Tapping into the Vein of Commercial Media Art through a Different Form of Imagination and Storytelling
(2010, 3.35 million admissions), 26 Years
(2012, 2.90 million admissions), and Secretly Greatly
(2013, 6.90 million admissions) ticket sales are the most successful webtoon-to-film titles in Korean cinema. And to add a few more, there are The Neighbors
and Late Blossom
TV dramas seem to be faring even better. Webtoon artist YOON Tae-ho’s Misaeng(translated as ‘an incomplete life’) adapted into a TV drama series in 2014 became a social syndrome that went beyond age, generation and gender. Thanks to the phenomenal popularity of the TV series, the paperback version sold over 2 million copies, and raised various discourses on understanding the reasons for its success and social impact. Now webtoons have clearly entered the center stage of Korean pop culture.
Get It Now, Webtoons!
Webtoons also known as webcomics are cartoon series released online than through paper magazines. Webtoons have become a major part of the cartoon industry with a market share of 80%. Young authors who bypass the paper cartoon stage and immediately start out in the industry through webtoons are slowly rising in numbers, while established authors who resisted the switch from paper to the new medium are now embracing it one after another.
Newcomers with considerable orientation in the unique style of webtoon directing and storytelling have basically taken over the Korean cartoon market by gaining more opportunities to put out their works. Webtoon platforms including portals such as Naver and Daum have now reached up to more than 40.
With more than 100 cartoons running per day, webtoons have naturally become the new source of imagination and stories. Webtoons with their distinct narratives and genres are expanding in numbers, attracting a large subscriber base, and ultimately creating a ‘viable wish list’ for (film) adaptations.
Film and TV producers have had their eyes on webtoons for the past ten years. During the course of developing new projects, they check out popular webtoons for potential subject matters, and work hard to discover the next hottest item. New ideas and synopses are required in script development for films and TV dramas. People in the creative field put much time and energy into coming up with unique characters, original situations or premise of a story.
So if producers can find works with interesting characters, settings and stories, they usually choose to buy the rights to the original story and work on its adaptation which is both time and cost-efficient. In addition, if the original source is a popular cartoon or novel, it means there’s an existing fan base as well. Furthermore, its brand recognition can raise the marketability of the related project.
Film adaptation of a popular original story is a common practice around the world. And since webtoons come with the images, they definitely provide the chance to imagine in advance how the film or TV drama will look like.
Your Beginnings Will Seem Humble, So Prosperous Will Your Future Be
Recently, webtoons have emerged as a significant source of original stories for films and TV dramas in Korea. KANG Pool’s 2006 webtoon-to-film adaptation A.P.T
and B-Dalgung’s Dasepo Naughty Girls
may have had miserable box office turn outs, but not without some merits.
KANG Pool was the first author to step up as a star in the webtoon world that was on the rise as the new medium. His works such as Crush On You
, 26 Years
, The Neighbors
, and Late Blossom
were already adapted to film with a number of additional works already signed up for film adaptation. KANG Pool displays strengths in the sensitive approach to daily life that he manages to build up into a moving drama. As a result, his works are considered as some of the most popular webtoons in Korea.
Dasepo Naughty Girls on the other hand had a limited cult following with its rather crassly-drawn images, nonsensical storyline and humor that shifts between reality and a weird world of fantasy. Nevertheless, such bizarre and quirky imagination intrigued subscribers, and to everyone’s surprise, was adapted into film. Although it failed to attract the general public as a commercial film, it confirmed the extraordinary and diverse spectrum of stories which webtoons can offer as a popular medium.
The smash hit film of 2013, Secretly Greatly first generated a sizeable fan base as a web series with its unusual premise, serious but comic characters, and the heart-warming episodes of North Korean spies who blend into the shantytown they settle down in and the people they become neighbors with. Like the film’s ad copy, “Born as a Wild Dog, Raised as a Monster, Infiltrating as a Fool”, the various tales of merciless North Korean spies brought up as human weapons who are sent into South Korea and blend into the world as ordinary human beings made subscribers laugh and cry.
However, when the film version of Secretly Greatly
was released in theaters, it was attacked for being boring and loosely-knit by the press that expressed skepticism over webtoon-to-film adaptations in general. The film managed to turn the tables around when it continued to renew its box office numbers at a remarkable rate with the help of its good-looking male cast including its star KIM Soo-hyun
, as well as inspired other viewpoints that were not just negative.
Fan power towards the cast contributed to the film’s success rather than its production values, and positioned teenage moviegoers as the main consumers that bought theater tickets and etc. But the apparent change spurred by the release of the film was that webtoons stepped up their game in terms of attracting a wider level of public interest. Secretly Greatly was not a ‘well-adapted’ webtoon, but it clearly proved how webtoons appealed to a new generation of moviegoers.
The Most Up-to-date, the Most Original and the Most Popular
If popular novels serve as the source of stories in pop culture overseas, Korea has a weaker base in this area. In the case of Korean popular novels, only particular genres such as fantasy, martial arts and romance have been able to create a fan base. Numerous stories created out of unique individual imagination are realized into popular novels overseas, but in Korea, webtoons seem to have replaced that role. And now it has become the popular medium in Korea with the largest range of personality-packed original ideas and stories based in daily life.
The mainstream cartoon industry has already made a major shift from published cartoons to webtoons in Korea. Cartoons on portal websites are generally offered free of charge as a mean for portals to expand traffic and attract more users which is why webtoons could create a system that easily pulled in more subscribers.
Accordingly, the portals could run a diverse spectrum of webtoons unlike the existing system which required different criteria for aspiring cartoon authors to launch their careers in this industry. Weak drawing abilities were no longer considered as a shortcoming. Instead the popularity of a work depended on a storyline that appealed to the subscribers on an emotional level. In a free competition market where the audience or subscribers determined and evaluated a given work put out for public viewing, variety in story became the strengths of webtoons.
The film and TV drama industry are always searching for fresh new stories. But even the most famous webtoon stories cannot automatically guarantee the success of a film. The success of an adaptation relies on how much the content can be changed in a manner that is compatible with the constantly shifting medium. And in the case of webtoons heavily constituted of exaggeration and deviation, the challenge is to adapt a webtoon story suitable for the relatively realistic nature of film.
Nevertheless, it will be hard to ignore webtoons in Korea for now. The public accustomed to webtoon style characters and narrative events are growing, and more films, TV dramas, web dramas and animations based on original webtoon stories are being made. Popular works instantaneously catch the public’s attention with the help of the teenage population using social media. For the time being, it looks like the film market based on original webtoon stories will continue to grow because one must definitely go to webtoons to find the most up-to-date and extraordinary stories in Korea.