Before it became a successful Korean TV drama, Business Proposal was a popular webtoon with millions of followers. When a webtoon becomes that popular it naturally attracts producers.
“We wonder whether it makes sense to make it a drama or a series,” said Thomas Kim, CEO of Kross Pictures, which produced Business Proposal. “We often buy the rights and start writing with screenplay writers.”
A loyal webtoon following can translate into an enthusiastic TV audience and Business Proposal is not the only webtoon-inspired drama that Kross Pictures has adapted. The company also produced the dramas Cheese In The Trap, Dr. Jin and the upcoming Again My Life. While Kim values a webtoon’s track record, the story also has to have what it takes to attract a good cast.
“I look at the protagonist,” he said. “The protagonist needs to be handsome or pretty, but also has to be charming enough to attract top actors.”
Ha-ri, the food researcher protagonist in Business Proposal is a good example. She’s a relatable funny character who goes on a blind date pretending to be her friend and discovers her date is her boss.
“I think people really find it funny,” said Kim, when asked about the rom-com’s success. “What she says, how she says it and what she’s gotten into. It didn’t start with ill intentions. She just wanted a side job and that led to big trouble.”
As an added incentive, webtoons come with visuals, so actors can read them and see what their characters look like. In the case of Business Proposal, the webtoon attracted a cast of comically gifted actors—Ahn Hyo-seop, Kim Se-jong, Kim Min-kyu and Seol In-a—whose talents make the classic k-drama tropes seem fresh again.
“I tell my colleagues, producers, who do you think our customers are, and they say, oh the audience. I say, yeah, but I also think that actors are our primary customers. Without good actors it’s hard to make a popular drama”
As well as working on projects that marry varied media, the company’s projects also mesh cultures. Kim has been interested in the cross pollination of cultures since he moved to the US as a child. He co-founded Kross Pictures in 2003 when working at The Walt Disney Company in Burbank.
“I had a vision of bringing over some interesting Korean and Japanese manga or Korean drama and movies to Hollywood, to remake them basically, because my partner and I thought this was something that would just take off. We used to think it’s highly undervalued. Nobody else is doing it.”
At the time it wasn’t an easy pitch and a year later he moved back to Korea to fund and develop the business. “Since then our intent has been very, very clear. We want to be crossing things. Whether it’s crossing borders, cross cultural or crossing media.”
A promising opportunity for cross-cultural adaptation arose seven years ago when one of the company’s properties, a Japanese book, titled The Devotion of Suspect X, became popular in India. It was an opportunity he almost missed out on.
“Lot of Indian producers and actors started reaching out to me and I ignored them,” said Kim. “I thought they were spam mails. Then one company sent out a CEO and VP to see me in Korea and that was how I started my journey in India. That movie, which had its ups and downs, will start shooting next month. Finally. It’s going to be a Netflix original film in the Hindi language with a big star, Kareena Kapoor Khan.”
Since then Kim has made 70 trips to India and produced quite a few films there including a Telugu language version of the Korean film Miss Granny, titled Oh! Baby. “It had been remade many times in different countries and most of them did really well in their respective markets,” said Kim.
The Telugu language adaptation also did well, becoming the number one movie in the region, and now Kross Pictures is working on a Hindi version of the same film. Kim also decided to launch Kross Komics when he realized India did not then have a webtoon platform.
“We are the first webtoon platform in India and it’s growing very fast. I guess Kakao, the Internet giant in Korea, found it very interesting that a small Korean company was doing something very interesting in India. So they offered to invest and eventually buy out my companies. So both Kross Komics and Kross Pictures are now 100 percent owned by Kakao.”
Kross Pictures is currently collaborating on a Japanese language adaptation of the webtoon-based drama Itaewon Class. Why remake a hit? Itaewon Class may have many k-drama fans, said Kim, but it’s still a very small portion of the whole population, particularly in a country like Japan. It’s a story that deserves an even wider audience.
The company’s next domestic production is Again My Life, a fantasy drama starring Lee Jun-ki, which airs April 8 on SBS.
“It’s a great story about a guy, who is a prosecutor, who dies right before nailing this bad politician,” said Kim. “He goes back 20 years, so he gets to live another life. So, it’s called Again My Life. His goal in his second life would be to actually get this politician who killed him, so he has 20 years to get ready to catch this evil guy. We started developing it four years ago and the original story was published as a web novel. We liked it so we bought the rights. It became a webtoon and now is a very popular webtoon on Kakao.”
Not every story can go abroad, said Kim, but stories that deal with human nature and fundamental values such as love, friendship and loyalty have universal appeal.
“These are very fundamental values,” he said. “When I see a story with these universal truths and concepts I try to bring it over to another culture and oftentimes people find it very interesting. In my view and for my team that’s sort of where we are, that becomes our standard in whatever we do.”