Webtoon – South Korea’s billion dollar industry

Korean fantasy horror series "Hellbound" led the global Netflix chart in 2021, while the Korean webtoon market soared to $843.6 million, fueling the Hallyu wave.

Webtoon adaptations like “Itaewon Class” and “All Of Us Are Dead” achieved mainstream success, influencing drama, music, and gaming industries.

Hellbound” – a Korean fantasy horror series – created a huge stir globally when it was released in November 2021.  The show topped Netflix’s worldwide chart and drew positive reviews from critics for its unique storyline. It was rated “fresh” with 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Before “Hellbound”, “Itaewon Class” – about the life of socially awkward ex-convict Park Sae Ro Yi (Park Seo Joon) who became the CEO of a Korean restaurant empire – also took Asia by storm. Both dramas are adapted from well-known webtoons. 

Based on the data from the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) announced on December 24, 2021, Korea’s webtoon market reached 1,105 billion won ($843.6 million) in 2020, an increase of 64.5% compared to the previous year. In which, the distributing platforms achieved 519.1 billion won in revenue, and the production companies earned 534.7 billion won. According to The Korea Times, the annual revenue surpassed the trillion won threshold for the first time since 2017 – when it began to compile data on the webtoon industry. In 2021, the industry reportedly continued to see an increase in sales, surpassing the milestone of 1,200 billion won (1 billion USD).

A representative of the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said that webtoon is showing its potential to become the next industry to promote the Hallyu wave around the world, after Korean music, dramas and movies. Starting from 2003, Korea now has more than 14,000 works, 9,900 creators, according to data from Webtoon Analysis Service.

Trailer of “Hellbound” adapted from the webtoon of the same name. 

Getting adapted into movies and TV shows is the reason why webtoon is growing rapidly. The Korea Times reported that Korean producers, directors, and screenwriters increasingly prefer webtoon adaptations thanks to the engaging storylines, diverse genres from drama, family, comedy, romance, action, to thriller and horror… In 2020 and 2021, there were 11 and 29 webtoon-based dramas released, respectively. Itaewon Class, Hellbound, and many other famous dramas such as Cheese In The Trap, DP, Healer, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim… are all adapted from digital comics. 

The zombie series “All Of Us Are Dead” – premiered on January 28 – is adapted from the popular webtoon Now at Our School by Joo Dong Geun. According to the latest statistics, “All Of Us Are Dead” has ranked 1st place on Netflix’s weekly streaming chart globally. With 124,790,000 hours of viewing worldwide (nearly double the number of “Squid Game” in the first 6 days), “All Of Us Are Dead” has surpassed last year’s Netflix international sensation “Squid Game“. (Weekly global rankings of the 10 most watched TV shows on Netflix were calculated from January 24 to January 30)

The webtoon "Now at Our School".
The webtoon “Now at Our School”.  

A spokesperson for Rakuten Viki – a streaming platform – told Newsweek: “Webtoon attracts younger viewers, who capture the pulse of popular culture and social media. Producers adapted webtoons into TV shows with the expectation of turning them into global blockbusters”.

The representative of Studio Dragon commented, “The outstanding feature of current Korean dramas is that they have many genres, with thrilling and attractive plots. This helps attract many viewers around the world. These changes are partly driven by webtoons.”

On Yonhap News, experts said that dramas can attract audiences to webtoons and vice versa. Jang Min Gi, Professor of Communication at Kyungnam University, commented, “Whenever a drama adaptation of a webtoon is released, viewers like to compare it with the original content. The same happens when a comic is based on a drama”. According to Naver Webtoon, views of the webtoon Hellbound have increased 22 times since the show aired on November 19th, 2021.

Many webtoon authors choose TV dramas as their inspiration. For example, the webtoon inspired by tvN’s Happiness or SBS’s Our Beloved Summer.

In the past, Korean singers used to sing drama or movie soundtracks only, recently, they have set foot in the webtoon field. The Moon That Rises In The Day attracts attention with three background songs: I’ll talk to you by Gummy, Back in time by K.Will and The one and only you by Sandeul (B1A4). Former Sistar member Soyou also sang Breath for Morning Kiss at Tiffany’s. “The soundtrack helps viewers immerse themselves in the webtoon. We will continue to make efforts to explore different ways to entertain people,” said Lee Hee Youn of Naver Webtoon.

According to The Korea Times, many K-pop companies, content creators, and game makers are increasing their participation in the webtoon market. On January 15th, Hybe, BTS‘s management company, released a manga inspired by BTS called 7Fates: Chakho, a work belonging to the fantasy genre. Seven members become chakhogapsa, a group of tiger hunters from the Joseon Dynasty. They join forces to fight and take revenge for their loved ones. The webtoon is translated into 10 languages, reaching more than 15 million views after only two days of release. On many forums and social networks, fans praised the webtoon for its attractive content and beautiful images.

In addition to 7Fates: Chakho, Hybe released two other webtoons featuring their own artists: Enhypen’s Dark Moon: The Blood Altar and TXT’s The Star Seekers.

BTS webtoon poster. 
BTS webtoon poster. 

Game makers also entered the market to expand their universe and characters. In November 2021, the company Krafton released three webtoons 100, Silent Night and The Retreats inspired by their survival fighting game Pubg: Battlegrounds.

Professor Jang Min Gi told Yonhap News, “The former strict boundaries between entertainment genres such as webtoon, drama, and music are gradually disappearing thanks to the development of technology. Each type of content is expanded and used in many different formats. This will spur the Korean entertainment industry to develop stronger.”

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