Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos has announced that the company will invest $2.5 billion into movies and TV shows from South Korea over the next four years, according to BBC News. This is an especially huge sum from Netflix – in comparison, its investment in French and European movies to meet obligations under French laws amount to $45 million per year, as reported by Variety.
But it's obvious as to why it's doing this: the most-watched single season of a show of all time on Netflix is Squid Game, which beat any season of Stranger Things, Mindhunter, or other huge-budget entries among the best Netflix shows.
Anticipation for Squid Game season 2 is naturally huge, but it seems obvious that Netflix isn't satisfied with the idea of that. It wants the next Squid Game-sized hit – you don't invest this much money without anticipating some pretty big returns.
The problem is that investing this money into South Korea is very unlikely to produce anything as huge as Squid Game, for a number of reasons. In fact, I suspect that the next Squid Game will probably come from anywhere but South Korea.
That said, I still think this investment in South Korea is a fantastic idea. We just need to be realistic about what we're actually going to get from it.
Going viral isn't predictable
The thing about Squid Game wasn't that it was an excellent show (though it was).
Squid Game was a viral sensation. It was a word-of-mouth "Holy crap, have you seen the latest episode" hit. It was memes. It was a cultural touchstone in the space of about two days. It was the right show, at the right time, on the best streaming service. And unlike so many others, it didn't end up on the Netflix cancelled shows list.
You can't will that into happening a second time – especially with a show like that. Squid Game took more than 10 years to come to fruition; it gestated outside of the content mill that typifies the streaming landscape today. To be fair, Netflix is the streamer that saw the potential in it and got it made, so absolutely deserves credit for its foresight there. The company can spot the potential for these sensations, clearly.
But once you start investing such large sums in one area, you start creating a machine with a different set of expectations. You go from "Hey, we're looking for cool stories from South Korea – oh, this one's interesting, let's see where it goes" to "We need four new series and three movies per year to make this spending look wise to investors, get a move on".
Ideas will probably have to be pushed to fruition without the time to hone and care for them that Squid Game got. I've no doubt they'll still be great, but giving a show the extra 10% of thoughtfulness and quality that helps make it become as big as Squid Game takes time and space, and I don't know how much of that will be available.
And even if they do get it, it doesn't mean they'll actually take off and be such a big hit, including in English-speaking countries. Like I said, you can't will something to be viral. The hivemind has to want it, and it's a fickle beast.
This is why I said that I think the next Squid Game is probably more likely to come from somewhere other than South Korea. Eyes from all around the world are on the country's big creators more than ever now, to come up with ideas to a deadline. But elsewhere, there are creators with a similarly sharp idea that could cut through into the collective consciousness, who've had the same time to revise and polish it to perfection, and that has an edge that comes from the culture it grew in.
I do want $2.5bn of South Korean movies & TV, though
While I don't think Netflix's big bet on South Korean work is going to pay off in terms of gaining it a show the size of Squid Game, I'm happy it's making the investment anyway, because it's going to bring us a ton of fantastic movies and TV either way.
Even if we assume Netflix isn't going to be tapping into the South Korean directors who are most famous in the US/UK – such as Decision to Leave and Oldboy's Park Chan-wook, or Parasite's Bong Joon-ho (who Netflix has worked with before, of course, on Okja) – there's a huge number of award-winning movie makers there, and then a whole generation of new creators rising under them.
There's long been a trickle of great movies from South Korea to English-speaking countries. Many have deftly tackled social issues and relationships, and most have also had fantastic cinematography – but few have been widely available. Mubi is often a fantastic place to find them (I'm about to start a big Park Chan-wook rewatch there), but having them reliably coming to Netflix is just really exciting to me, because I'm literally the only person I know who has Mubi; this time, I'll be able to share them with more of my friends.
And who knows, maybe the shareability of the best Netflix movies and shows is the exact reason I'm wrong, and something even bigger than Squid Game is coming.