters and distributors.

The strength of local production undergirds a broadcasting landscape with ample opportunities for documentaries to connect with domestic audience.

With four national terrestrial broadcasters, a host of cable and premium pay channels, widely watched domestic streamers like TVING and Wavve, and an extensive network of regional broadcasters, there are many platforms for domestically-produced content to find an audience and – crucially – for producers to unlock commissions and broadcast placements.

Unlike some other competitive content markets in Asia, Korean broadcasters also retain a healthy appetite for imported factual. Perhaps because of this, domestic productions are frequently internationally-appealing in their form, with few of the territory-specific stylistic idiosyncrasies that can sometimes limit how widely projects sell in distribution.

And while, as in every market, not every documentary is suitable for international sales, healthy budgets, a talent for ensuring money ends up on-screen, world-leading technical expertise with UHD quotas for broadcasters, an openness to international collaboration, and government support for international versioning means many Korean projects have real potential to travel.

Take, for example, Alleys: Off the Beaten Track from Busan’s local MBC station. This documentary series, which is now in its fourth season, visits locations around the world with the help of a diverse array of local photographers who have the inside track for the best spots in town.

The international locations, multiplicity of spoken languages, and beautiful photography made the show a great prospect for international distribution, and TVF was delighted to launch the show this past MIPCOM to a strong reception from our travel and culture buyers.

Similarly, TVF launched EBS’s Galapagos: Edge Of The World at the market, and the wildlife series has already secured homes across Asia, Iberia and CEE.

TVF is also currently working with producer The Plant on an international version of UXN’s Planet Of Machines, which tells a global story spanning Bolivia, China, England, Jordan, and Korea – to name just a few – about how industrialisation once unlocked humanity’s potential, but now holds our fate in its AI-assisted hands. These kind of large-scale, conceptually ambitious, and slickly produced projects find natural homes with eyeball-hungry programmers around the world.

The factual distribution landscape relies on finding stories with local specificity but international appeal, and while K-Pop’s roster of stars may have proven the Trojan Horse to take Korean documentaries to the world, the industry’s deep experience and outstanding production quality seem primed to help Korean documentaries of all genres ride the Hallyu Wave to shores far and wide.