South Korean Webtoon Companies Aim to Take Over the World

Dr. Brain Artist

Digital comics are the country’s latest cultural export after the international success of BTS and Squid Game.

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As the author of a series that has garnered 1.2 billion plays, Rachel Smythe is one of the world’s leading webtoon creators. But in his hometown of New Zealand, almost no one knows what he is doing.

“If I go to a party, people will be like: ‘I don’t know what that is,'” said Smythe, whose novel based on his ‘Lore Olympus’ series landed on the New York Times bestseller list. last year. “When I told them I got a job with an app that was founded in Korea, they said, ‘Rachel, this looks like a scam – are you okay?'”

Webtoons, comic books designed to be read on phones, are the latest South Korean cultural export to come out of Asia following the global success of K-pop superstars BTS and Netflix sensation Squid Game.

They used to be the biggest company in Japan. In January last year, Piccoma, the Japanese webtoon subsidiary of Korean company Kakao Entertainment, had a monthly revenue of $96 million, making it the second-highest non-gaming app in the world. It is behind TikTok, more than YouTube and Tinder apps. Now, webtoons are entering the mainstream. We’re all dead, the upcoming South Korean zombie apocalypse drama that began life as a digital comic on the Naver Webtoon platform, is a non-language show at the end of February. English is often watched on Netflix. Webtoons Kakao Itaewon Class, Moving and Dr Brain have successfully made it into TV series on Netflix, Disney + and Apple TV + respectively.

But Smythe’s experience shows how many non-East Asians are still unfamiliar with webtoons, even as they gather a growing, non-Asian audience and focus on the US market. Please use the sharing tools found through the share button above or next to the article. Copying articles to share with others is a violation of the FT.com terms and conditions and copyright policy. Email licensing@ft.com to purchase additional licenses. Subscribers can share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the donation service.

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One of the industry’s pioneers was Kim Jun-koo, a software engineer who was dismayed by the rapid demise of traditional Korean manhwa animation due to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. His webtoon platform Naver Webtoon, which he founded in 2004, is now the largest in the world, with 750,000 creators and 82 million active monthly users. The value of bulk goods, the proportion of money that users spend on these goods, increased from $492 million in 2019 to $900 million in 2021. “Webtoon is not a digital form of comedy. It’s comedy that’s created digitally,” Kim said. “In Korea, comedy is disappearing, it’s an example of a bad situation leading to the creation of something new.”

Major platforms such as Naver Webtoon and Kakao Webtoon provide tools for creators to create and upload webtoons for free, providing an almost unlimited audience of content.

“There is no genre limitation in webtoons, and there are different genres,” said Jang Min-gi, a professor of media communication at Kyungnam University. “Employees can see them on the go, get them quickly, and check them out in less time.”

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With hundreds of thousands of creators and tens of millions of monthly readers, webtoon companies can deploy multiple revenue streams. Some use a YouTube-like model to attract a large audience with free content, others a Netflix-like model to attract paid subscribers for the most popular channels, or a “microtransaction” payment model of the app. game confirmed. .

“Business models have evolved to pay readers for future events if they want to read them immediately. . . if the story is interesting and exciting, readers won’t want to wait,” Song said.

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Analysts and company leaders describe a “good environment”, in which the successful transition to other media attracts international audiences, who turn to webtoons to -search for their headlines and favorite people. Park Jeong-seo, a business manager, said, “It is very expensive to make dramas and soap operas, especially fantasy dramas, while making dramas requires little money but can have a good visual impact, ” said Park Jeong-seo, business manager. Webtoon and Kakao Entertainment.

In addition to exporting their audience to foreign platforms, Korean platforms have taken to “importing” foreign audiences through businesses that allow them access to what Kim Jun-koo describes as “super IP “. In 2019, Kakao Entertainment entered into a partnership with the American comic book publisher DC Comics. Naver Webtoon has entered into a partnership with DC, rival Marvel, Archie Comics, and Hybe, the South Korean company behind BTS.

Both platforms have built a following in Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Naver Webtoon, which offers services in French, Spanish and German, is launching its own European office, while Kakao Webtoon launched in Thailand and Taiwan last year. Please use the sharing tools found through the share button above or next to the article. Copying articles to share with others is a violation of the FT.com terms and conditions and copyright policy. Email licensing@ft.com to purchase additional licenses. Subscribers can share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the donation service.

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“We are currently focusing on our expansion in the United States, which is the largest content market in the world. To be successful there, we need to create webtoons that suit the tastes of Americans,” said Park Jeong-seo of Kakao Entertainment, which last year acquired Los Angeles-based webtoon publisher Tapas. Media as part of the deal is worth $510 million.

Naver Webtoon’s 14 million US users make up 17% of its global readership, compared to 25% in South Korea, 15% in Southeast Asia, 8% in Japan and 4% in Europe. Last year, it completed $ 600 million of the Canadian company Wattpad, a tool for creative writing and 94 million users.

Giving the company access to new employees in overseas markets, company leaders believe that the purchase will help them improve the quality of their plans by collaborating with upcoming artists. Aron Levitz, CEO of Wattpad, said, “There are two ways to tell a story – visual and written – so if we bring them together, it will be more powerful.”

Naver Webtoon CEO Kim Jun-koo said that despite the company’s intentions to support its parent company, Korean web portal Naver, “we plan to get more aggressive, if we have a need for large investment, we plan to consider an IPO or external financing.

As the webtoon platform focuses on the United States, analysts have wondered whether Korea’s “digital food culture” will be suitable for American audiences. Both leaders and producers are counting on a group of consumers they say is often overlooked: teenage girls and teenage girls. Of the US users of Naver Webtoons, more than 70% are under the age of 24. Girls make up 80% of Wattpad readers.

It was this crowd that propelled the webtoon “Lore of Olympus” by Rachel Smythe based on the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades to the top of digital and physical graphics. “Young women are so passionate and have so much to offer, but often the things they love are stigmatized and looked down upon,” said Smythe.

“It’s an instrument where they celebrate and honor the things they love. I think that’s why it works so well.”

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