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10 things behind the scenes of Korean dramas you might not know

More popularly known as K-dramas, Korean dramas are television series produced in South Korea.

Due to the spread of Hallyu (literally means Korean Wave), Korean dramas have become a popular source of entertainment worldwide.

How did the term Hallyu first come about? According to Korean Culture and Information Service South Korea, Hallyu is a term that was first coined in China by Beijing Journalists in the mid-1990s.

It was used to describe the fast-growing popularity of Korean entertainment and culture in that country.

The first Korean television series which opened the path for the rest of the dramas to global recognition is none other than Winter Sonata (2002).

It is widely considered to be the Korean drama that launched the K-dramas not only in Asia but also worldwide.

Starring Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo, it is the second part of the season-themed Endless Love series directed by Yoon Seok-ho.

The drama has all the basic elements of a successful TV drama; good-looking lead actor and actress, beautiful scenery and romantic plot circling around love and death.

On top of it, there is the melancholy music of the soundtrack to complement the storyline.

In South Korea, dramas appear on these public networks; Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and Munhwa Broadcasting (MBC). Besides, the cable channels include Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company (JTBC), Channel A, tvN and Orion Cinema Network (OCN).

Each of these broadcasting companies has its own distinct thing they are known for when it comes to Korean dramas.

For instance, OCN is known for its thriller dramas such as Voice (2017), Tunnel (2017) and Special Affairs TEN (2011).

Viewers can always expect the best from tvN. As of April 2020, it holds 33 spots of the 60 on the list of highest-rated Korean television series in cable networks.

These include Crash Landing on You (2020), Reply 1988 (2016), Hotel Del Luna (2019) and Goblin (2017).

If you are a big fan of K-dramas, here are 10 things you might not know about what goes behind the scenes of Korean dramas:

1.How Korean dramas are produced

In the beginning, these television channels originally produced in-house Korean series by themselves.

However, since the 2000s, it has been outsourced to independent companies.

With that, the production cost is split between the production company and the broadcasting channels. The broadcasting channels usually cover around 50 per cent of the expenses.

Most of the expenses go to paying the top actors and actress who are starring in the dramas. Their salaries alone could take up as much as 55% (sometimes more) of the budget.

After that the rest of the budget goes to the salaries of the less-famous actors, extras, staff and overall production.

2.The amount of PPL in a Korea drama

What if there is not enough money to cover the budget of producing your Korean drama? That is when PPL comes in. PPL or product placement is a form of advertising by displaying the brand names and corporate logos of product in the drama.

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According to Youjeong Oh in Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, the Korean drama industry only began to use PPL in 2000.

The Integrated Broadcasting Act became effective in 2000. It stipulates that any broadcasting business operator may announce a commercial sponsor, who provides costs, gift, a location, costumes, vignettes, information. Under this law, the direct displays of brand names or corporate logos in the middle of a show was totally prohibited.

Then in January 2010, the Korean Communications Commission eased the regulations regarding PPL.

Under the new law, Korean dramas were allowed to display brand names and corporate logos.

Since then, we have seen perhaps too many PPLs in a Korean television series. It is ridiculous yet commendable on how skillful to see these actors casually showcasing the advertisers’ brand names, like how they are able to showcase the brand name whenever they gulping from a bottle.

There are so many Korean series slammed for their PPLs because they mostly have nothing to do with the storyline and are distracting.

Meanwhile, there are cases of actors and actresses who turned down sponsorships in a drama to stay true to their characters.

For example ,Park Bo-young in Strong Woman Do Bong Soon rejected offers from luxury clothing brands. Her character is supposed to be middle-income and doing a lot of action scenes. It would be ridiculous to see her in high-end dresses.

3.How the actors are paid

It is interesting to know how these actors and actresses are paid. One thing for sure, every cast is paid different from the other depending on their experience and popularity.

Actor Park Jun-gyu revealed in Korean talk show Happy Together, “You get paid for each episode. It doesn’t matter if you shoot 10 cuts or 50 cuts, you get paid the same amount. But some actors only appear in photos, they are not actually acting in the drama. In that case, if it is someone who is well-known, the actor gets half of the amount of their pay. When you appear as a dead person and you are covered in white cloth, you get half of the amount. However if your face appeared as the dead body, then you get paid the full amount of an episode.”

Moreover if the actor appeared again in flashback scenes even when the character is already dead, then they get paid 30-40% of their pay of an episode. For narration, the actor would get paid up to 30% of their pay per episode.

Lee Byung-hun in Mr Sunshine (2018) reportedly made USD4.3 million with USD180,000 per episode.

In 2017, Lee Jong-suk and Lee Seung-ki were both paid roughly USD110,000 per episode for While You Were Sleeping and A Korean Odyssey respectively.

Meanwhile, according to Glassdoor, a producer in South Korea could earn around USD60,000 in average per year.

4.The ridiculous amount of time to shoot a drama

Unlike other television series out there, the first four episodes of Korean series are usually shot in advance.

Then, the rest of the episodes are shot continuously while the series is being aired. Hence, the storyline could change according to ratings and the viewers’ receptions.

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There are cases where the crew would be still shooting or editing the episode while the episode is being broadcast.

An example is actor Kwon Sang-woo was still shooting Queen of Ambition (2013) 30 minutes before the last episode began to air.

As the production cost is high, the production companies seek to shoot the episode in the shortest time possible.

Due to this, Korean drama production usually adheres to tight shooting schedules and unfinished scripts. Most cast and crew only have one hour to sleep when filming.

The filming of these live-shoot dramas do get postponed mainly because unavoidable causes such as health issues and accidents.

However in rare cases, there are occurrences in which the cast leaves abruptly during the production.

In 2011, Han Ye-seul was cast as the main actress in Spy Myung-wol. She plays a North Korean spy who infiltrates the South to kidnap a popular actor, only to end up falling in love with him.

Following a dispute with director Hwang In-hyuk over her working conditions, she did not show up for filming on Aug 14-15, 2011. She then flew to thr United States on Aug 16. During her absence, an episode was canceled. Instead, KBS aired a special featuring highlights of the series.

While most people criticised her action, some fans defended her saying that stressful Korean drama live-shoot system was at fault.

5.The pre-production of Korean dramas

Since late 2015, production companies started to pitch and pre-sell the overseas broadcast and streaming rights of their dramas.

This allows the production company to have enough budget for the drama and they could complete shooting before it is broadcast.

Descendants of the Sun (2016) is an example of a successful pre-production of a Korean drama.

It managed it to secure investment and distribution at the same time allowing the drama to air simultaneously in China, bringing in more profits.

However, not all pre-produced dramas are successful. Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016) and Uncontrollably Fond (2016) are some of the pre-produced dramas which suffered in low ratings.

6.Korean dramas written by famous screenwriters usually gain more hype

In American television series, there could be more than one screenwriter in-charge of the scripts and they are changeable throughout the season. Meanwhile in Korean series, it is usually written by one or one team of scriptwriters right until the last episode.

Korean drama screenwriters have better recognition and higher salary compared to Korean cinema.

Some of the famous scriptwriters are Hong Sisters, Kim Eun-sook and Noh Hee-kyung.

Hong Sisters are famous for Hotel Del Luna (2019) and Master’s Sun (2013). Kim Eun-sook is widely known for Secret Garden (2010), Goblin (2016) and The Heirs (2013).

These scriptwriters tend to have a say in their field including who to cast in their drama.

Hotel Del Luna poster.

7.The original soundtrack is like an album on its own

What makes these Korean dramas so addictive to watch is also the soundtrack.

Unlike in American series, Korean original soundtracks (OST) are specifically made for each series. It is crucial to choose the perfect OST for each scene in a drama to maximise the viewers’ emotion.

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The combination of these soundtracks of one drama could be a chart-topping album on its own.

Sometimes, the actors themselves record songs for the dramas they acted in.

For instances are Kim Hyun-joong in Boys over Flowers (2009) and IU in Dream High (2011).

8.The rise of Korean web series

A typical Korean drama has 16 to 20 episodes. For Korean historical or family drama, the number of episodes could go up to 200 episodes.

Over the years, there has been a new rage over web dramas or web series especially among younger audience.

Unlike the conventional Korean drama in which the story could be dragged on, web dramas have more fast-paced storylines. It consists about 10 episodes with around 10 minutes per episode.

It is perfect for those who are looking for quick fix of Korean drama.

The cast consists of younger actors, giving them a chance to showcase their talents.

9.The adaptation of webtoon into Korean dramas

While the Japanese have their adaptations of manga or anime into dramas, the Korean have their webtoon which is a type of digital comic.

Unlike conventional comic books, each episode of a webtoon is published on one long vertical strip rather than in multiple pages. This is to make it easier to read on smartphone or computer.

Over the years, there are more webtoon getting their real-life adaptations into Korean dramas.

What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim (2018), Gangnam Beauty (2018) and Itawon Class (2020) are among the famous adaptations of Korean webtoons.

What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim poster.

10.Exploitation of labour

On Oct 26, 2016, an assistant producer for Korean drama Drinking Solo (2016) took his own life. Six months after his death, his brother revealed his suicide note to shed some light on the circumstances surrounding his demise.

He wrote, “The phrase ‘exploitation of labour’, which the staff on set would say half jokingly and half seriously, dug a hole in my heart. We were forced to push the already tired workers into creating the results that the company wanted.”

Korean actor Gong Yoo also revealed the sad truth behind Korean dramas to Strait Times. He said, “A lot of the staff cannot sleep or rest well. They film from morning to night and if some voices and sounds cannot be captured, they have to go back to the recording studio. They can rest only after the recording is done.”

It is highly likely that the Korean entertainment industry will completely forego the live-shoot system.

First of all, it is hard to gain budget for pre-production dramas. Moreover, there is uncertainty of how well the drama would be received by viewers.

Many have argued that Korean leading actors and actress should be paid less in order to give more for the staff or hire more crews in lessen the workload.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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