Korean culture is similar to the Gulf cultures in the sense that it values its own traditions and customs.
‘Hallyu’ (Korean wave), a Korean drama phenomenon that spread from East Asia to Hollywood, is leaving its mark in the Arab world as well. In the early 1990s Korean drama was only a national endeavour, but over the past three decades it has created an international fan base with series and formats bought and broadcast across the world.
Although Korean dramas may appear to have no chance of rivalling Hollywood, they have redefined what a successful entertainment industry means by developing their own know-how and investing in their own talent. Even though the language may initially have been a barrier to wider international distribution, that is no longer the case, as fans all over the world have taken to subtitling and dubbing K-dramas.
For the past few decades, Gulf dramas have often been deemed repetitive, melodramatic and the monopoly of a handful of actors and writers constricted by censorship, especially compared to Hollywood. Leading figures in the industry always felt that as long as we lacked the production environment housed in Hollywood, we would never become a successful industry. Here at Art Format Lab, we believe that such a statement is far from reality.
The Gulf is an incredibly diverse region with locals and foreigners dominating the countries’ populations together. Such a diversity calls for co-production opportunities and unheard-of stories that have yet to grace our screens. Production facilities are definitely a factor, but Korean dramas have proved that content is king and without it billions will be wasted.
Korean government reports show that K-drama exports reap an annual average sale of $239m, 50% from annual sales to Asia and the US. Korean culture is similar to the Gulf cultures in the sense that it values its own traditions and customs. Yet the Korean entertainment industry was able to provide national content that travelled internationally without having to compromise its own values and censorship and editorial standards. Their content remains family-friendly, free of foul language and has minimal violent and sexual representation, all factors that contribute to its international expansion and outreach.
Moreover, the Korean entertainment industry decided to invest in local writers, starting with a few national bestsellers, re-plotting their novels into screenplays. The industry then began sending Korean writers abroad to attend international TV screening markets, specifically LA screenings where one can watch over fifty drama pilots a week. Korean writers were not sent there to see what kind of story reaps the most success. They were sent there to see what kind of plots are in the market, in order to create new and unique ones for the local industry. K-dramas also stood out for their format, as a single season contains 16-20 episodes.
K-dramas are also notable for having a story in every genre to suit every taste, from light romantic comedies to historical, fantasy, sci-fi, action and romance. The Gulf region could look into what South Korea has done to get out of its curse of being stuck in a vicious repetitive cycle of love, romance and revenge. KSA and the UAE have the potential to break out of some of the barriers existing in developed industries such as Hollywood. Korean dramas proved this to be true, as 90% of their writers are females who also write action series and films, a genre traditionally populated by male writers in the West.
K-dramas also cater to the young and the old by having ample content for teens and young adults through web dramas, proving just as successful as TV series. Young people are more than 60% of the population in the Gulf region, yet we don’t see any content created to cater to that age group. Such a starving market further proves that story development should happen in-house within the market, rather than bringing seasoned writers from other countries such as Egypt, or even another Arab country.
KSA and the UAE are two Gulf countries with the vision to establish a local industry with international appeal. They have the potential to create the next wave in international pop culture. With such rapid economic growth, KSA and UAE entertainment should invest in their local talents and globalise their identities to break new ground in the industry.
Khulud Abu Homos is CEO of Dubai-based production house and distributor ART Format Lab. This article is based on her presentation on Korean drama at CABSAT.